Putting Positive Psychology into Action: Helping Others Helps Oneself

Jeana L. Magyar-Moe (University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point)


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: (1) critically examine a growing body of research and writing on happiness and well-being; (2) see how one's own happiness and well-being tends to increase after helping others; and (3) strengthen civic engagement and one's ability to increase the well-being of others


To help put positive psychology in action, students in a positive psychology course begin by learning about research on happiness and well-being, and they assess their own level of happiness, positive and negative emotions, and life satisfaction using the Authentic Happiness Inventory and a variety of other measures. Next, they spend at least 10 hours volunteering at a shelter for homeless people or building homes for low-income families, and they participate in a class fundraiser. After completing these prosocial activities, they then measure their level of happiness and well-being a second time, and they write a paper drawing on psychological constructs and theories to analyze the experience. By applying positive psychology to experiences in their own life, students not only deepen their understanding of psychology but learn first-hand that helping others tends to increase one's own level of happiness.


As part of a course I teach on positive psychology, I designed a service-learning project that helps students learn through direct experience how helping others can increase one's happiness and well-being. The project entails having students engage in service at one or more nonprofit aid organizations and carry out one or more fundraisers on behalf of these organizations using concepts and theories from the field of positive psychology. In the process of applying these concepts and theories, students not only deepen their understanding of psychology but also experience higher levels of positive emotion in their own lives. Finally, this project has the effect of increasing civic engagement, reducing stereotypes about people living in poverty, honing leadership skills, and contributing to the development of global citizenship.

In my classroom, students partner with a Salvation Army homeless shelter where they plan, prepare, serve, and share in meals with homeless residents, and with Habitat for Humanity, where they help build homes for low-income families in need and host ribbon-cutting ceremonies for new Habitat homeowners. The students are allowed to choose which of these organizations they want to work with and are also asked to participate in one class fundraiser. The amount of time dedicated to the fundraisers varies for each student, with some students taking on leadership positions while others participate in more minimal ways. In 5 semesters, my students have implemented 4 fundraisers per term, ranging from bake sales to benefit concerts. They have raised a total of $21,000 and have heightened awareness in the community about the poverty and homelessness that exists.

As part of this project, students are required to keep a reflection journal, write an application paper, and participate in mid-semester and end-of-semester reflection sessions. Journal entries are completed just before and after completing service hours, and students are encouraged to take photographs to help document their experiences. I also request that students send any digital photos taken to me so I can put them into a slideshow presented on the last day of class. In addition, students are required to complete several self-report measures of positive and negative emotions immediately before and after participating in the service hours (i.e., PANAS, Fordyce, Authentic Happiness Inventory, and CES-D). The results of these measures are then incorporated into student journal reflections.

Students are instructed to review their journal entries and write a 5-10 page application paper in which they identify and explain positive psychology constructs and theories (e.g., broaden and build theory, flow, altruism) that were in action throughout their service-learning experiences for themselves, their fellow service providers, and the clients they served. The application papers are written for an audience that has little or no knowledge of positive psychology; therefore, students need to define positive psychology and other psychology terms. Finally, students are asked to write about what they found most valuable about the project, what they felt the community partner gained, and what they learned about positive psychology, civic engagement, and poverty or homelessness.

At the reflection sessions, representatives from the community partner organizations join the class to discuss how concepts from the class lectures, discussions, and readings came to life during the service activities. At the last reflection session, I play a slideshow set to music with pictures and quotations related to the project. This slideshow helps students review the service-learning activities that they and their classmates undertook, and it reveals the total number of hours students worked and amount of money raised. An abbreviated slide show is posted here, and additional Positive Psychology slideshows are available at:


Teaching Effectiveness

Results from data collected over five semesters with 161 students suggest that positive emotions increased significantly after students engaged in service (p < .01), and that negative emotions and depression symptoms decreased significantly (p < .01). Ninety-nine percent of the students reported that they learned something new regarding the class material, and 96% of the class expressed the view that service-learning resulted in deeper learning of the course material. Ninety-eight percent of students felt that the project made a positive impact on their own lives, 100% felt that they made a positive impact on the lives of others with whom they worked, and 81% said that they definitely planned to volunteer again in the future as a direct result of this experience. Although the most common problem noted by students was the difficulty of scheduling time to participate in the service-learning, 100% of the students agreed that the service-learning project was a good fit for the course. In five semesters, students have raised over $20,000 and contributed 3,225 service hours on behalf of their community partner agencies (an average of 20 hours per student per semester — double the 10-hour course requirement).

Sample Student Narrative Evaluations

Here are a few student comments from written evaluations of the experience:

"I really liked this service-learning project & think it should be mandatory that every college student take this class. It makes you a better person without you even realizing it. It brings out the best in you by allowing you to find your strengths & capitalize on them. I am very thankful for this class & the S-L project because it touched my heart the way no other college course has. Because of this class, I have never been happier in my life. For this, I am very grateful."

"There are many ways to make yourself happier, with volunteering being one of them; people really can make the world a better place. If it wasn't for this S-L project, I don't think I would have really understood the concepts of broaden-and-build & the feel-good-do-good phenomenon. I understood the concepts from what I learned in class, but it takes on a completely different meaning when it can be applied to your own life. This project helped me take positive psychology to heart & I look forward to using it throughout the rest of my life."

"I feel I have lived most of my life in a bubble that has kept me unaware of real problems occurring within my hometown. I thought homelessness was something that only occurred in big cities. I had no idea that it happens everywhere."

"Before taking this class, I did not even know there was a homeless shelter in the area. I guess I was so wrapped up in my own life as a student that I did not really realize what life is like for community members... and if there are problems with poverty and homelessness in this city, just think what issues exist elsewhere. I realize I really need to look beyond myself and consider what I can do to make the world a better place for others."

Community Partner Evaluations

Here are a few comments submitted by community partners:

"In addition to the obvious help and increasing our community meals by 10%, the students were a source of inspiration and an example to the Hope Center residents. They also helped promote a positive image of the Salvation Army in the community."

"Having the students onsite building and in the community fundraising (and building a float for the holiday parade) is invaluable for our organization as we strive to develop quality contacts with the community. The students were active and excited about what they were doing. They also helped us get ahead of schedule on our building, increasing the number of homes we build each year from 1 to 2."

Implementation Advice

I have three general suggestions for instructors interested in offering a service-learning experience like this one:

Work alongside your students. Complete the same number of required hours that students do and participate in all fundraisers. This shows the value of the project and forges connections with the students, some of whom may be skeptical if it is their first experience with service-learning.

Provide structure. Conduct an in-class orientation session within the first few weeks of the term in which the community partners present information about their organizations and what students can expect if they choose to work at their sites. This should be followed with an onsite orientation and class time devoted to getting students signed up for service dates. Utilize service-learning coordinators if available.

Allow for student choice. Provide students with at least two sites for completion of their hours, and allow them to have control over the fundraising projects. Let students who commute carry out their service at nonprofit agencies that are closer to home. Have an alternative assignment for students who can't complete the project as designed.