The Smile Seminar

Students in Roxanne Friedenfels’ popular courses on happiness are learning the essentials for a blissful life.

By Allan Hoffman

Illustration by Terry Allen

Drew made me happy. It was one of those end-of-summer days when the noontime sun spreads a serene and luminous glow on the leaves and grass, and my happiness was of the calm-and-content “The world is a wonderful place, and everything is OK” type—even though, to be honest here, I’d spent the morning at the DMV, and I had deadlines looming.

But I wasn’t thinking DMV and deadlines. No, I was “savoring”—one of the tickets to happiness, as it turns out.

Just minutes earlier, I’d left a classroom in Seminary Hall, where Professor Roxanne Friedenfels was teaching her popular first-year college seminar, “The Pursuit of Happiness.” In addition to the typical aspirations of a college seminar (exploring the challenges of intellectual inquiry, strengthening critical-thinking skills), this one embraces the rather unusual goal of helping students be happier—during the semester (Friedenfels hopes), and maybe even for life (even better). If this seems ambitious, it is, but it is also part of a trend at colleges and universities around the United States; hundreds of courses are now offered each year about happiness and the emerging discipline of positive psychology. Friedenfels has been teaching her own happiness course since 2003, either as a college seminar or as an intermediate-level sociology course. And by all accounts, the course works, for her and for the roughly 170 students who have taken it.

“Every time I teach it, I’m reminded about what’s important in life,” says Friedenfels.

Now in her 22nd year at Drew, Friedenfels exudes a thoughtful and decidedly serene outlook on life. Which doesn’t mean she carries herself with an always cheery demeanor—she doesn’t, and it’s not really a requirement for happiness—but that she has obviously embraced happiness not just as a scholar but also as something she seeks to experience, and to share. During one session, Friedenfels and the class discussed everything from the grouchy philosopherLudwig Wittgenstein to “shortcuts” to happiness (shopping, for instance, and drugs)—and introduced a term that’s often discussed in the literature on happiness, “savoring.” And so, as I exited Seminary Hall, I allowed myself to revel in the gleaming trees and the easy breeze. I was happy.

We often think of happiness as being out of our control. But it’s not. Happiness isn’t simply a condition. You can make happiness happen.

That’s the gist of a body of research in economics, psychology and Friedenfels’ own field, sociology. Do you have a “set point” for happiness that’s impossible to nudge? Nope, says Friedenfels. Students explore topics like these in her course, which provides students with an interdisciplinary overview of the still-evolving social science research into happiness. The reading list is a trove of greatest hits from happiness studies, such as psychologist Martin Seligman’s essay, “How Psych­ology Lost Its Way and I Found Mine” (from his book Authentic Happiness).

Friedenfels has been interested in happiness from an academic perspective for years, ever since she was a graduate student at the University of Michigan in the late 1970s. Back then, college courses in happiness had yet to appear, but researchers were exploring the topic, and Friedenfels participated in the Detroit Area Study, an ongoing survey of Detroit region residents, by conducting door-to-door interviews with residents about happiness and life satisfaction.

Over the past decade, Friedenfels has seen happiness scholarship emerge from academia and enter the popular consciousness, with stories appearing in Time (“The Science of Happiness”), The New York Times Magazine (“Happiness 101”) and elsewhere. “It’s really a burgeoning area,” says Friedenfels, who credits Seligman, in particular, for his efforts to bring the research—and what it tells us about our ability to influence our own happiness—to a much broader audience. Other factors may be at work, too, she suggests, such as the advent of the “voluntary simplicity” movement and the growing realization that a fulfilling life isn’t just about making money and acquiring material objects. But Americans, she notes, have always had happiness as a thread running through our culture: “The ‘pursuit of hap­piness’ is in the Declaration of Independence.”

People don’t have a “set point” for happiness, says Friedenfels. - Photo by Bill Cardoni

Eventually, she decided a happiness course was in order and, with support from the College of Liberal Arts, received funding to take a course organized by Seligman with leading happiness researchers. Seligman views spreading the “tonnage of happiness” as one of his goals, and Friedenfels embraces that goal too. “It’s more important than some of the things we prioritize in our society. It’s more important than being a billionaire. It’s more important than ultimate job success. To finally teach a course in that is a wonderful thing.”

