What’s it about? Why does the smell of chocolate chip cookies, the arrival of a loved one, or the sight of a puppy scampering across the Quad make you feel warm and fuzzy? Multiple disciplines—from psychology, philosophy, and neuroscience to economics and public policy—converge in this First-Year Seminar to provide a cross-disciplinary look at the science of happiness. The course tackles a range of issues, such as the complexities of defining and measuring happiness and well-being, evidence-based methods to increase happiness, cross-cultural perspectives on happiness, and age-related trends of happiness.

Who’s teaching it? Jamila Bookwala, professor of psychology and dean of academic initiatives, who says her own personal sense of happiness is rooted in her “close relationships with my family and my teaching. When I’m teaching, I’m able to achieve a sense of flow; I’m in a different zone. I have a great sense of fulfillment.”

Are those key factors? Yes—having close personal relationships and connections with other people as well as feeling engaged, feeling accomplished, having meaning in your life, and experiencing positive emotions help lay the foundation for overall life satisfaction.

What’s happening in the brain? Until relatively recently, positive emotions might have been thought of as too subjective for scientific study. Thanks to advances in neuroscience, the impact of positive emotions—from short-term euphoric joy to long-term satisfaction—on the brain can be quantified and understood. Brain scans show that bursts of pleasure light up the prefrontal cortex. Sustained positive emotion stimulates other brain structures, such as the nucleus accumbens and ventral striatum.

How can I give my brain a boost? Start meditating. Research shows meditating can change brain structure and function and improve happiness levels. Meditation lights up areas of the brain in scans in ways similar to positive emotions. But actual structural changes occur as well. Meditation is linked with greater gray matter in the brain. Bookwala gave students a taste of it by providing an introductory meditation session taught by a professional instructor.

Students experience a lot of stress. Can this course—beyond the meditation session—help? “While it’s not a self-help class, I hope that the research and information they are learning stays with them,” she says. “When students come to campus for their first semester they may be stressed out, nervous, and homesick. They may not feel their happiness levels are high. I think this is an opportunity for them to get a long-range view. There are lots of components to happiness, and being able to see it in a scientific way as something that can be achieved might be helpful to them, even if life is stressful now.”

And it does get better. Bookwala is a gerontologist who is keenly interested in the link between age and well-being. She is contributing to an international research project on happiness in which she speaks to the aging paradox: Despite the physical and cognitive declines that occur with age, older people report feeling happier, more satisfied, and less anxious and depressed. “We know that when we are older and we feel that our time on Earth is limited, we are more motivated to feel happier,” she says. “We focus our energy more on our emotional well-being.”

Categorized in: Academic News, Aging Studies, Faculty and Staff, Featured News, Innovative Teaching and Learning, Interdisciplinary, Neuroscience, Psychology
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