news-category: Academics

Students in Gardner-Webb’s Positive Psychology Course Spread Happiness Across Campus  

Dr. James Morgan and a student in his class
A student in Dr. James Morgan's class gives him one of the gratitude notes from her group's project.

After Studying Theories and Research, Groups Engage Others in Uplifting Exercises

BOILING SPRINGS, N.C.—The field of Positive Psychology emerged in 2000 with an article written by American Psychological Association President Dr. Martin Seligman. He proposed a new approach to psychological research. Instead of only focusing on what’s wrong with a person, psychologists should study what’s right with a person.

On Gardner-Webb University’s campus, Professor Dr. James Morgan introduced a seminar on Positive Psychology in 2009. In the years since, the seminar has grown into a popular course with two sections offered every spring. Morgan, who now serves as chair of the Department of Psychological Science, created the content, which includes a unique application of the material students learn. He and Dr. Iva Naydenova teach the course.

Morgan explained the concept, “Positive psychology is a research-oriented field, envisioned to help us better understand what’s involved in living a good life, a life in which we can flourish and the factors that contribute to that.”

a photo of Juliette Ratchford
Dr. Juliette Ratchford

His former student, Dr. Juliette Ratchford, has become one of the leading researchers in the field of Positive Psychology. She is a post-doctoral fellow at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. She graduated from Gardner-Webb in 2016 with her Bachelor of Arts in psychology with a minor in classical languages. Ratchford earned her master’s degree from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.  She received her Ph.D. degree in social psychology from Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where she also served as a post-doctoral fellow. She is the co-author of numerous articles and recently co-authored a chapter in the “Handbook of Positive Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality.” (Available here.)

Other Gardner-Webb alumni also work in the field, and student feedback on the course proves the significant impacts of Positive Psychology. “They have talked about how this course is a transformational kind of course for them,” Morgan affirmed. “Because it’s helped them learn an entirely new way of thinking about themselves, their relationships, their life — what matters and their future. This is one of the things that’s very exciting for us about teaching the course; it’s one of those courses that can really make a difference for the student. In the beginning, the students complete a survey on their strengths — the Values in Action Survey. Throughout the semester, they pick one of their strengths every week and work on developing it.”

This exercise and others apply the Positive Psychology theories the students are studying and are designed to help them have a greater sense of well-being, happiness and fulfillment in their lives. Then, the students create a final group project that puts into action Positive Psychology constructs or theories to generate uplifting emotions and a sense of fulfillment within other students on campus.

A few of the projects in Morgan’s class this semester included showing gratitude, sharing words of affirmation, displaying resilience, being kind, and practicing spirituality.

One group set up a table in Tucker Student Center with two small mailboxes, pens and markers. They made a poster describing how gratitude affects a person’s emotions. Those who stopped by the table took a note that expressed gratitude from one mailbox, then wrote down what they were thankful for on a blank piece of paper and placed their note in the second mailbox. The students who developed the project experienced the positive emotion of giving gratitude, and the people who stopped by the table also walked away feeling cheerful.

One student said, “Thinking of the positive words to write at the beginning of our project gave us the opportunity to actually reflect and think about and appreciate the things that we’re grateful for. Then, after gratitude was expressed to our receivers, they were encouraged to write down their own positive words, which gave them the opportunity to think about and appreciate the things that they were grateful for, too. So, it positively affected us both.”

For the project on resilience, the students decided to create a survey for nursing students asking them about their ability to persevere through the COVID 19 pandemic. The psychology students discovered that many of the nursing students who took the survey didn’t see themselves as resilient. The nursing students appreciated that someone took an interest in them. “A lot of them were uplifted after taking the survey. We were able to say to them, ‘Hey, you really have overcome a lot, and you powered through and you had perseverance.’ So, we kind of realized our own resilience by exposing people to theirs.”     

Gardner-Webb University is North Carolina’s recognized leader in private, Christian higher education. A Carnegie-Classified Doctoral/Professional University, GWU is home to nine colleges and schools, more than 80 undergraduate and graduate majors, and a world-class faculty. Located on a beautiful 225-acre campus in Boiling Springs, N.C., Gardner-Webb prepares graduates to impact their chosen professions, equips them with the skills to advance the frontiers of knowledge, and inspires them to make a positive and lasting difference in the lives of others. Ignite your future at

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