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Michael Stoff, Director 305 East 23rd St, CLA 2.102, (G3600) Austin, TX 78712-1250 • 512-471-1442

Fall 2006

T C 301 • Living on the Bright Side: The Psychology of Hope and Virtue

Unique Days Time Location Instructor
44440 TTh
12:30 PM-2:00 PM
ECJ 1.214

Course Description

Look at the psychology section of any major bookstore and you will find two kinds of books: one set of academic books that focus on psychological problems and largely ignore healthy people, and another set of psychology books that purport to tell people how to achieve happiness and success. Unfortunately, while the latter sell much better than the former, they rarely incorporate the wisdom of academic psychology, relying instead on anecdote and common sense. Today, a new area of academic psychology, positive psychology, is emerging to look seriously at the ways in which people lead fulfilling lives. For the first time, psychology gives substantive information about how to live well.

In the past ten years, this movement has developed within the discipline to look at the positive side of life, asking what goes right with people, why, and how to optimize it. What factors really affect the experience of happiness? How much of positive emotionality is genetically pre-disposed? How does the brain process, and how is it changed by the positive affect states? How does a person's perception of a situation interact with the actual situation to influence her reactions? Why is there a discontinuity between activities that we claim to like and activities that we demonstrably enjoy?

Beyond its intrinsic value, however, there is an added dimension to this work in its clear applied value-indicating ways in which people can elect to live their lives that will make them happier, healthier, and more successful. Probably the best-known example comes from the research on learned optimism, which has demonstrated that it is possible to deliberately develop an optimistic attributional frame that will lead to better physical and mental health as well as greater experienced happiness. Similarly, the work on the application of virtue has found that when people programmatically practice virtues such as forgiveness, compassion, and gratitude, they reap enormous positive psychological benefits.

Grading Policy

Course requirements will consist of seven short reaction papers (approximately 3 pages each), in which students will discuss an idea or question that they have had over the material covered in class or the reading during the previous two weeks. There will also be a final exam, which will have a take-home format consisting of several questions. There is the possibility of small assignments as well, in which the students will make use of some of the techniques developed in a particular psychological area, involving attitude assessment and change or the applied practice of virtuous behavior, to assess the psychological outcomes.

Grades will be broken down as follows:

Papers: 49% (7% each)

Class participation: 25%

Final exam: 25%


M. Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1991) M.P. Seligman, Authentic Happiness (2002) C. Keyes & Jonathan Haidt (eds.), Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived


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