Jaime Kurtz (James Madison University)
Sonja Lyubomirsky (University of California, Riverside)
Please note: Instructors are welcome to use or adapt these teaching ideas for their own classes, provided the use is noncommercial and appropriate credit is given.
To help students: (1) understand positive psychology and the factors that affect happiness and life satisfaction, (2) learn how to assess happiness and subjective well-being, and (3) discover how to live a happier life while also making others happier.
LiveHappy is an iPhone application with modules featuring empirically validated happiness-boosting strategies such as keeping a gratitude journal, performing acts of kindness, and nurturing interpersonal relationships. The application has been used in classes on positive psychology and is also well suited for classes in social or personality psychology, introductory psychology, psychological measurement, and research methods. Once students have downloaded the software, they complete baseline measures of mood and subjective well-being. Next, they perform a set of customized activities recommended by LiveHappy (e.g., expressing gratitude toward someone in their iPhone contact list via email, text, or calling the person). After a few weeks of using LiveHappy, students then assess their subjective well-being a second time and often find that simple cognitive and behavioral changes have led to sustained increases in well-being. In this way, students learn firsthand about the psychology of happiness while actually becoming happier themselves and nurturing their relationships with others.
Many positive psychology instructors use empirically validated strategies for increasing happiness in the classroom. For example, students are often instructed to write and deliver gratitude letters, visualize their best possible future selves, or perform acts of kindness. These activities are employed as instructional tools to reinforce a key concept in positive psychology — namely, that sustainable increases in happiness are indeed possible, particularly when people find an activity well suited to their personality and goals. An added bonus is that students experience boosts in their personal happiness, which deepens engagement in the subject matter while simultaneously engendering the benefits of positive emotions and well-being, such as increased creativity, productivity, and prosocial behavior (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005).
The practice of positive activities can also generate valuable classroom discussions about the factors that increase happiness. For example, after performing acts of kindness as a homework assignment, students return to class with firsthand knowledge of how it felt to engage in the acts, how others responded, and why it might be an effective activity. The experience also gives them insight into the conditions under which the activity is most effective: Should kind acts be performed often or infrequently? Who should students choose as recipient of a kind act? How might the activity backfire? By inviting students to report on their experiences, discussion advances beyond mere speculation. In addition, students can assess the influence of positive activities over the course of a semester, and in the process, learn how to measure subjective well-being (SWB).
Although such exercises can be done with traditional paper-and-pencil methods, the approach we describe here capitalizes on the popularity and action teaching potential of iPhone and iTouch applications. LiveHappy, a new iPhone application developed in conjunction with positive psychology researchers, provides access to eight empirically validated happiness-boosting strategies (Parks, Della Porta, Pierce, Zilca, & Lyubomirsky, 2011). These activities are:
Expressing gratitude to a particular individual
Keeping a gratitude journal
Focusing on meaningful goals
Savoring the moment
Replaying happy days
Performing acts of kindness
Nurturing interpersonal relationships
Considering one's "best possible selves"
The application can be easily downloaded by students taking courses related to social or personality psychology, positive psychology, introductory psychology, psychological measurement, or research methods. Furthermore, LiveHappy has been translated into Spanish and is under development for use with other languages and platforms (e.g., the Android mobile operating system).
Upon downloading the application, users complete brief baseline measures of mood and SWB. They also respond to a questionnaire that helps tailor the application to fit their personality and goals by suggesting happiness activities that are best suited to them. For example, those who enjoy savoring positive memories but do not feel comfortable writing gratitude text messages would be steered toward the first activity.
Next, the application encourages users to engage in particular positive activities by providing specific instructions and a platform to implement them. For example, the gratitude journal feature provides a virtual notepad in which users can record the things they are most grateful for that day. For the activities that focus on interpersonal relationships, the application syncs with users' contact list or address book so that the tools needed to nurture these relationships or express gratitude are at their fingertips. Instructions for nurturing relationships read:
"Make time to contact someone with whom you want to strengthen your relationship. Think of a person who can benefit from your skills, time, or support. Listen, and don't be shy about expressing your appreciation."
