The Composition of Happiness: Assessing the Rhetoric & Reality of Well-Being

Ever wonder what happiness really is? In this English and Human Services learning community, you’ll explore–from pop culture, positive psychology, and social services perspectives–what makes individuals and communities flourish or flounder.

This Learning Community is made up of one cohort of freshman in two first year courses: Professor Jill Bell’s ENG 1101 (English Composition I) & Professor Justine Pawlukewicz’s HUS 1101 (Introduction to Human Services).

In English Composition I (ENG 1101), we will work our way through the complex and contradictory nature of “happiness,” exploring abstract concepts (such as virtue, value, freedom, and progress), zooming in to study individual needs and desires (and the ways in which these are both created by and marketed to by things such as popular culture, advertising, and self-help products), exploring the “science of happiness” as defined by the expanding field of positive psychology, and finally broadening our gaze to engage contemporary measurements of well-being and applications of it in areas such as social media, digital technologies, city planning, economic policies, and educational curricula.

Throughout the course, we will engage “happiness” as a discourse (the rhetoric of happiness) that both circulates in and helps create our world and ourselves, and we will move from merely personal visions and/or cultural stereotypes of happiness to more critical, theoretically grounded perspectives on the subject. We will ask many questions about happiness/well-being, such as:

  • Why does studying/thinking critically about happiness matter?
  • How do we (and others) define happiness?
  • Are visions of happiness the same for everyone?
  • What values do these visions of happiness endorse (perhaps implicitly)?
  • How is happiness represented in various places, such as in the media, popular culture, advertising, schools, the government?
  • What do these representations teach us about what we should/should not desire, what we should/should not value, what type of people we should/should not be, and what type of actions we should/should not take?
  • Who gets to decide what happiness should look like?
  • Is happiness measurable?
  • How do you plan for/create happiness, both at the individual and the social level?
  • Is there equal access to happiness (or even the possibility of happiness)?
  • Perhaps counter-intuitively: Is happiness (as defined by mainstream rhetoric/politics) even desirable? If not, how we might we imagine alternative visions of/methods for happiness/well-being?

Since this is a composition course, we will never leave writing out of the picture: all class meetings will be devoted in part to writing, revising, and/or discussing ideas and drafts. One segment of the course centers on a collaborative class poster and presentation (with HUS 1101) on the theme of well-being in our learning community. The final section of the course will be devoted to individual research projects.


Introduction to Human Services (HUS 1101) focuses on the assessment of individuals, families, groups and communities in terms of level of functioning. These include elements of resilience, self-sufficiency, developmental milestones and systems theory within the current social and political climate. How they impact the state of well-being is paramount for the professional intervention of prevention, clinical treatment, rehabilitation, delivery of human services and the design of public health initiatives.

Read more about the students and faculty in this learning community!