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Students Get New View of Happiness in Popular Class

By Ioana Patringenaru | October 23, 2006

Perched on a table, his legs crossed, Nicholas Christenfeld asked his students the first question of the day: “So, what should we talk about: sex, drugs or rock n’ roll?”

“Sex!” all the students replied.


Actually, Christenfeld wanted his students to talk about how sex relates to happiness, the topic of a five-week course he taught this summer. About 20 students tackled the subject and delved into related topics, including money, beauty and self-improvement. Christenfeld, who is a psychology professor at UCSD, said he hoped his students would learn how to look at happiness from a scientific point of view. Students also need to grasp different concepts used to define happiness, such as joy and pleasure. Today, most researchers define happiness as a sense of satisfaction with life, he said.

Christenfeld is perhaps best known to the public for off-the-wall research, including a study that showed dogs and their owners do really look alike – at least if the dogs are purebred. He also conducts research in other areas, including health psychology. In one study, he and a graduate student looked at how social support impacts men and women. They found that support provided by women benefited both genders. Men’s support didn’t seem to be doing anyone any good.


Christenfeld also teaches several courses at UCSD, from Introduction to Social Psychology to the Psychology of Sports. He started teaching the Happiness course four years ago after one of his students collected a trove of documents on the topic, now included in the course’s thick reader. Before each class, students read several articles, such as pieces by American psychologist Abraham Maslow and German-American psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm. Then they talked about the articles in class, with Christenfeld gently nudging them along. Vivid discussions and personal arguments ensued. They often included references to pop culture, ranging from Bruce Springsteen’s song “Born in the U.S.A.” to Baz Luhrmann’s movie “Moulin Rouge!” Students also talked about their own lives. The course’s small format makes it more engaging and effective than a lecture, Christenfeld said.

Being Happy

After the choir of students said they wanted to talk about sex, he fired his next question.

“Is it good or bad?” he asked. 

Students seemed to be divided.

“It depends on your partner,” said Landon Hartstein, a senior.

Harstein came to class with a long skateboard. A tattoo wrapped around one of his ankles. He said he enrolled to complete graduation requirements and because the topic appealed to him. Are pretty people happier, does money buy you happiness, he wondered. The answer to both questions is apparently “no,” Christenfeld said. There’s only a slight positive correlation between being beautiful and being happy and being rich and being happy, he said. Then again, happy people are probably more likely to take care of themselves and be productive and successful at work, he added.

Harstein, who planned to find happiness by moving to Australia and learning to shape surfboards, was one of the most vocal contributors to the class. He often got into spirited arguments with other students, like Annie Chartrand and Jennifer Hare.


Chartrand said she decided to take the course because she liked Christenfeld’s teaching style. She said she enjoyed attending a class that made room for discussion after taking many courses with a strong scientific focus. “It’s a different way to think about happiness and the human experience,” Chartrand said. A fourth-year psychology major, she said she would like to teach and conduct clinical research. Hare is a literature and writing major with a psychology minor. She took the course after classmates sang Christenfeld’s praises. She was gearing up for a year in Spain and said she particularly enjoyed a class discussion about the different ways Americans and Europeans look at happiness.

Christenfeld returned to the subject when students discussed an article by British philosopher Bertrand Russell, a couple of weeks after talking about sex. What does Russell think of the pursuit of happiness, the professor asked. He argues that happiness will find you, and that trying to find it is rather pointless, said Melisa Torres. That’s because people’s ideas about what will make them happy are often wrong, she said. The pursuit of happiness undermines its own purpose, Christenfeld argued. “It’s roughly how I feel about stand-up comics,” he said. “If you go (to a comedy club) to be amused, it’s not really funny.”


During that same class, Christenfeld and his students discussed self-actualization, the full development of a person’s abilities and ambitions. Is self-actualization good, the professor asked his students. Yes, Harstein said. “If you’re not insecure about your basic needs, you’re able to grow,” he said. Being self-actualized helps you become a better person, Torres added. So is there more to life than satisfying your basic needs, such as eating, Christenfeld asked. How does helping others fit into the picture? Hare jumped in. “The greatest thing a man can learn is to love and be loved in return,” she said, quoting from the movie “Moulin Rouge!” But a self-actualized person doesn’t necessarily go around being moral, Chartrand objected. “What if you’re a self-actualized criminal,” she asked.

By the end of the course, Chartrand said she had to come to believe that happiness is a way of approaching life. Happy people exhibit particular traits and qualities, she added. The course gave her more tools to tutor stressed-out high school students, she said. It even helped her. “Yesterday, I was in a really bad mood,” Chartrand said. “Then I journaled and I felt so much better.”


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