Donnah Canavan Just Wants You to Be Happy

Donnah Canavan wants us to think happier. On a stool in her office stacked high with books and lined with eccentric items—an eight-foot tall twine giraffe, a finger-painted rocking chair, and 10 open Diet Cherry Coke cans scattered across the room, to name a few—Canavan explained that her signature course, Positive Psychology, attempts to get her students to practice positivity in a world that can often be negative and cynical.

She begins the course with a simple metric created to help frame when a person is actually healthy and happy. At the top of this mental health formula is flourishing, a level of health that is resilient to detriments. Much like a Teflon coating, a person who is flourishing is not only healthy, but stays that way when facing setbacks.

“When I begin the course, I ask ‘How many of you have ever used the word flourishing?’ and not many of them raise their hands,” she said. “But it really is a great term.”

Normally, she says, when students are learning about virtue, it tends to be boring and depressing. It doesn’t have to be, and Positive Psychology uses its two-and-a-half-hour, once-a-week seminar to dissect how learning about the concept of virtue does not have to be Aristotelian. To counteract this, Canavan uses engaging literature, such as Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson’s Character Strengths and Virtues. Despite its heavy title, Canavan says this book is actually fun to teach. It provides students with a framework that can be easily processed, using contemporary phrasing and thinking.

The course not only further impresses upon the students the value of positivity, but facilitates real-world job skills as well. Twice a semester, each student is required to present an in-depth examination of a psychological topic for the entirety of the seminar.

“I had a student ask me for a letter of recommendation so I had them send me a résumé,” she said. “When I saw it, it said ‘I became an expert on a topic and gave two, two-and-a-half-hour presentations,’ and I realized how valuable that could be to an employer.”

One of the key themes of the course is mindfulness, the idea of focusing completely on the present and nothing else. While mindfulness is often associated with monks and meditation, Canavan emphasizes that mindfulness can be practiced by anyone. When done with a positive attitude, it can lead a student to flourish.

The course also stresses elements of cognitive dissonance theory, which states, in short, that behaviors and attitudes are intricately tied and that the repeated performance of certain behaviors can lead to changes in attitude. With this in mind, Canavan says, positive behavior and mindfulness can lead to a positive attitude. This is the core of Canavan’s course—that a positive outlook coupled with mindfulness, positive behavior, and the practice of job skills leads to happy students and people.

Canavan also calls on students to question the core of why things are the way they are if they make people miserable. Citing Michael Moore’s documentary Where to Invade Next, which examines the various the social structures of various nations to determine how differing methods affect success and happiness, Canavan challenges her students and the people with whom she works to ask the most basic of questions, including, “How can we be happier while we do this?”

One example of the benefits of positivity that she gives is education. Finland and the United States used to have comparably-excellent education programs. Yet Finland is now number one in the world while the U.S. sits at about 30th. The difference? The Finnish abolished homework, encouraging students to spend time skiing, making art, and doing other alternative activities, according to Krista Kiuru, Finland’s Minister of Education. The Finnish have far more fun and are much happier in their studies while also achieving more. This strange dichotomy causes Moore to ask: Why haven’t more places adopted a ‘fun first’ educational strategy?

Canavan says prisons represent another effect of a negative attitude. In Sweden, prisoners are treated far better than in the U.S., serving shorter sentences in nicer prisons. The percentage of prisoners who return for another sentence in Sweden is practically null, while the recidivism rate for federal prisons in the U.S. is 44.7 percent within five years.

“In the United States, we think the best way to treat prisoners is to beat the hell out of them in solitary confinement,” Canavan said. “Sweden does it differently and the results speak for themselves.”

All of these aspects of her class, along with her eclectic collection of tchotchkes, lamps of every shape and size, and enough books on every topic to keep one occupied for years, make up Canavan’s continuing exploration of the ideal positive attitude.

“Ever since I started teaching this class,” she said, sitting next to her multiple portraits of Marilyn Monroe, “I realized that being happy was fun.”

Featured Image by Zoe Fanning / Heights Editor

Maddie Phelps

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