But June Gruber’s teaching, which recently won a Cogswell Award for Inspirational Instruction, doesn’t mean she shows students the path to unmitigated joy; on the contrary, the science of emotional wellness is more nuanced
June Gruber flashes the words “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” onto large screens in her classroom. Her students immediately identify the source as the Declaration of Independence.
Gruber nods, noting that the nation’s founding document heralds “my inalienable right to be happy.” Such a message, she adds, engenders “a kind of expectation that we must pursue happiness.”
But must we?
That’s one question Gruber answers in her Science of Happiness course at the University of Colorado Boulder. Gruber, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience and a faculty fellow at the Center for Teaching and Learning, teaches the upper-division course that is popular with students, who give Gruber glowing reviews, sometimes in deeply personal terms.
Her course is popular not because it unlocks the secrets to unlimited happiness. Rather, Gruber’s course pores over the developing research—some of which is Gruber’s own—that reveals a “dark side to happiness.”
As Gruber has shown in her peer-reviewed research, a Tedx talk and now a CU Boulder course, it is not that happiness is bad. Rather, evidence strongly suggests that happiness is but one of the human emotions to which people should be open, and that excesses of apparent happiness can signal problems such as mania (or bipolar disorder), excessive spending, problem gambling or even high-risk sexual encounters.
Perhaps most surprisingly, Gruber cites evidence that the act of pursuing happiness can leave the pursuers, paradoxically, less happy than they would have been if they’d not tried to maximize their own happiness. They report being less able to be emotionally present in moments that could be happy, and they are more likely to experience mood difficulties and anxiety.
Whether the American founders sent us on a Sisyphean task is beyond the scope of the class, which focuses on how happiness is defined and measured, what makes us truly happy and how we should pursue it.
In addition to regular class assignments, students in the Science of Happiness course (PSYC 4541) complete weekly “science-to-life” exercises, which apply the theories and practices learned in class to everyday existence. For instance, students kept gratitude journals, performed random acts of kindness and completed the UPenn Authentic Happiness Inventory. Students also took “awe walks,” in which they visited novel, physically vast spaces and observed their surroundings mindfully.
Some shared their experiences in class, rapidly budding flowers and greening leaves and the enchantment of focusing on the movement of a squirrel.
In addition to science-to-life exercises and regular coursework, the students also have done outreach projects, in which the goal is to share the science of happiness outside the brick-and-mortar classroom to the local Boulder community and beyond.
Ashlee Lewis, one of Gruber’s students, has worked in a Boulder retirement home for two years. For her outreach project, she presented a slideshow of the science of happiness across the lifespan to the retirees.
“They were very excited that I was coming in to do a presentation, and the feedback I got was positive and informative,” Lewis said. “It feels like I actually made a difference in the retirement home community.”
Lewis said Gruber’s course was the “most relatable” psychology course she’s had in four years at CU Boulder, adding “I am so grateful I was able to take this class with Dr. Gruber.”
For the first time, I felt that a class wanted to encourage the outward personal growth we were learning about. Our science-to-life projects brought the lecture material into my own life. I find every opportunity possible to share with my friends and family the things we are learning in class because it feels so valuable to live a healthier life.
Such praise helps explain why Gruber has been recognized for her teaching. She has won the Boulder Faculty Assembly Teaching Excellence Award, the UROP Outstanding Mentor Award and, this spring, the Cogswell Award for Inspirational Instruction.
The last award is named for and funded by Craig Cogswell, a three-time alumnus of CU Boulder, who says Gruber is an “amazing educator and teacher.”
“The depth and variety of her research and instruction is inspiring,” Cogswell says. “She comes at her study of mental health from a variety of directions and offers multiple perspectives, insights, and strategies. It’s especially gratifying that her work comes at a time when so many young people need emotional support. I can’t imagine a more deserving recipient.”
Gruber also has developed a free online Coursera #TalkMentalIllness course to tackle stigma and mental health and has written articles for Teaching Current Directions in Psychological Science about the importance of teaching students about the positive side of psychological disorders. She also shares career and professional advice for students in Science Careers.
Leaf Van Boven, professor and chair of psychology and neuroscience, says the Cogswell award is a “well-deserved honor for someone who has made such a positive impact on students and colleagues.”
Van Boven adds that Gruber is an exceptional teacher and mentor who brings passion, creativity, and dedication to her work. “Professor Gruber’s ability to engage students and inspire them to learn is remarkable. … We are grateful for June Gruber’s commitment to teaching excellence and the positive influence she has had on students.”
Underscoring that point is feedback from the students themselves. Lauren Weber, who wrote an op-ed newspaper essay for her outreach project, says that learning about the science of happiness will stick with her long after graduation.
“I was hoping to take this class as a way to improve my happiness in my last semester of college, but through the research we read and personal discovery this class allowed, I will be able to understand and control the happiness in my life far beyond this class,” she says,
Fellow student Emma Ringman says Gruber’s course was both meaningful and helpful. Ringman says she’s struggled with anxiety and depression and even failed out of college “due to extreme mental-health circumstances” stemming from the pandemic.
“And here I am, two years after the fact in my last semester as an undergraduate, preparing to graduate with a degree in psychology and French. As a result of my historical struggles with school, I have often slipped into old habits as a result of a fixed mindset, my brain often telling me that if I have to try hard that I’m not smart, or if something I am working on isn’t perfect, it’s better to not turn it in at all.”
While other psychology classes often focused on “negative” psychology, diagnosable diseases, and “abnormal” aspects of the human experience, Gruber’s course was different, Ringman says.
“I almost cried sitting in our lecture on the first day of the class, seeing our lineup of guest speakers at the top of their field and the truly fascinating and groundbreaking work we would be reading about and directly interacting with,” she adds.
“For the first time, I felt that a class wanted to encourage the outward personal growth we were learning about. Our science-to-life projects brought the lecture material into my own life. I find every opportunity possible to share with my friends and family the things we are learning in class because it feels so valuable to live a healthier life.”
Ringman notes that a key lesson is that a variety of emotions yields a richness in life, that obsessively pursuing happiness is futile.
To that end, Gruber shares a quotation from another bulwark of Western civilization, John Stuart Mill, who wrote:
“Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.”
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