The Science of Happiness

MWF 10:00 a.m. – 10:50 p.m.

West Grace Street Housing – South (835 W. Grace) Room 1004A


We are fortunate to have tremendous faculty expertise in behavioral and emotional health and well-being at VCU. This class has been developed by a diverse group of these faculty who want to bring this expertise home to our students. Accordingly, each week the class will be led by a faculty member with expertise in the particular topic being discussed. In this way, this course will not only teach you about the science of happiness, but also will expose you to faculty across the university who work in this area. Instructors for this semester include:

Course Directors

Aradhana “Bela” Sood MD, MSHA
Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics
Senior Professor of Child Mental Health Policy
VCUHS, 515 North 10th street (best contact)
804 828 3129

Danielle Dick PhD
Professor of Psychology, African American Studies, and Human Genetics
Room 203, Harrison House
816 W Franklin Street, VCU
804 828 8756

Course Coordinator
Marcie Walsh
Office Hours: By appointment
Office Location: Williams House, 800 W. Franklin St. Room 109
**Ms. Walsh will be your first point of contact.

Graduate Teaching Assistant
Rebecca Smith
Office Hours: By appointment
Office Location: Franklin Street Gym


Linda Hancock
Director, VCU Wellness Resource Center

Jessica E. Salvatore
Assistant Professor of Psychology
Suite B-16 Franklin Street Gymnasium
817 West Franklin Street
804 828-8132

Christopher S. Reina
Assistant Professor
Department of Management

Kirk Warren Brown
Associate Professor of Psychology

Sally Mountcastle

Jasmin Vassileva
Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry
Institute for Drug and Alcohol Studies
Tel: (804) 828-5807

Everett L. Worthington, Jr.
Commonwealth Professor of Psychology

Katherine Ross
Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Clark-Hill Institute for Positive Youth Development

Christy Tyndall
Adjunct Instructor
VCU Honors College

Zoë Neale
Doctoral Student, Clinical Psychology

Haley Sims
Associate Director, Career & Industry Advising
VCU Career Services

Carrie Baines
Wellness Coordinator
Recreational Sports

Course Overview
Transitioning from high school to college is a major developmental task. The challenges include independence from adult supervision, new friendships, and exposure to a unique culture of academic pressure, relative freedom with access to leisure time activities that include both positive and negative elements. Anxiety/depression, problems with substance use, and mental illness often make their presence known in this period. It can be a time of high stress and tension but also a time for unprecedented opportunity to discover strength and resilience that sets us on a positive trajectory on the stage of life. Both professors and students have discovered that self-doubt, tension, and stress not only impede knowledge acquisition but also our capacity to flourish, i.e. to actualize our innate capacity for resilience and growth.

This course examines the state of college student mental health and wellness on a personal and systems level. This class is an opportunity for students to examine and re-evaluate their beliefs, values, and assumptions about mental health and wellness, and to do so in the context of learning about the science behind these important aspects of their lives. In this course we look at how individuals can create positive change by reinterpreting their goals and identifying steps towards having a successful experience in college and beyond. Key findings from the fields of positive psychology and the study of mental illness will inform our understanding of the biopsychosocial underpinnings of wellbeing. The class seeks to reunite the current mission to cure mental and emotional distress with the exploration of how to foster more fulfilling and productive lives. Students will study the whole mind, in a variety of contexts, adding a greater understanding of health to that of illness. Practical, easily applicable, and empirically based practices are incorporated into both content delivery and assignments, delivered by faculty with expertise in each the topics covered. Built on the principles of universal design, this class is accessible for students of all grade levels and abilities.

