The secret to happiness

The secret to happiness

27 Apr 2016    

The secret to happiness. It’s something we’d all like to discover. If there was a top ten list for secrets to happiness, it might include money, power, family, faith or attitude. Instead, a new undergraduate class in the Department of Educational Psychology is using the approach of positive psychology to equip students with a set of tools that can help them discover a path to personal well-being and happiness.

Professor Michael Scheel spent the summer of 2014 developing a new course called “Happiness and Well-Being through Positive Psychology.” It had earlier been approved as an “ACE” elective (Achievement-Centered Education courses) a set of courses Nebraska undergraduates can choose from to meet general education requirements.

Simply defined, positive psychology is the science of helping people achieve a sense of well-being from identifying their strengths and assets. Positive psychology is Scheel’s primary area of research interest, and he thought the course would help students take a proactive approach to preventing problems and living better lives.

“I was really excited about the class and wasn’t just going to give it away to one of my graduate assistants,” said Scheel, “so I taught it myself. It was really the highlight of my teaching career. It was so much fun and so exciting to teach.”

Classroom photo
The Hapiness and Well-Being through Positive Psychology class uses a combination of lecture, readings, videos, practical application and small group interaction to teach and practice the principles of positive psychology. Student responses indicate the class is helping them feel better about their lives. (Photo by Brad Stauffer.)

Besides helping students down a path of improved well-being, the class serves at least two other objectives; To provide an opportunity for graduate assistants to teach and to do some research on the effects of positive psychology. After the first semester, Scheel turned the class over to graduate assistants to teach. It’s been a great experience for them and their students.

“Teacher evaluations have been through the roof,” said Scheel, “no matter who’s teaching it.” He noted that teaching the course has its benefits, too, reporting that it “helps you be a better person and live your life in a more fulfilling way.”

The class is divided into self-improvement groups for eight weeks that are facilitated by counseling psychology graduate students. The groups are “mindfulness and self-compassion,” “social connections,” and “flow and mindfulness.” Scheel was initially concerned the students would think the groups were “hokey,” but in fact the students rave about the self-improvement groups as the most important part of the class.

Michael Scheel
Professor Michael Scheel developed the “Happiness” class and taught the first semester in the fall of 2014.
The mindfulness and self-compassion group teaches students to be "present”--self-aware and focused on the present. It also encourages students to be kind to themselves and not fixated on perfection. Students in the social connections group work on building stronger more positive social connections in their lives. The flow and mindfulness group helps students achieve “flow states” and working to improve personal performance in a variety of areas. It’s similar to what athletes often refer to as being “in the zone.”

Students often made comments that the happiness class is “the most important class I’ve had” or it “has made a big difference in my life.” Scheel was not entirely surprised. After all, he was enthusiastic about the concepts of positive psychology himself, and a colleague at another university had already been teaching a similar class with positive results.

The Educational Psychology department grants only graduate degrees, but teaching undergraduate courses is not foreign territory. More than a thousand undergrads are currently enrolled in EDPS courses. However, until this class, Scheel had never taught an undergraduate course in 30 plus years. But he’s so glad he did.

“It really has made me think more about developing this as an outreach intervention through the university counseling center,” he said. “It would help people build skills to help them persevere, to be more resilient when issues come up in their lives, and to lead more satisfying lives.”

And that might just be the secret to happiness.

Graduate assistant Bobby Byrom presents material to UNL undergraduate students April 13 in the “Happiness and Well-Being through Positive Psychology” course at Teachers College Hall. Byrom is a doctoral student in counseling psychology.
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