The Science of Happiness

MWF 11:00 a.m. – 11:50 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
800 W. Franklin Street
PO Box 842018
Richmond, VA 23284-2018
804 828 8756

Graduate Teaching Assistant
Marcie Walsh
Office Hours: Wednesdays 1:00 – 3:00 p.m. OR by appointment
Office Location: Harris Hall Room 5150 (GTA Office)
**Ms. Walsh will be your first point of contact.

Amy Adkins
Assistant Professor
Suite B16, Franklin Street Gymnasium
817 W Franklin Street
804 828-4344

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
806 West Franklin Street, room 202

Patsy King
Director of Community Engagement, COBE

Sally Mountcastle
Assistant Professor
Kinesiology and Health Sciences

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

Everett L. Worthington, Jr.
Commonwealth Professor of Psychology
Room 101, Williams House
800 West Franklin Street, VCU
804 828-1150

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 to re-evaluate your beliefs, values, and assumptions, and to do so in the context of learning about the science behind health and wellness. 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 well-being. 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. We will study the whole mind, in a variety of contexts, adding a greater understanding of health to that of illness.

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
  • Have a deeper understanding of their own strengths and risk factors
  • 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 well-being
  • Have a better awareness of 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

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 facilitated small group discussions. These are 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. You will also take turns facilitating a small group discussion during the semester.

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.

End of course team project:

You will work in teams of 3 – 4 students to design a culminating project 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 completing your project in the community, all teams will share a brief presentation of their project and what they learned from the 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 15% – 1 social media post per week – due by midnight every Friday

Team project: 30%

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
Social media     2.5 points per week x 12 weeks = 30 points
Blog                      1st post: 10 points; 2nd post: 15 points; 3rd post: 25 points = 50 points
Team project   Process documents, project, and project presentation = 60 points

Total Points: 200

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

University Policies

For the complete list of university policies related to this and all other classes at VCU, visit .

Important Dates:

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

  • Monday 1/23 – Last day of Add/Drop period
  • Friday 1/27 – Last day for students to provide advance written notification to observe religious holidays
  • Friday 3/24 – 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.

Honor policy and student conduct 

Please read VCU’s honor policy and Student Code of Conduct at: System – Interim.pdf

Weekly Class Schedule

(Due dates that fall outside of the regularly weekly due dates are designated in red)

Week 1 – Course Overview

Reading Assignment:

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

Wednesday 1/18 – Introduction: Class Purpose and Structure [Dick, Sood, Walsh]

Exercise (due by midnight Thursday, 1/19): 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 wellbeing.

Friday 1/20 – Introduction: The Science of Happiness [Adkins, Walsh]

Week 2 – Genetics and Happiness & University Resources

Reading Assignment:

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

and Biobehavioral Reviews. Advance online publication.


Monday 1/23 – Causes of Human Behavior [Dick]

Week 2 Exercise (due by midnight Thursday, 1/26): 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?

Wednesday 1/25 – University Resources [Hancock]

Friday 1/27 – Discussion: What did you learn from completing the Family Tree exercise?

Week 3 – Positive Psychology [Walsh]

Reading Assignment:

Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14.

Monday 1/30 – PERMA and Flourishing

Week 3 Exercise (due by midnight Thursday, 2/2): 3 Good Things: Every night for the next week, set aside 10 minutes before you go to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well.

Wednesday 2/1 – Positive Psychology Interventions


Friday 2/3 – Discussion: What was your experience doing the 3 Good Things exercise? Did you have trouble finding 3 things daily? Thoughts on other PI interventions

Week 4 – Depression and Mood States [Sood]

Reading Assignment:

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

Monday 2/6 – Depression and Anxiety: Taming the demons and … befriending them?

Week 4 Exercise (due by midnight Thursday 2/9): Tracking automatic thoughts: Keep a journal of times when you experienced a dip in your mood or a negative reaction to something (event, conversation, etc.). Write about the event, its situation, and any automatic thoughts you had related to it.

Wednesday 2/8 – Eeyore to Tigger to Rabbit: Personality and temperament

Friday 2/10 – Counseling Services Visit; Discussion: What did you learn from the automatic thoughts exercise? What techniques can you use to stop and/or replace automatic negative thoughts?

