The Wellness Lab is a multidisciplinary exploration of the scientific study of human flourishing. We curated these resources with the intention of creating a culture of health and wellness. Specifically, we draw from the academic study of happiness as explored in the humanities, specifically psychology, philosophy, religious studies, cultural studies, history, and law. We also utilize empirical research in the sciences, such as positive psychology, neuroscience, and biology. The content of what you will study in the Wellness Lab mirrors how it is taught by drawing upon teaching methods used in resiliency education. Ultimately, the Wellness Lab provides you with the tools to study of how humans organize themselves, their internal lives, their relationships, and their environments, communally and globally. We hope these resources will contribute to your own sense of happiness and wellbeing.
In March 2020, education institutions around the world helped prevent the spread of the coronavirus by moving all in-person courses online. Students left their dorm rooms and the ordinarily bustling campuses came to a halt.
It was in this context that Dr. Nathan C. Walker realized that he could not continue to teach his course Religion & Human Rights in the same way. Normally, he would ask his students at Rutgers Honors College to study violence and human rights abuses. But in the context of the coronavirus, he wondered whether this content too triggering for students who were now sheltering in place. The world was facing extreme economic uncertainties, while local and global medical systems were being overwhelmed.
In these alarming times, Walker crafted a new unit called resiliency training. Rather than continue with the human rights syllabus, Rutgers students met with him via Zoom to study the science of happiness. They explored the skills and character traits that have aided individuals and groups to rebound from setbacks.
Put simply, they paused the formal curriculum to address the conditions in which we were living and learning while practicing social distancing. It was in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic that ReligionAndPublicLife.com and its Wellness Lab were born.
“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—words etched into history when the Declaration of Independence gave birth to a nation free from colonial rule. Is liberty a precondition for the pursuit of happiness? Or can happiness be achieved amidst oppression and inequality? Is there a systematic way to pass from one generation to the next tools for cultivating a good life, regardless of our particular circumstances? How might institutions, governments, cultures promote norms and laws to maximize the wellbeing of the people held in their care?
We designed the Wellness Lab to promote the academic understanding of happiness, ultimately demonstrating that not only can happiness be studied but it can be taught. Research shows that happiness can be experienced in the midst of isolation, adversity, trauma, and loss. This does not excuse preventable suffering. It does, however, help explain something about the human condition.
Human flourishing, resilience, well-being, and contentment are not mere fleeting experiences that happen to the lucky. They are virtues, practices, and social patterns that can be cultivated throughout our days as individuals and a global society.
For instance, we can curate a rich internal life. We can frame how to think, feel, believe, and what to do about and with our environments. We can choose what food and information to consume, what relationships to maintain, what work to do, and how to live, and with whom. We can make meaning about the systems that hold us together through all life’s transitions and transformations, from family, religion, government, society, and history.
If such a pursuit is to be experienced at the deepest levels of our lives, it must be studied and taught with the intent to benefit oneself and others. In that spirit, we want to welcome you to the Wellness Lab.
~ Dr. Nathan C. Walker, April 2020
How do we think about happiness, well-being, and human flourishing? What makes a good life? How might our answer reflect the values that stem from our core identities? What does measuring our emotional responses and cognitive decisions reveal about our subjective well-being?
Are feelings experiences that just happen to us? Or do we have some agency in the matter? Empirical studies teach us that our thoughts and behaviors can influence our emotional state. In this unit, we will examine the form, function, and mechanism of emotions. Then we will study how to develop emotional intelligence so as to cultivate our self-worth and well-being.
What beliefs do we hold about the pursuit of happiness? What is the nature and significance of these ideas and how might we be seduced by false notions? How might these positive and negative beliefs about happiness be related to how we conceive of and relate to unhappiness and suffering?
Does the nature of our work determine our experience of happiness or might our understanding of happiness determine our experience of work? How do we understand happiness in times of unemployment or underemployment? What spiritual practices inform people’s everyday “doings”—the activities that engage them and transform their states of being?
It matters how we organize ourselves. Our laws serve as one mirror into what and who we value. Economic investments may say more about the investor than what is being invested. In this unit, we will explore research on the societal, legal, and economic factors that influence human flourishing. What are the social conditions that promote well-being? How might legal systems, which are often mirrors into the values of the powerful, proclaim not mere equality but also equity?
The promise of economic benefits drives education. If you get this training, you can earn this amount of money over your lifetime, colleges say. If you come to our campus, with its Olympic sized swimming pool and high-tech dorms, then you will be happy. What if education was less about advertising happiness and more about cultivating the character traits needed to experience a sense of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment?
We are social creatures. The quality and strength of our close relationships and support systems are essential to the practice of resiliency. Our partners, friends, family, colleagues play an important role in helping us make meaning of and recovering from setbacks. They collectively provide us a sense of mattering and belonging. Aware that social support can be life-saving, how might we strengthen our relationships and support systems so as to help others?
Like changing weather patterns, our internal lives and external conditions are in constant flux. How can we participate as agents of change to optimize our sense of self-worth and purpose? What meaning can we make about the changes and how can such insights provide us a blueprint for us to positively change from the inside out and the outside in?
“Happiness is timeless,” writes the editors of The Oxford Handbook of Happiness. “As contributors to the handbook show, people throughout history have investigated and pursued happiness. Still, with the emergence of positive psychology, as well as developments in the biological and sociological sciences, happiness theory and research have gained momentum.”
Having spent this exploring the findings presented in the Wellness Lab, what sense do you make about the future directions of the academic field of happiness? What might their research agenda say about the human desire to be happy, well, and whole?
Beyond the developments in the field, consider also the personal. What is the future for your own sense of happiness? How do you imagine flourishing in your lifetime? What internal practices, resources, and virtues will you employ to promote a sense of well-being for yourself and those held in your care? Where will you go from there? What type of life do you wish to create and co-create with others? And how might adversity, set-backs, loss, suffering, and unmet expectations become opportunities to embrace ambiguity with maturity? How might the art of meaning-making give us a sense of agency in times when we do not have control over our circumstances? The questions we ponder today and in the future join with a chorus of seekers who have come before us, collectively pondering the timely and timeless desire to pursue happiness.