Learning Outcomes:

By the end of this course, students will:

  • Have a basic understanding of the factors related to behavioral and emotional health, to include genetic and environmental risk factors on both mental health challenges and positive outcomes
  • Make connections between the different factors related to behavioral and emotional health to better understand how they contribute to overall wellbeing and mental health
  • Have a deeper understanding of their own strengths and risk factors and how to apply them to their daily academic and personal lives
  • Have an understanding of the field of positive psychology and the research behind factors that promote well-being
  • Learn evidence based practices that they can employ in their own lives to address challenges they may experience and promote their own wellbeing
  • Have a better awareness of, and direct contact with, the diverse faculty researchers who work in the area of behavioral and emotional health across the university and ways they can get further involved
  • Have an increased understanding of services across the university that are available to support student mental and behavioral health
  • Participate in evidence based activities and practices that will allow them to share their learning from the class with the greater VCU and RVA community

What You Need to Know about this Class, Grading, and Participation

We want you to take ownership of your learning. You will get out of this class what you put into it, both in terms of your personal growth and education, and your grade. Accordingly, our philosophy we, as instructors, don’t deduct points when students get things wrong; rather, students earn their grades according to the effort that they put into the class.
Please Note: This course will discuss mental health and ask you to reflect on your own experiences. Some of this material may be unsettling. If at any time during class you feel uncomfortable, you are welcome to leave without penalty. (You will, however, be responsible for any work that you miss.) If you have any concerns about a particular assignment, you are encouraged to reach out to the course Teaching Assistant as soon as possible to discuss alternative arrangements. Finally, if you would like to talk to a mental health professional, VCU Counseling Services can be reached at (804) 828-6200.

Class Structure and Assignments
Weekly readings:
Each week you will be assigned a scientific study or review related to the week’s topic. You will need to complete the reading before each Monday’s class in order to participate in class discussions and complete your weekly assignments. These readings are a crucial component of your learning in this class, so it is important to allocate appropriate time to read each week’s assigned reading.

Weekly social media posts.
We want you to share your learning beyond the walls of the classroom and the group of peers enrolled in your class through a week social media post (1 per week required). The College Behavioral and Emotional Health Institute at VCU (COBE: is an effort to promote wellbeing at VCU, and has an active on-line presence through social media (VCU COBE on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram). You can participate through COBE’s social media outlets or share information that you’ve learned or discovered yourself. You will submit screenshots of your weekly posts via the Assignments tab on Blackboard. The Social Media Submissions document on Blackboard provides complete details about this assignment.

Weekly experiential exercises:
These exercises will be an integral part of class every week, and we expect everyone to complete them and to turn them in. Descriptions for each week’s exercise will be detailed on Blackboard under the Assignments tab. Please read each assignment carefully for due dates and submission instructions, as they may vary by week and instructor.

Weekly class participation:
Each Friday’s class will be devoted to small group discussions. These discussions are specifically designed to help you share and discuss what you’ve learned from the week’s readings, lectures, exercises, etc. Active participation and engagement in these discussions is required.

Blog posts:
All students will need to create a Rampages site where you will post three critical reflections designed to help you make connections between the readings, in-class activities (lectures, discussions, exercises, etc.), and your own life experiences. In addition to the three original posts, you will be required to write a thoughtful comment to two classmates’ posts for each of the three blog assignments.

  • Blog posts must be completed and posted by 9 p.m. on the due dates (listed on the Weekly Class Schedule below)
  • Comments on 2 students’ blog posts must be completed by midnight on the due dates.

Detailed directions, prompts, and grading criteria for the blog post assignments will be posted on Blackboard by the 2nd week of class. Step-by-step directions for creating your Rampages account and posting your blog posts will also be posted on Bb.

Thrive, COBE, and VCU event attendance:
Students are expected to attend and participate in the wide variety of campus activities related to our course content. Your experiences attending at these events will be incorporated into at least 2 of your social media and/or blog post content as described on the direction documents for each of these assignments.

End of course team project:
You will work in teams of 3 – 4 students to design a programming activity related to one of the topics from class. The team project is a way for you and your team to share what you’re learning about wellbeing and happiness with the greater VCU and/or Richmond community. You will be working on this project over the course of the semester. After thoroughly developing and piloting (i.e., trying out your project in the VCU and/or RVA community) each team will share a brief presentation about their project plan and what they learned from their pilot experience in the final weeks of the semester. The Team Project document on Blackboard provides complete details about the project, the presentation, and grading.