Sunday 2/12 – Blog Post #1 due – blog post deadline 9 p.m., comments due by midnight

Week 5 – 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.

Monday 2/13 – Developmental Origins of Romantic Relationships

Week 5 Exercise (due by midnight Thursday 2/16): 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?

Wednesday 2/15 – Intervening with Distressed Couples

Friday 2/17 – Discussion: TBD

Week 6 – Positive Identity & Relationships [Neale]

Reading Assignment:

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

Monday 2/20 – Emotional Intelligence and High Quality Relationships

Week 6 Exercise (due by midnight Thursday 2/23): 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.

Wednesday 2/22 – Self-Awareness and Self-Management

Friday 2/24 – Discussion: What was your experience asking and receiving this feedback?

Week 7 – 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 7 Exercise (begin on Monday 2/27; due by midnight Friday 3/3): 7 Days of Calm activity (requires free sign up at

Monday 2/27 – The Science of Mindfulness Part 1 [Reina]

Wednesday 3/1 – The Science of Mindfulness Part 2 [Warren-Brown]

Friday 3/3 – Discussion: Based on what you’ve learned this week, what are some ways that you can incorporate the practice of mindfulness into your daily routine?

Week 8 – No Class: Spring Break

Week 9 – Yoga/Eat, Move, Sleep [King/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.

Week 9 Exercise (due by midnight Thursday 3/23): 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 3/13 – The Science of Yoga [King]

Wednesday 3/15 – The Experience of Yoga [King] Please note that we will be meeting in the Franklin Street gym for this class! Wear comfortable clothes – you’ll be learning/practicing a few yoga excercises in this class

Friday 3/17 – Eat, Move, Sleep [Mountcastle] ; Rec. Sports Visit

Week 10 Exercise: SURPS (due by midnight Sunday 3/19)

Week 10 – 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.

Monday 3/20 – Personality Traits and SURPS Interpretation

Wednesday 3/22 – Cognitive Biases

Friday 3/24 – Discussion: Eat, Move, Sleep Journals and SURPS results

Week 11 – Final Project Work Week

Reading Assignment:

Davidson, R. J. & Dahl, C. J. (2016). Varieties of contemplative practice. JAMA Psychiatry. Published online December 28, 2016. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2016.3469

Monday 3/27 – In-Class Work Session for Final Projects (Attendance Required)

Wednesday 3/29 – In-Class Work Session for Final Projects (Attendance Required) 

Friday 3/31 – Blog post #2 due – blog post deadline 9 p.m., comments due by midnight


Week 12 – Forgiveness [Worthington]

Reading Assignment:

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 ClinicalPsychology, 82(1), 154-170.

Week 12 Exercise (due by midnight Thursday 4/6): Forgiveness Workbook

Monday 4/3 – Forgiveness

Wednesday 4/5 – Guest Speakers from the Positive Psychology Research Group

Friday 4/7 – Final Project Check-In (Mandatory); Forgiveness discussion

Week 13 – 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 13 Exercise – Take the VIA Strengths Survey (due before class on Wednesday 4/12)

Monday 4/10 – Strengths at Different Life Stages

Wednesday 4/12 – VCU Career Services Visit: Wellness and Career

Friday 4/14 – Discussion: Understanding and Applying Your Strengths


Week 14 – Social Wellbeing [Walsh]

Reading Assignment:

Sandstrom, G. M., & Dunn, E. W. (2014). Social interactions and well-being: the surprising power of weak ties. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(7), 910 – 922.

Monday 4/17 – Social Wellbeing and Physical Health

Week 14 Exercise (due by midnight Thursday 4/20): Social network mapping

Wednesday 4/19 – Social Wellbeing: Beyond the Individual

Friday 4/21 – Discussion: What did you learn about your own social wellbeing from your social network map? Are there changes you want to make in your social network?


Week 15 – Final Project Presentations

Reading Assignment:

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

Monday 4/24 – Final Project Presentations

Wednesday 4/26 – Final Project Presentations

Friday 4/28 – Final Project Presentations

Sunday 4/30 Blog Post #3 due – blog post deadline 9 p.m., comments due by midnight

 Week 16 – Final Project Presentations

Monday 5/1 – Final Project Presentations

Week 17 – May 8

Monday 5/8, 8:00 a.m. – 10:50: Final Exam: TBD