The Effects of a Character Strength Focused Positive Psychology Course on Undergraduate Happiness and Well-Being


This study investigated the effects of a character strength focused positive psychology course on student well-being. The Values in Action character strengths were each presented as ways to increase both individual and community well-being. There were 112 undergraduate students in the positive psychology course and a comparison group of 176 undergraduates who took other psychology courses. They all completed the PERMA-Profiler (Butler and Kern in Int J Wellbeing 6:1–48, 2016) during the first and last week of the semester. This questionnaire assessed the five elements of positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, accomplishment (PERMA) plus happiness, health, loneliness, and negative emotion. The hypotheses were that (1) the positive psychology students would have significant improvements in each of the measures during the semester and (2) these changes would be significantly greater in the desired direction than the changes for the students in other psychology courses. The first hypothesis was supported in that the positive psychology students had significant improvements in all of the measures, including the total PERMA score. The second hypothesis was also strongly supported in that these improvements were significantly greater relative to the students taking other psychology courses. The effect sizes for the difference between the groups were large for the total PERMA score (d = .846) and the element of meaning; medium-to-large for positive emotion and relationships; medium for happiness, accomplishment, and negative emotion (decrease); and small-to-medium for engagement, health, and loneliness (decrease).

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Appendix 1: Weekly Assignments for the Positive Psychology Course

  1. 1.

    Life Goals Answer 12 key questions to help you identify what might make you happy and what you want most out of your life.

  2. 2.

    Personal Strengths Complete the Values in Action questionnaire online and write about examples of when you used your top strengths.

  3. 3.

    Strengths and Goals Identify several goals and write about how you can use your top strengths to make progress in achieving them in the next month.

  4. 4.

    Creativity with Strengths Identify new ways to use your top strengths and use them on at least 3 days during the week.

  5. 5.

    Finding Flow Make a list of things you can do that may put you in a flow state and do at least two different things on different days and write about the experience.

  6. 6.

    Seeing the Good Pay attention to what happens during the day and write down three good things that happen every day for a week.

  7. 7.

    Creating the Good Write down good things and write about how you think you can make at least one of them happen more often in the future.

  8. 8.

    Savoring Make a list of at least ten things that you can savor and savor at least one of them on three different days.

  9. 9.

    Best Love and Kindness Write about one of the best acts of love or kindness you have experienced, how it affected you, and how you can honor it.

  10. 10.

    Gratitude Expression Write a gratitude letter to someone who you haven’t fully or properly thanked and share it with that person in as personal way as you can.

  11. 11.

    Sharing Strengths Having a friend take the VIA survey, share you strengths, and talk about how you can support each other in using your strengths.

  12. 12.

    Creative Kindness Make a list of the new and different kind acts you can perform and do different acts of kindness on three different days during a week.

  13. 13.

    Best Possible Life Write about the best possible life you can imagine in 5–10 years including who you would be with, what you would be doing, and how you could give back.

  14. 14.

    The Hero’s Path Identify the most important things that you have learned in class and write about how you can use them to achieve your best possible life.

Appendix 2: Top-Rated Video Resources for Teaching Positive Psychology

The following are our “top ten” lists of videos that have been used in the positive psychology course to illustrate the character strengths and have consistently been rated as highly beneficial by students.

  1. A.

    YouTube Videos These have typically been shown during class.

  2. 1.

    Wisdom Little girl talks to mother—

  3. 2.

    Creativity Life is beautiful scene—

  4. 3.

    Perseverance Heather Dornidan race—

  5. 4.

    Love Love liberates by Maya Angelou—

  6. 5.

    Fairness Monkey fairness experiment

  7. 6.

    Self-control Marshmallow test—(funny)

  8. 7.

    Forgiveness The power of forgiveness—

  9. 8.

    Appreciation of Beauty Shawshank scene—

  10. 9.

    Gratitude Lily’s Disneyland surprise—

  11. 10.

    Meaning What’s makes a hero?

    1. B.

      TED Talks These have typically been shown before class.

  12. 1.

    Wisdom Our loss of wisdom by Barry Schwartz.

  13. 2.

    Creativity Do schools kill creativity? by Ken Robinson.

  14. 3.

    Courage Coming out of your closet by Ash Beckham.

  15. 4.

    Authenticity The power of vulnerability by Brené Brown.

  16. 5.

    Social Intelligence The social brain and its superpowers by Matt Lieberman.

  17. 6.

    Kindness The power of kindness by Johann Berlin.

  18. 7.

    Self-control Self control by Dan Ariely.

  19. 8.

    Forgiveness The power of forgiveness—by Sammie Rangel.

  20. 9.

    Gratitude Gratitude by Louis Schwartzberg.

  21. 10.

    Hope Prescribing hope by Allan Hamilton.

    1. C.

      Movies These have typically been recommended to illustrate VIA strengths.

  22. 1.

    Amelie (2001) Kindness, humor, creativity, love.

  23. 2.

    Freedom Writers (2007) Love of learning, hope, perseverance,

  24. 3.

    Good Will Hunting (1997) Hope, love, authenticity.

  25. 4.

    Happy (2011) Curiosity, love of learning, social intelligence.

  26. 5.

    Hidden Figures (2016) Courage, open-mindedness, fairness.

  27. 6.

    Invictus (2009) Forgiveness, leadership, wisdom.

  28. 7.

    Life is Beautiful (1997) Creativity, humor, vitality.

  29. 8.

    Nicky’s Family (2011) Gratitude, courage, humility.

  30. 9.

    The King’s Speech (2010) Creativity, humor, courage.

  31. 10.

    To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) Fairness, integrity, open-mindedness.

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Smith, B.W., Ford, C.G., Erickson, K. et al. The Effects of a Character Strength Focused Positive Psychology Course on Undergraduate Happiness and Well-Being. J Happiness Stud 22, 343–362 (2021).

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  • Well-being
  • Happiness
  • Strengths
  • Positive psychology
  • Teaching