Pitt faculty members present new ‘Happiness and Human Flourishing’ course for spring semester


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A card with a smiley face is reflected in a display.

By Toni Jackson, Staff Writer

After teaching courses on mental health in their respective departments, three Pitt professors, Grant Martsolf, Ryan McDermott and David Sanchez, set out to create an intersectional course promoting happiness for students’ professional and personal lives. 

“We always talk about interdisciplinary research in the academy, but it doesn’t really happen all that much,” Martsolf, a professor in the School of Nursing, said. “One thing we’re thinking is, what would it look like if the point of [Nursing, Engineering and English] was to promote human flourishing? How might that create a context in which we can work together to contemplate that which is good, true and beautiful.” 

“Happiness and Human Flourishing” (NUR 1014/ENGR 1711) launches next spring. Per the course description, the three-credit class will discuss “conceptions of happiness,” as well as “the pre-conditions necessary to promote human flourishing.” Beyond this, the class will focus on how the topics studied relate to students’ personal lives in order to create their own flourishing life.

Martsolf, McDermott and Sanchez are close friends, and the idea of the course stemmed from a passion for their students’ mental health. The three have all taught similar courses before, such as Health Policy and Human Flourishing.

Sanchez, a professor in the School of Engineering, said he believes that the professors’ respective departments all have the same unified goal of wanting to create an improved and happier world. 

“At the heart of it, much of it is often geared implicitly toward human flourishing,” Sanchez said. “The absence of disease would help us move forward, the efficiency of technology would help us live a higher quality of life, the ability to contemplate art and beauty in literature would help us flourish — and that’s the defining piece.”

Because intersectionality is a core component of the course, McDermott, an English professor, emphasized that students of all disciplines are welcome and get the chance to relate the class to their own lives and interests. 

“We’re targeting any student, which statistically would be 90% of students, who has themselves experienced challenges with happiness or someone close to them … has experienced any kind of mental health issues,” McDermott said. “It’s exciting to be able to take a step back from particular disciplines … and ask how do the things I’m studying and how do the things I might end up doing professionally one day contribute to human flourishing.”

McDermott added that because Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Ann E. Cudd announced 2022-23 as the “Year of Emotional Well Being,” it’s the perfect time to introduce the course to students.

“We take a very positive approach to emotional well-being, and that is not asking, ‘How do we fix what’s wrong?’ but asking what we can do to really foster emotional resilience and psychological well-being,” McDermott said. 

Similarly, Martsolf said due to a mental health crisis among both students and young adults in general, it’s important for students not to solely think about academics, but also their place in a rapidly evolving world where their relationships with each other frequently change.

“We know there’s a mental health crisis … for anyone born after about 1998 there are huge rates of depression, loneliness, anxiety, suicide, and it concerns us because we love our students,” Martsolf said. “We try to help students with these big questions of ‘Why is my life meaningful?’ It’s an academic thing in terms of our research, but at the same time it helps students really think hard about their lives and how we can be happy.”

As for the course content, in one assignment students will interview someone from a different generation based on what the students have learned at that point in the course. McDermott used this assignment in a previous course, and received positive results. 

“It really brings out these profound conversations. Often students choose to interview a grandparent or parent or someone in their own family, and they often come back and say, ‘That’s the deepest conversation that I’ve ever had with that person,’” McDermott said. “It really brings out some new insights for the students and often the person they’re interviewing.” 

No matter the assignment, all three professors said they hope that students will enter the class with an open mind and exit the class with knowledge on how to enhance their lives and the lives of others around them. 

“The intellectual foundation is critical because once you have that then you actually start to form, in a very personal way, that framework for life, that framework for flourishing. Which is really important,” Sanchez said. “This class not only has a lifetime warranty, but [also answers] a lifetime call that everyone has of, ‘Well, how do I pursue happiness?’