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The psychology of happiness in practice

By Steve Draper,   Department of Psychology,   University of Glasgow.

This is my page to hold bits about our two DACE courses about the psychology of happiness, which are based on the fairly new field of Positive Psychology. ("We" are Quintin Cutts, Steve Draper, Emily Cutts, and Paddy O'Donnell. You can email to us all at "".) The DACE web pages will hold official descriptions of them, how to enrol, etc. On this page I discuss (with less of a word limit) what I think these courses are about.

The two courses are:

The first deals with things that it has been shown an individual can do to make themselves happier, together with practical exercises on this. The second deals with how others' effectiveness, happiness and health can be improved by surprisingly simple interventions.

Contents (click to jump to a section)

The psychology of happiness in practice (Oct-Nov 2008)

The DACE web page for the course holds the official aims and objectives for it. There are three kinds of reason why people might wish to do this course.

If those are reasons to join the course as a student, then what are the reasons for us to create the course and teach it? The latter mirror the former.

The content of this course: There are three kinds of content this course offers its students:

The course is to a considerable extent organised around Tal Ben-Shahar's six happiness tips

Studying on this course

  • Many people attending DACE courses do no study work outside the class times. To accommodate this, we will be doing considerable small group discussion during the class meetings, and focussing on one basic topic per week. (This is in contrast to typical fulltime courses where often lectures are more about delivering material that students work on later rather than understand at the time and then stop.)

  • Each week there are in addition exercises to practise outside class. While you can learn to talk about the ideas without doing the exercises, rounded learning ideally requires connecting theory and personal experiential practice: and this general learning principle certainly applies to this subject. Trying the exercises seriously, if only to discover what doesn't work for you, gives a whole critical dimension to the topics that reading alone cannot give.

  • Each week the core paper for the following week will be handed out in advance. Reading it in advance will allow you to come with questions or reactions ready, rather than relying on being able to think fast while the tutors are speaking. It doesn't mean you have to spend hours trying to decode something difficult. Anything you don't understand, note as a question and move on. At most, come with your top 3 clarification questions (e.g. what do they really mean by "controlled"? which of the confetti of numbers in the results section are worth paying attention to?); and your top 3 discussion questions or points (e.g. does beneficial exercise mean any physical activity like walking up to my top floor flat, or must it be something extra I think of as "exercise", because really it's an effect of belief like a placebo?; surely "gratitude" is the same as church prayers of thanksgiving, but churchgoing never made me happy).

  • Reading around: further reading. For those with more time to spend on the course, we'll suggest several further papers on each topic as the next step.

  • The pyramid of detail. In general with learning, how much time and effort you put in limits how much you get out. Still, everyone has to be choosy about their time (and that's just as true of academics as everyone else), so most of us stop reading the moment it no longer looks sufficiently interesting. So just as in journalism the headline tries to show you it's worth reading the opening paragraph, and that paragraph tries to show you it's worth reading the whole article, so with each of our topics we will attempt to organise things so you can judge whether this is something it's worthwhile for you to spend more time on. Conversely, it would be a mistake for you to assume there is a fixed amount of effort and then you will have got everything you could. If you spend more time reading and thinking, you will learn more. If you prepare for a session, you will get more out of it. But only you can decide if that extra effort delivers enough added value for you personally.

    Practical details

  • Time: Wednesdays 6-8pm, 8th Oct 2008 for 8 weeks
  • Place: TBA (somewhere on campus)
  • Price 56
  • Course code GC127
  • How to enrol
  • You can email to us tutors at "".
  • Provisional list of topics/papers covered
  • DACE page that will list this and other psychology courses
  • official aims and objectives for it.
  • Moodle for this course

    Course design rationale

    The core idea for the topic is scientific self-help for happiness increase: practical exercises that individuals can do, for which there is good evidence for their effectiveness. It aims to take sceptics and show them rational grounds for some belief; and uncritical fans of self-help, and lead them to distinguish enthusiastic from rational grounds for adoption of particular practices.

    This is thus not a course about theory, but about applied psychology: the focus is not understanding but practical outcomes. And it is not a course about what experts can do to others, but about what anyone could do for themselves.

    This goes with a learning design that gives equal weight to personal, practical exercises and experience, and to public, shared evidence. Thus every session should present and launch a personal exercise that students should practise themselves outside class; and also a single good published paper on evidence of the efficacy of that exercise. This, unlike most university courses, thus has a full balance as required by Laurillard between the public, abstract, conceptual form of knowledge and the personal, private, experiential side of knowledge.

    We also have a longer term strategic agenda in putting on this course. Firstly to start offering a course in the important, newish area of psychology known as positive psychology. Secondly, to offer a course that fills a gap in most PDP provision for undergraduates: the aspect of helping learners relate their lives in general and their life as a student in particular to their personal long term values and goals. (Most PDP provision presupposes that everyone wants to be at university, and that everyone wants a job; and slides into instrumental actions for carrying out these assumed goals that can end up being alienating and contributing to unhappiness, not to a fulfilled life.) If this course is a success, we are likely to perpetuate it, expand it, make it more useful and more available. But all this also requires that we ourselves learn the material; develop, test, and improve the course; become skilled at putting on such courses. This course has not only a content that is new to us all, but a different audience and a different "learning design" i.e. structure and method of presentation.

    The structure of each of us presenting 2 sessions, but assisting at all 8 sessions, is thus important for multiple reasons:

    1. So that we each gain experience, and so build a solid basis for expanding the provision of such courses in future by having more staff who could do so.
    2. So that we can cope with a wide range of possible numbers attending: the norms for DACE courses are for no more than 20 students per presenter, so with 4 presenters we can cope with any number from 5-80 within that norm.
    3. It is not just a matter of norms: the strong connection with personal experience and practical exercises would be hard to deliver effectively without small group teaching.

    The general guiding inspiration is Tal's course: it has been a huge success, and we'd like to see if we can replicate that popularity with learners. His course is more than twice as long as ours just in lecture time, let alone study time; so we are selecting a subset. To do that we partly focus even more sharply on the practice<->evidence connection; but largely follow his "6 tips for happiness", which I take to represent what he thinks the top practical messages are. My new proposed design has a session on each of the 6 tips; 1 extra for meditation; 1 extra for ??

    Reorganising society for greater happiness. (Jan-Mar 2009)

    Practical details

  • Time: Wednesdays 6-8pm, 14th Jan 2009 for 8 weeks
  • Place: TBA (somewhere on campus)
  • Price 56
  • Course code GC136
  • How to enrol
  • You can email to us tutors at "".
  • DACE page that will list this and other psychology courses
  • official aims and objectives for it.
  • Moodle for this course

    General links

  • Tal D. Ben-Shahar's Harvard course on Positive Psychology   old   His website

  • My other page on stuff related to Positive Psychology
  • Centre in Glasgow for confidence and well being

    Links for tutors

  • Email fellow tutors at "".
    For instructions on reading the email archives, subscribing, managing your password etc. for this email list: see here.
  • Provisional list of topics/papers covered
  • Tutor head page
  • Tutor handbook (PDF)
  • Submitting a course proposal
  • Education Moodle
  • Moodle help: Hooi Ling ext.3024

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