What Do You Want Out of Life? A New Class on Happiness

Portrait of Valerie Tiberius

Have you ever wondered what happiness looks like? Professor Valerie Tiberius is offering a new course in fall 2023 to help her students answer this very question. The happiness course is about the connections we make and the values we hold dear. Students looking to learn pragmatic approaches to their health and future may find this class right up their alley.

From Talk to Practice

Tiberius has been a professor at the University of Minnesota for 25 years. Well-known for teaching ethics and making connections between philosophy and psychology, she’s made a home and name for herself in the philosophy department. But after many years of teaching the same courses, it was time for something a little different. 

“In my Introduction to Ethics class, I always teach a component on happiness and well-being,” Tiberius explains, “but I wanted to do something more practical.” For a topic as broad and thought-provoking as happiness, a few weeks didn’t feel like enough. The idea of an entire course on the subject was appealing. 

John Coleman, dean of the College of Liberal Arts (CLA), has long championed the idea. “Over the years,” Tiberius says, “he’s sent me emails about similar classes offered at other schools—like the one at Yale—and asked, ‘could we do something like that here?’” Now PHIL 3760 - What Do You Want out of Life, and What Should You? Is the inaugural course in the Dean's Discovery Series.

Tiberius has been involved in the study of well-being for the last decade. Her research is about the values and connections that make us happy, and last December she published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about figuring out what matters most. After dedicating her career to the subject, Tiberius was more than ready to teach her students about the many approaches to happiness.

It’s a noteworthy topic of interest, especially for this generation of students. “I think the pandemic was kind of a catalyst for [the creation of this class] because it revealed the mental health crisis for college students,” she says. A standard ethics class was not enough for Tiberius anymore. Not when it came to her students’ welfare and comfort.

“How do you make yourself happier? What does it mean to live a good life? Is there a way to teach a course that’s about these types of questions?” Tiberius asked herself. From this, the happiness course was born. 

Life Labs

A non-traditional subject requires a non-traditional teaching style. Because of this, the happiness course will be more hands-on than most other classes. Students should expect to learn many different practices of cultivating happiness, like mindfulness and gratitude. But they won’t just be learning from lectures and discussions. “It’s not going to be a standard philosophy class where you write philosophy papers,” Tiberius notes, “instead, it’s going to be a little bit more experimental.” 

The most interesting aspect of the class will be what Tiberius calls “life labs.” This involves students taking what they’ve learned, applying it to their lives, and reflecting on whether or not it worked for them. Students will be engaging with the materials and practicing their suggestions on a daily basis. The aim is that students will walk away with a satisfying approach to fostering happiness.

“We’ll try a bunch of different things in the class, but my hope is that students will find something that’s helpful in the long term,” Tiberius says.

Some of the practices and theories in the course can be found in Tiberius’s most recent publication. Her new book called What Do You Want Out of Life? A Philosophical Guide to Figuring Out What Matters, describes her approach and study to well-being, called the value-fulfillment theory, which informs the course.

“To live well is to have commitment to a set of values that are suitable to who you are as a person,” Tiberius explains, “so the course is organized around what we value, and what are the best values for people who want to live a good life and be happy?” 

What Really Matters

In the end, the new happiness course is an opportunity for Tiberius and her students to connect over their versions of a good life. For her, it’s also a chance to cultivate an even better relationship with her students than before; especially in the aftermath of the pandemic. “I teach a lot of large classes,” Tiberius says, “and it can be hard to connect with each other due to the large audience. I’m hoping that can change.” 

Large classes attract multiple perspectives to the table as well. And while differing opinions often don’t harmonize, in this course, it opens the door for discussion. “The hope is to create an environment in which students are comfortable to talk about their own experiences,” Tiberius says, “and how they connect to the things we’re reading.”

The course itself is ready for registration for fall of 2023. That’s plenty of time for students to sign up and rallying their own thoughts on happiness before the class starts. Tiberius is more than ready to open some minds to the importance of values and fulfillment. “One of the things I hope students will walk away with,” Tiberius says, “is that it’s important to be clear about what really matters.”

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