Happiness Homework: Week One – University of Montana


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In the friendly confines of a psychological laboratory, happiness is created rather easily. In the real world, happiness is more elusive.

Whether researchers have college students hold pens with their teeth or write down three good things or express gratitude, mood is boosted. In the real world, sometimes you have to force yourself to smile, and even still, you may not experience happiness.

You might wonder, do the small behaviors that improve mood in the lab result in sustained positive moods into the future? Martin Seligman, the contemporary psychologist most closely linked to the positive psychology movement (and author of Authentic Happiness and Flourishing) says yes. Although I’m less sure about this than Dr. Seligman, I am sure that many small behaviors over time—the sorts of behaviors that become positive habits (or positive routines)—can, for many, result in improved moods sustained over time.

Instead of assuming that everything Martin Seligman or other researchers say is true, in our University of Montana happiness class (COUN 195: The Art and Science of Happiness) we’re all about directly testing evidence-based happiness strategies. Part of the reason we’re testing these strategies is because we’re replicating nomothetic scientific findings in idiographic contexts. The true originator of positive psychology, Alfred Adler, would be happy about this. That’s because Adler believed we can never know if group scientific findings generalize to individuals, until we try them out with individuals.

In the spirit of positive psychology, and in an effort to develop and maintain healthy habits in college students, I’m giving small weekly homework assignments in the UM happiness class. Sometimes these assignments are verbatim (or nearly so) from published scientific research. Other times they’re assignments that Dan Salois (my TA) and I have created just for the class. This week’s assignments are home cooking.

I’m including these assignments on my blog so you can follow along with the class and experience different approaches to creating positive moods and psychological wellness. These assignments aren’t stand-alone miracles; they’re brief and simple behaviors purposely designed to elicit positive emotions and prompt you (and the happiness students) to reflect on the nature of positive emotions and wellness-oriented behaviors. They might work as intended, or they might not. I hope they work.

You have two assignments for this week.

Active Learning Assignment 1 – Happy Songs in Your Life

Music in general, and songs in particular, can trigger happiness, sadness, other emotions, and life memories. Sometimes our emotional responses to music are all about the music. Other times, our emotional responses are about the personal links, associations, or memories that songs trigger. For example, when I listen to “Joy to the World” by Three Dog Night, I’m transported back to positive memories I had playing 9th grade basketball. The song, “Put the Lime in the Coconut” will forever take me back to a car accident that happened with my sister in 1973. It’s not unusual for us to turn to music to help regulate our emotions or to heighten particular feelings.

For this assignment, do the following:

  1. Select a song that has triggers positive emotions for you.
  2. Listen to the song twice in a row and just let the song do its work. You can do this with a friend or by yourself. Don’t WATCH the song. If it’s a music video, shut your eyes and listen.
  3. After you’ve listened twice and let the positive feelings come, respond to the following prompts, and then upload your responses to Moodle.
    1. Write the name of the song and the musical artist (so we know the song).
    2. What emotion does the song bring up?
    3. What’s your best guess (hypothesis) for why the song brings up those particular emotions? (Share the lyrics or the links to life events that make the song emotionally important to you).
    4. Do you usually listen to that song to intentionally create a particular emotional state, or do you wait for the song to randomly pop into your life?
    5. Optional: share the song with someone and tell that person why the song triggers positive emotions for you.

Active Learning Assignment 2 – Witness Something Inspiring

Inspiring things are constantly happening in the world.

Martin Luther King Day is coming. Martin Luther King was a source of great inspiration for many. Over this coming long weekend you could watch a video recording of King’s “I have a dream” speech and feel inspired. You could also go on the internet and find something inspiring on social medial. But instead, just for fun (and for this assignment), we want you to watch for and observe something inspiring that’s happening in the real world.

The inspiring event that you notice may be small or it may be big. The key part of this assignment is that it involves intentionally watching for that which will inspire. Keep all your sensory modalities open for inspiration. Then, write Dan a short note (about 200 to 300 words) describing what you experienced. Your note should include:

  1. What it was like to intentionally pay attention to things that might inspire you.
  2. A description of what you observed.
  3. Reactions you had to the inspirational event.
  4. Anything else you want to add.

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Try these assignments for yourself (or not). If it strikes your fancy, you can post your reactions on this blog (or not).

I hope the remainder of your Martin Luther King weekend is fantastic.

4 thoughts on “Happiness Homework: Week One – University of Montana”

  1. FREEDOM by Pharrell. It makes me smile…and feel energetic and silly. I cannot listen to it without dancing (and I have absolutely no dance skills and a very limited sense of rhythm). Music can do a lot for the soul. When I worked as a Health Manager for an early childhood program, I would make up “dances” to songs, including this one. I’m talking a really simple, repeated series of moves. Then at All Staff meetings, I would play the song and get everyone to stand up and do the dance with me. My husband would say “Why do you do that to your poor co-workers?”…and I would say: “You should see the smiles on their faces!”

  2. Alexandr Misko’s instrumental version of Careless Whisper (by George Michael)

    The emotion and craftsmanship he puts into this piece moved me deeply the first time I heard it (the vid is pretty impressive too). I find myself returning to listen to it again and again. It’s inspiring, peaceful and motivating all in one.

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