Students Investigate Happiness in Hamilton and Elation in Iceland

Back to All Stories

What inspires true happiness? How can we be happier? These are questions that have perplexed and fascinated for centuries, and for the last year, they are questions that Professor Rebecca Shiner and 17 of her students have been working to answer.

The group’s efforts to uncover the secrets to happiness began in the fall of 2021 with a quarter-credit class and continued in spring 2022 with a sophomore residential seminar titled The Good Life: Perspectives from Psychological Science. In these classes, students learned about the study of happiness and well-being through both current psychological research and personal experience.

Exercises included weeklong “happiness interventions,” in which students took actions to improve some aspect of their well-being. In total, the class completed 10 interventions, ranging from gratitude journaling to exercising to complimenting strangers and friends.

“For my students to realize that simple changes can genuinely improve their lives is a powerful thing,” says Shiner.

The group’s studies were not confined to Hamilton. In May, they set out on a whirlwind seven-day trip through Iceland, one of the happiest countries in the world.

Led by Professor Shiner and Associate University Chaplain Mark Shiner, they spent two days in and around Reykjavík, visiting some of the most popular tourist destinations — the Sky Lagoon, where they covered themselves in healing clay, and the National Museum of Iceland, where they learned of the country’s rich history.

They also interacted with the locals and gained a better understanding of why Icelanders are famed for being some of the happiest people in the world. One reason: People in Iceland often do not stick with one career path or job field. 

“It really challenged my perspective of work — that when you choose a career path, you’re on that path for life. Or if you change career paths, it means you failed in the previous field,” says Ellie Markwick ’24. “It was freeing to know that changing careers is something that is not only possible but normalized in certain parts of the world.”

Halfway through the trip, the class left Iceland’s towns and cities behind and ventured to the highlands of Þórsmörk, Thor’s valley. This mythic place is the setting of much Icelandic folklore for good reason. It is largely uninhabited, without paved roads, and the landscape is ever-changing, due to shifting streams and rivers.

So the travelers donned hiking gear (and one costume viking helmet), and, led by their experienced guide Magnus, entered the highlands in Super Jeeps, capable of traversing the rough terrain. After a long and bumpy ride, the adventure continued with a hike across streams, through rock fields, and, finally, to a hidden waterfall, sheltered between moss-covered cliffs. The day concluded with a blazing bonfire, a hearty meal, and a guitar singalong by the fire.

“Professor Shiner taught us that experiencing awe can boost mental health and creativity, and I think I can speak for everyone in my class when I say that we were all constantly in awe while exploring Iceland’s natural wonders,” says Markwick.

“Happiness is vital,” Prof. Shiner says, “and I hope my students come away a little more equipped to create and keep their own happiness.”

Future SRS programs include trips to Puerto Rico, Namibia, and numerous locations in the United States. All first-year students are invited to apply.