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Teaching Positive Psychology to an Entire University

Is it possible to teach positive psychology on a large scale?

Although a new perspective, positive psychology has caught the attention of higher education, and undergraduate positive psychology courses are proliferating around the world. Students are eager to learn about the scientific study of what goes right in life, and instructors enjoy preparing and teaching these courses.

Is it possible to teach the theories, findings, and applications of positive psychology on an even larger scale? I think so. Here I describe an ambitious effort to do so at the University of Michigan. Since 1980, the College of Literature, Science, and Arts (LSA) at the University of Michigan has sponsored theme semesters: groups of courses, lectures, and special events that center on a given topic. Over the years, the LSA theme semesters have focused on places (e.g., Detroit, St. Petersburg, China), historical periods and events (e.g., Victorian Europe; Brown v. The Board of Education), and enduring matters of human concern (e.g., comedy, death, evil, diversity, education).

The Fall 2010 LSA theme semester, which I proposed and am helping to coordinate and direct at the present time, is "What Makes Life Worth Living?" This is a topic to which positive psychology directly speaks. For the theme semester, my colleagues (notably my co-director John Chamberlin in Political Science and my collaborator Nansook Park in Psychology) and I have identified relevant courses and mounted new ones, in psychology and other fields (N = 107 and counting), and inviting speakers who will address the topic in public lectures, including Martin Seligman from Penn and Mike Csikszentmihalyi from Claremont (N = 95 and counting).

What makes life worth living is not simply a topic for classes and lectures, and we are also working with university and community groups to highlight and in some cases create events centering on the well-lived life: art, dance, music, film, play, toys, food, religion, and service to others. We are also inviting speakers who walk the walk of the good life, like Ari Weinzweig (co-founder of Ann Arbor's own Zingerman's Delicatessen), Dr. Denis Mukwege from the Congo, and Sister Helen Prejean from New Orleans.

Campus groups that sponsor painting, photography, film, and writing competitions will include award categories that reflect the semester's theme. Groups that offer film series will choose appropriate movies, including those with Michigan themes, like Bilal's Stand and The Big Chill.

We are also collaborating with the university's museums, learning communities, musical societies, student government, religious groups, college advisors, and athletic department ("Go Blue") to create events of concern to them that speak to the semester's theme.

By a wonderful coincidence, our theme semester coincides with the 50th anniversary of then Presidential candidate John Kennedy's proposal of the idea of the Peace Corps, which he conveyed on the steps of the Michigan Union October 14, 1960 ... at 2:00 AM! A week-long celebration of this event will occur, including a 2:00 AM anniversary gathering, which I hope I can be awake enough to attend.

Even the essay that incoming Michigan students wrote to determine their placement in composition courses reflected the theme semester - so, in the essay they wrote (on robotics!), each student was asked to address the topic "What Makes Life Worth Living."

The theme semester had an inauspicious start, at least as judged by attendance. A public showing of The Wizard of Oz by the university's Residential College had five of us there to do the introductions and behind-the-scenes work but only one person in attendance! We asked him if he really wanted to see the movie. His response: "The show must go on."

And indeed it did, and as something happens, things only got better. The following week was a public lecture by positive psychologist Mike Csikszentmihalyi from Claremont Graduate School and artist Chris Csikszentmihalyi from MIT. This father-and-son presentation was attended by more than 1000 people!

We live in a t-shirt culture, and one of our good ideas about publicizing the theme semester was to design and distribute t-shirts describing the semester that allowed people to write in their own answer. These t-shirts have become a hot commodity on campus.

I will provide updates as the semester ensues. And in particular I will address our developing thoughts about how to keep the dialogue going once the semester is "officially" over. The goal of the theme semester is to plant the theme in the mind of all students, faculty and staff members at the University of Michigan, and all Ann Arbor community residents. There of course is no single answer to the question of what makes life worth living, but our hope is to underscore the importance of the question and the variety of possible answers, which will take a lifetime to consider.