Your Grade will be Determined as Follows:
Attendance/participation – 30%
Attendance and active participation are crucial to learning, experiencing, and applying the class content. Active and engaged participation in weekly exercises and discussions are the major components of this grade.

Blog posts (3) – 25%
Blog post due dates are noted on the Weekly Class Schedule below. Because of the cumulative nature of the blog posts, the number of points assigned increases with each successive post (see Grade Calculations below).

Social media posts 10% – 1 social media post related to course content per week – due by midnight every Friday
Event attendance: 10% – students will attend at least 2 wellness-related VCU events and incorporate their experience of the event into their blog post and/or social media assignments.

Team project: 25%

Components of the team project will be due throughout the semester, and feedback will be provided to assist with the project’s development and implementation.
Grade Calculations:
Attendance          4 points per week (class attendance + weekly exercises) x 15 weeks = 60 points
Blog                       1st post: 10 points; 2nd post: 15 points; 3rd post: 25 points = 50 points
Social media         2.5 points per week x 12 weeks = 20 points
Event attendance    10 points x 2/semester = 20 points
Team project      Process documents, project, and project presentation = 50 points

Total Points: 200
A = 180 – 200 points
B = 160 – 179 points
C = 140 – 159 points
D = 120 – 139 points
F = 119 or less

Important Dates:

Please be aware of the following important dates related to this class:

  • Wednesday 8/30 – Last day of Add/Drop period
  • Friday 9/8 – Last day for students to provide advance written notification to observe religious holidays
  • Friday 11/3 – Last day to withdraw from class with a grade of “W”. Be sure to consult with your academic advisor before dropping any class

Students with Disabilities

“Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended, require that VCU provide “academic adjustments” or “reasonable accommodations” to any student who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. To receive accommodations, students must request them by contacting the Disability Support Services Office (828-2253).  Accommodations begin at the point of presentation of documentation, and are not retroactive.  Please feel free to meet with me to discuss your needs in regards to class.”


What to Know and Do To Be Prepared for Emergencies at VCU

  1. Sign up to receive VCU text messaging alerts (  Keep your information up-to-date.
  2. Know the safe evacuation route from each of your classrooms. Emergency evacuation routes are posted in on-campus classrooms.
  3. Listen for and follow instructions from VCU or other designated authorities.
  4. Know where to go for additional emergency information (
  5. Know the emergency phone number for the VCU Police (828-1234).  Report suspicious activities and objects.

Weekly Class Schedule

 Week 1 – Course Overview

Friday, 8/25 – Introduction to the Science of Happiness: Purpose and Structure [Dick & Walsh]

 Week 2 – The Science of Happiness

Reading Assignment:

Keyes, C. L. M. (2007). Promoting and protecting mental health as flourishing. American Psychologist, 62(2), 95 – 108.

Week 2 Exercise: Complete the Keyes Flourishing Scale and compute your score. This will remain private to you, and is intended to give you a starting place for the course to think about your own current state of well-being.

Monday 8/28 – Intro to the Science of Happiness: Defining Science and Happiness. [Ross & Walsh]

Wednesday 8/30 – University Resources [Hancock]

Friday 9/1 – Discussion: How do mental illness and mental health relate to one another? Can you have one without the other? Should our health care system place equal emphasis on mental illness and mental health? What resources does VCU have in place to address both mental health challenges and the promotion of flourishing?

Week 3 – Genetics and Happiness

Reading Assignment:

Dick, D. M., Adkins, A. E., Kuo, S. I. (2016). Genetic influences on adolescent behavior. Neuroscience

and Biobehavioral Reviews. Advance online publication. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2016.07.007

Monday 9/4No Class – Labor Day Holiday

Wednesday 9/6 – Causes of Human Behavior [Dick]

Week 3 Exercise: Think about something that runs in your family. It could be anything from red hair to a sense of humor to a mental or physical illness.   Draw a picture of your family tree (we’re not looking for great artwork here – just a visual to help you think about your family) and indicate who has the trait/outcome and who does not. What do you think causes the similarity in your family?

Friday 9/8 – Discussion: What did you learn from completing the Family Tree exercise? How is the trait that you tracked displayed in your family tree (physically, emotionally, behaviorally, psychologically)? Why might this matter?

