I Created a Class About Happiness and the Media: Here’s Why

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I Created a Class About Happiness and the Media

In my last past, I talked about happiness, the pandemic, and higher education. I shared that I built a class about happiness and the media. That class is called Happiness: Media versus Reality. I’ll be teaching it in the spring as a special topics class. In the below post, I’ll explain why I created the class.

Why a Class about Happiness and Media Use?

Young Americans are facing a mental health crisis. Between 2009 and 2019 “the share of high school students who reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40%, to more than 1 in 3 students.”  This crisis has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the area of mental health, some evidence suggests that young people have been particularly hit hard by the pandemic. According to a report by the office of the United States Surgeon General, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a doubling of depressive and anxiety symptoms among the global youth population.

Addressing the mental health needs of our students is a complex issue that reaches far beyond any one effort. I am not a mental health expert and I do not pretend to be one. A mental health crisis needs support from experts in mental health. But there is an area in need of exploration which we, as professors, can lend our credentials, position, and abilities to: The study of how we communicate about happiness.

The Dalai Lama stated: “I believe that the very purpose of life is to be happy.” But, as explained in Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness, much of the social scientific research points to the fact that often the things that make us happy are not the things that we think will make us happy. The things we think will make us happy don’t actually make us happy.

This contradiction presents a unique opportunity from the point of view of communication professors. While classes about happiness in psychology are increasingly common, there seems to be far fewer classes about happiness in communication (See: “ASU professors share how our relationships…,” and “College of communication’s Dr. Jessica Kamrath…“).

Yet, so much of what we learn about happiness is communicated to us, and much of it from the media we consume — whether through films, books, social media, or advertising.

Social media plays an outsized role in the lives of young people. Social media usage among adolescents is correlated with parents reporting that their adolescents display symptoms of anxiety and depression, among other mental health symptoms. Indeed, according to a Facebook (now Meta) whistleblower, Instagram is known to have negative mental health impacts on teen girls. To be clear, what contributes to the mental health crisis is complex, and the role the media may play is only part of a bigger story.

Since what we are communicated to through the media can impact how we perceive happiness, and how we use the media can impact our happiness, there is an opportunity to help students develop media literacy skills to better navigate the messages they receive about happiness.  Further, students can learn about the science of happiness to better equip themselves to make decisions that will positively impact their happiness. Taken together, there is an important opportunity for students to learn about the mismatch between what the media communicates will bring them happiness and what the science suggests will actually engender happiness.

So that’s why I created a class about happiness and the media. I’m really looking forward to teaching it in the spring.

Research on Media & Well-Being

Creating this class pushed me outside my area of expertise and helped me reflect upon the media through a new lens. It was a lot of reading and a ton of work! But, I really enjoyed exploring the growing field of media use and well-being and the work of scholars like Dr. Mary Beth Oliver.

Here are a handful of the sources that I found interesting while developing this class. Each examines some aspect of well-being and media use.

Barry, C. T., Sidoti, C. L., Briggs, S. M., Reiter, S. R., & Lindsey, R. A. (2017). Adolescent social media use and mental health from adolescent and parent perspectives. Journal of Adolescence, 61, 1-11.

Bartsch, A. (2012). Emotional gratification in entertainment experience. Why viewers of movies and television series find it rewarding to experience emotions. Media Psychology, 15(3), 267-302.

Buchanan, K., Aknin, L. B., Lotun, S., & Sandstrom, G. M. (2021). Brief exposure to social media during the COVID-19 pandemic: Doom-scrolling has negative emotional consequences, but kindness-scrolling does not. Plos one, 16(10), e0257728.

Dill‐Shackleford, K. E., Vinney, C., & Hopper‐Losenicky, K. (2016). Connecting the dots between fantasy and reality: The social psychology of our engagement with fictional narrative and its functional value. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 10(11), 634-646.

Hockley, L., & Fadina, J. (2015). The happiness illusion: How the media sold us a fairytale. East Sussex: Routledge.

Janicke, S. & Oliver, M.B. (2015). The relationship between elevation, connectedness, and compassionate love in meaningful films. Chapman University Digital Commons.

Kalpidou, M., Costin, D., & Morris, J. (2011). The relationship between Facebook and the well-being of undergraduate college students. Cyberpsychology. Behavior, and Social Networking, 14, 183–189. doi:10.1089/cyber.2010.0061.

Kim, J., & Lee, J. (2011). The Facebook paths to happiness: Effects of the number of Facebook friends and self-presentation on subjective well-being. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 6, 359–364. doi:10.1089/cyber.2010.0374.

Merrill, R. A., Cao, C., & Primack, B. A. (2022). Associations between social media use, personality structure, and development of depression. Journal of Affective Disorders Reports, 10, 100385.

Oliver, M. B. & Raney, A. (2008). Development of hedonic and eudaimonic measures of entertainment motivations: The role of affective and cognitive gratifications. Paper presented at the 58th Annual Conference of the International Communication Association, Montréal (Canada).

Oliver, M. B. & Raney, A. A. (2011). Entertainment as pleasurable and meaningful: Identifying hedonic and eudaimonic motivations for entertainment consumption. Journal of Communication, 61, 984–1004

Reinecke, L., & Oliver, M. B. (2017). The Routledge Handbook of media use and well-being: International perspectives on theory and research on positive media effects. New York: Routledge.

Twenge, J.M. (2019, March). The sad state of happiness in the United States and the role of digital media. The World Happiness Report. Retrieved from https://worldhappiness.report/ed/2019/the-sad-state-of-happiness-in-the-united-states-and-the-role-of-digital-media/

Wirth, W., Hofer, M., & Schramm, H. (2012). Beyond pleasure: Exploring the eudaimonic entertainment experience. Human Communication Research, 38(4), 406-428.

Wirtz, D., Tucker, A., Briggs, C., & Schoemann, A. M. (2021). How and why social media affect subjective well-being: Multi-site use and social comparison as predictors of change across time. Journal of Happiness Studies, 22(4), 1673-1691.

In a future post, I’ll share the course description and syllabus.

May you be happy.

– Matt



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