Below this text is a button that transports users to their device's list of contacts, making it easy to select someone. Upon doing so, they are given the option of emailing, texting, or calling that person. LiveHappy also stores these data so that users can easily retrieve their scores, reread their gratitude journals or lists of meaningful goals, and so on.
In this way, LiveHappy makes it easy and fun for students to implement the happiness strategies learned in class. Furthermore, the activities can be timed to coincide with particular class topics. For example, the initial measures of SWB can be completed just prior to discussing assessment. Similarly, specific activities can be assigned right before relevant lessons, so students come to class not only having done the assigned reading but having taken part in the activities described in the readings. Finally, assessing SWB toward the end of the semester can help students gain the "big picture" and see that simple cognitive and behavioral changes can indeed lead to sustainable gains in well-being. Indeed, preliminary data on LiveHappy are promising, showing significant increases in positive mood after practicing the activities available on the application (see Parks et al., 2011).
Not only does this application appear to benefit users, research suggests that the activities that it encourages offer considerable benefits to society in general. For example, expressing gratitude and performing kind acts have obvious positive consequences for those on the receiving end of these activities, who may, in turn, be inspired to "pay it forward." Likewise, encouraging people to focus on meaningful goals (e.g., improving their health or workplace productivity) makes it more likely that those goals are actually achieved, which has benefits that extend beyond the individual. In short, using the LiveHappy application may very well improve the lives of both the user and the user's circle of friends, families, coworkers, and even casual acquaintances.
Usage and Feedback
The LiveHappy iPhone application has close to 100,000 users worldwide, mostly from the United States, but also a large percentage from Australia, Ireland, and Sweden. The application has been featured in Time, U.S. News and World Report, The Huffington Post, iVillage, and About.com. Revenue from the application also helps promote wellness via a sponsorship of Mental Health America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting mental health and preventing mental illness.
Feedback on the application from both users and expert reviewers has been overwhelmingly positive. Users have described it as "fun," "informative," "professional," "awesome," and "life changing." Other representative user comments include:
"How often do you have the opportunity to check in with how you are feeling?... What I like about [LiveHappy] is that it walks me through what I can do to raise my level of happiness in ways that are not necessarily intuitive to me at the moment."
"I actually like that I can put [my personal goals] all in writing in one place and look at them at a quick glance... I had always had these goals in my head, but I think just writing it down is making it a little more real for me, and now I'm even feeling a little more organized and focused."
Two positive psychology classes (one with 50 students, one with 200) at the University of California, Riverside, entitled "Psychology of Happiness and Virtue," have been taught recently using the LiveHappy application. Students completed the application's initial measures and eight happiness activities throughout the course, and wrote reflections on their reactions to the activities. In course evaluations, they reported:
"This was the most satisfying, worthwhile class I have taken in college the past 4 years!"
"I wish there were more classes like this one. I learned a lot about positive psychology and about myself that I think I can use to improve on parts of my life that need improvement."
"I have recommended the class, readings and exercises to my friends."
Finally, LiveHappy has been repeatedly voted into "5 best" and "10 best" self-improvement application lists.
Of course, a downside to using LiveHappy in the classroom is that it requires students to possess a rather expensive technological device—the iPhone, iTouch, or iPad. However, a fair number of students do own these devices, their sales growth has been explosive, and iPhones can now be purchased for as little as $49 (less than many textbooks). Some colleges and universities even provide students with these devices to allow them to use innovative educational technologies. For students who do not have access to LiveHappy, many of the activities and measures can be adapted for use as paper-and-pencil exercises and assignments (for examples, please see Lyubomirsky, 2008).
Lyubomirsky, S. (2013). The myths of happiness: What should make you happy, but doesn’t, what shouldn’t make you happy, but does. New York: Penguin Press.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The how of happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want. New York: Penguin Press.
Lyubomirsky, S., King, L. A., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131, 803-855.
Parks, A., Della Porta, M., Pierce, R. S., Zilca, R. & Lyubomirsky, S. (2011). How do people pursue happiness in their everyday life? The characteristics and behaviors of online happiness seekers. Manuscript submitted for publication.