 Week 4 – Introduction to Positive Psychology

Reading Assignment:

For Monday:

Wade, N. G., Hoyt, W. T., Kidwell, J. E. M., & Worthington, E. L., Jr. (2014). Efficacy of psychotherapeutic interventions to promote forgiveness: A meta-analysis. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 82(1), 1 – 17. (pp. 1 – 3 & 12 – 14 only)

For Wednesday:

Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14. (pp. 5 – 8 & 11 – 13 only)

Week 4 Exercise: Complete the PERMA survey for available on the Authentic Happiness website (see Assignment on Bb for directions for completing and submitting)

Monday 9/11 –Positive Psychology: Virtues and Strengths – Forgiveness [Worthington]

Wednesday 9/13 –Positive Psychology: PERMA and Positive Psych Interventions [Walsh]

Friday 9/15 – Discussion: Comparing and contrasting the two approaches to positive psychology; discussion PERMA results. Blog set-up and Blog post 1 discussion

Week 5 – Focusing on Strengths [Walsh]

Reading Assignment:

Karris, M. A., & Craighead, W. E. (2012). Differences in character among U.S. college students. Individual Differences Research, 10(2), 69-80.

Week 5 Exercise: VIA Strengths survey – complete by start of class Wednesday 9/27 (bring to class Wednesday)

Monday 9/18 – Focusing on Strengths – What the Research Says

Wednesday 9/20 – Focusing on Strengths – Interpreting VIA Survey results

Friday 9/22 – Discussion: Share your top strength with others who share that strength; discuss how different types of strengths may impede working in groups and how you can use different types of strengths to enhance working in groups. Mindfulness Study Introduced

Week 6 – Depression and Mood States [Sood]

Reading Assignment:

Gross, M. (2014), Silver lining for patients with depression? Current Biology, 24(18), R851-R854.

Week 6 Exercise: Complete Daily Mindfulness Check-ins this week (Week 2 of 2)

 Blog Post #1 Due by 9 p.m. Sunday 10/1/17

Monday 9/25 – Depression and Anxiety: Taming the demons and … befriending them?

Wednesday 9/27 – Eeyore to Tigger to Rabbit: Personality and temperament

Friday 9/29 – Dr. Aziz Visit (University Counseling Services)

Discussion: What did you learn from the automatic thoughts exercise? What techniques can you use to stop and/or replace automatic negative thoughts? How and in what ways did this exercise increase your awareness of your negative thoughts? Project Teams Assigned

Week 7 – Romantic Relationships [Salvatore]

 Reading Assignment:

Salvatore, J. E., Collins, W. A., & Simpson, J. A. (2011). An organizational-developmental perspective on functioning in adult romantic relationships. In L. Campbell & T. J. Loving (Eds.), Interdisciplinary research on close relationships: The case for integration (pp. 155-177). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Week 7 Exercise: Complete Daily Mindfulness Check-ins this week (Week 2 of 2)

Monday 10/2 – Developmental Origins of Romantic Relationships

Wednesday 10/4 – Intervening with Distressed Couples

Friday 10/6 – Discussion: Think about the happiest couple you know. What makes them so good together, and how did things get that way? Think about the least happy couple you know. What makes their relationship difficult and how did things get that way?

Week 8 – Mindfulness [Warren-Brown & Reina]

Reading Assignment:

Good, D. J., Lyddy, C. J., Glomb, T. M., Bono, J. E., Brown, K. W., Duffy, M. K., … & Lazar, S. W. (2015). Contemplating Mindfulness at Work: An Integrative Review. Journal of Management, 0149206315617003. Read pages 1-19 only.

Week 8 Exercise: Tracking automatic thoughts (see Bb Assignment for Week 8)

 Monday 10/9 – The Science of Mindfulness Part 1 (Warren Brown)

Wednesday 10/11 – Mindfulness sampler – breathing, eating, and moving

Friday 10/13 – The Science of Mindfulness Part 2 (Reina)

Note: Week 9 Exercise to complete Substance Use Risk Profile (SURPS) is due by 5 p.m. Sunday 10/15

Week 9 – Getting to Know Yourself [Vassileva]

 Reading Assignment:

Conrod, P. J. & Nikolaou, K. (2016). Annual research review: on the developmental neuropsychology of substance use disorders. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 57(3), 371-394.

