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Degrees of Happiness

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by Kathryn Levy Feldman
May | June 2010

In Penn’s intensive one-year master's program in applied positive psychology, working professionals from more than a dozen countries and a staggering range of fields come to learn how to “add to the tonnage of happiness in the world.”

A kidney-transplant surgeon, a public health advisor for the CDC, an orthodontist, a nurse-educator, the managing director of Credit-Suisse, a former Catholic priest, a UN civilian peacekeeper in the Sudan, and a professional comedian walk into … well, a profoundly life-changing experience.

It may sound like the opening of a (very complicated) joke, but this is no laughing matter—it’s all about the serious business of adding to the world’s happiness by applying the tenets of positive psychology.

The list above is just a sampling of the professions represented among the 150 or so graduates of Penn’s master’s degree program in applied positive psychology (MAPP). (The professional comedian, by the way, is Yakov Smirnoff CGS’06—perhaps best known for his role in Moscow on the Hudson with Robin Williams, and the catchphrase “What a country!”—who currently performs at his own theater in Branson, Missouri.) Dozens more MAPP graduates teach or are administrators at elementary and secondary schools. About 20 percent have changed careers after completing the program, becoming consultants, coaches, and motivational speakers. MAPP alumni are working to incorporate the principles of positive psychology into law, business, education, medicine, politics, engineering, the arts, even the military—pretty remarkable considering that the field itself has only been around for a dozen years or so and the MAPP program is just now celebrating its fifth anniversary.

Penn’s is the first master’s degree in positive psychology—which makes sense, since the discipline is generally recognized as the brainchild of the University’s own Martin Seligman Gr’67, the Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology, who advocated for it as a counterweight to the profession’s focus on mental illness during his term as president of the American Psychological Association in 1998, and whose research forms much of its intellectual backbone [“Martin Seligman’s Journey from Learned Helplessness to Learned Happiness,” Jan|Feb 1999].

The website of the Penn Positive Psychology Center, which Seligman directs, defines the discipline as “the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive.” The master’s program focuses both on the theory behind positive psychology and on how it can be applied in various professional contexts.

“We take the ‘A’ [for] ‘applied’ very seriously, although we don’t specify how to do so,” says MAPP’s James Pawelski, director of education and senior scholar. “We give our students the tools to bring about change, but it is up to them to apply these tools in their particular areas of expertise.”

The program’s target audience is working professionals, and the majority of graduates—about 60 percent—return to their original fields, but with fresh insights and added value. “It is not a profession-specific degree,” explains Deborah Swick, associate director of education. “Once you learn about the science with cumulative research behind it, you are worth more to your organization. Many people get promotions or take their businesses in new directions.”

“It was the richest academic experience of my life,” says 30-year-old Sasha Heinz CGS’06, who earned an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a MAPP in 2006, and is currently pursuing a doctorate in psychology at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “Our professors were the best of the best—the heads of departments all over the country—and the amount of time they took with us was extraordinary.”

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