And students thrive in her course (“I really am a lot happier,” they sometimes write in end-of-semester evaluations), as it allows them to explore a relatively new area of academic inquiry and also to learn about ways to be happier in their own lives by engaging in a series of “happiness exercises.” One student decided to fulfill a dream and finally go sky diving. Others have written letters to friends and parents to tell them how much they mean to them; still others have kept “flow” diaries (see “5 Ways to Turn On Happiness”) that show that cleaning up a messy dorm room, for example, puts students into the zone. (“I don’t think I anticipated cleaning being a major flow activity,” Friedenfels says, bemused.) The course’s exercises have led students to change majors, jump-start romances and embrace everything from midday bubble baths to regular exercise. No wonder the course is in demand.

Senior Sunita Bhargava, who took the class two years ago, says the lessons remain with her, helping “increase my current happiness levels.” One assignment she found particularly moving required students to set aside time to savor a portion of the day. It was a winter day, after a snowstorm, and raining. She took an umbrella and headed out to class, noticing, as she wrote in her class assignment, “an unseen plane flying above the gray skies,” the call of a crow and rivulets of rain cascading onto pebbles, “forming a beautiful mini-waterfall.” As she later recalled, “Everything was glistening. I was just on a high.”

And as for Friedenfels? What has she taken away from the happiness research? Many things, certainly. “I’m someone who savors a lot—now,” she says. “I was not someone who was doing it before I heard of it. She walks to work most days, using that time to savor. “The wind, the breeze, the sun, the snow—I love snow,” she says. “I’m very happy to walk to work in snow.” And most evenings, she says, “I count my blessings, particularly if something’s gone wrong, and then I find the things that went right that I can be thankful for.”

Allan Hoffman is a freelance writer based in Maplewood, N.J. He is mostly happy.

5 Ways to Turn On Happiness

Even if you can’t take Friedenfels’ course, you can try exercises she uses in class. These “happiness exercises,” many of them developed by University of Pennsylvania Professor Martin Seligman and his associates, are designed to help people achieve a spike in their happiness. “Find things that help you, and keep doing them,” says Friedenfels. “For people who can make these things a habit, they [protect] against the malaise that’s going to affect us all at certain points in life.”

1 Write a Gratitude Letter

With a gratitude letter, you’re thanking an individual you’ve never properly thanked; do this in writing, and then meet with the person and read the letter aloud. “It’s usu­ally a very emotional, very positive experience,” says Friedenfels.

Why does it work? “You’re reinforcing a relationship,” says Friedenfels. And relationships are essential: “If you can remem­ber one thing five years from now, it’s that relationships are the most important thing if you’re going to be happy.”

2 Count Your Blessings

Here’s a simple task: At the end of each day, find three good things that happened during the day, then write them down. Friedenfels notes: “Stu­dents will go into this saying, ‘I don’t think I can.’ And they can. They say it really does make them feel better.”

3 Keep a Flow Diary

“Flow” refers to those experiences, like running or playing the guitar, when you’re intensely focused and lose track of time; for many people, flow is key to happiness. One student, junior Adrienne Morningstar Delibert, reconnected with her love of dance through the class’s flow assignment, which asks students to record activities when

they experience flow. Though Delibert loved dance as a child, the intense pressures of ballet led her to drop it. Now she embraces dance again. “I don’t think I felt a sense of personal fulfillment from [dance] until I was able to focus on how it made me feel.”

4 Savor

This should be easy, but plenty of people find it a challenge. Take time, at least a half hour, to focus on your own pleasure, without interruptions. You might take a bubble bath. Or a walk in the woods. Or just spend a luxurious morning in bed.

5 Take a Risk

In the risk exercise, developed by Frieden­fels, she asks students to move toward a goal—one that’s “heartfelt but a little scary.” “Figuring out what your heartfelt goals are, and moving toward their fulfillment, is very important in a happy life,” says Friedenfels.

The How and Why of Happiness

Roxanne Friedenfels’ course embraces and explores the way happiness research bridges disparate areas of social science—in particular, economics, psychology and sociology. Among the scores of books tackling the happiness trend, here are three of the best, recommended by Friedenfels:

Happiness: Lessons from a New Science – Economist Richard Layard

The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want – Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky

Social Causes of Psychological Distress - Sociologists John Mirowsky and Catherine E. Ross


3 Responses to “The Smile Seminar”

  1. [...] The Smile Seminar: Students learning the essentials for a blissful life, Drew Magazine, Winter 2010 [...]

  2. Simon Hanna says:

    Loved this class! Thanks again, Professor Friedenfels.

  3. Thoroughly enjoyed the article! As you know ‘Appreciative Inquiry’ has some strong parallels, with which I strongly resonate.
    Thanks for the fine (and encouraging!) work.


Leave a Reply