Week 9 Exercise: Complete Substance Use Risk Profile (SURPS); due by 5 p.m. Sunday 10/15

Monday 10/16 – Personality Traits and SURPS Interpretation

Wednesday 10/18 – Cognitive Biases

Friday 10/20 – No Class – Reading Days

Week 10 –Positive Emotions, Positive Interventions [Neale & Walsh]

Reading Assignment:

Fredrickson, B. (2001) The role of positive emotions in positive psychology. American Psychologist, 56(3), 218-226

 Exercise (due by midnight Thursday 10/26): Ask 3 to 5 people that know you well, to share 2-3 things that they value, appreciate or like about you. Record their responses and what it felt like to receive their feedback.

 Monday 10/23 – Positive Emotions and Identity [Neale]

Wednesday 10/25 – Positive Psych. Interventions [Walsh]

Friday 10/27 – Discussion: Discuss findings from friend exercise

Week 11 – Social Emotional Learning [Ross]

Reading Assignment: TBD

Week 11 Exercise:

Blog post #2 is due by 9 p.m. Sunday, 11/5

 Monday 10/30 – SEL Part 1

Wednesday 11/1 – SEL Part 2

Friday 11/3 – Discussion: TBD

Week 12 – Academic and Career Wellbeing

Reading Assignment:

Dweck, C. (2008). Can personality be changed?  The role of beliefs in personality and change.  Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17(6), 391-394.

Week 12 Exercise: TBD

Monday 11/6 – Academic Wellbeing (Tyndall – Honors College/School of Education)

Wednesday 11/8 – Career Wellbeing (Sims – Career Services)

 Friday 11/10 – Discussion: TBD

 Week 13 – Physical Wellbeing [Baines & Mountcastle]

Reading Assignment:

Trockel, M. T., Barnes, M. D., & Egget, D. L. (2000). Health related variables and academic performance among first-year college students: implications for sleep and other behaviors. College Health, 49, 125 – 131.

Exercise: You will be assigned an eat, move, OR sleep exercise.

  • If you are assigned to the ‘eat’ exercise: record your food consumption using and keep a written journal about when and where you ate, your mood, place, stress level at the time, etc.
  • If you are assigned the ‘move’ exercise: track your physical activity using and keep a written journal about your physical activity throughout the day – your mood with respect to physical activity or lack thereof, your energy level, etc.
  • If you are assigned the sleep journal: record your sleep patterns – when you are tired, how long it takes to go to sleep, what makes sleep easier, barriers to sleep, how much sleep do you get, how rested do you feel, etc.

Monday 11/13 – Physical Wellbeing, Pt. 1 (Baines)

Wednesday 11/15 – Class in Cary Street Gym (Yoga)

Friday 11/17 – Physical Wellbeing, Part 2: Eat, Move, Sleep [Mountcastle]

Week 14 – Project Work Week

 Monday 11/20 – In-Class Project Work Day (Attendance Mandatory)

Wednesday 11/22 – Project Work Day

Friday 11/24 – No Class (Thanksgiving Break)

 Week 15 – Team Project Presentations

Monday 11/27 – Team Project Presentations (3 Teams)

Wednesday 11/29 – Team Project Presentations (3 Teams)

Friday 12/1 – Team Project Presentations (3 Teams)

 Week 16 – Team Project Presentations and Social Wellbeing

Reading Assignment:

Oades et al. (2011). Towards a positive university. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6I(6), 432-439.

 Monday 12/4 – Team Project Presentations (3 Teams)

Wednesday 12/6 – Team Project Presentations (1 Team) & Contagion Effect – Social Wellbeing

Friday 12/8 – Last Day of Class: Social Wellbeing: Creating a Positive University at VCU

 Blog post #3 is due by 9 p.m. Sunday 12/10