Consuming Happiness

“I’ll buy you a diamond ring my friend if it makes you feel alright,
I’ll get you anything my friend if it makes you feel alright”

Can’t Buy Me Love – Lennon/McCartney, 1964


Launched in Fall 2014 by sociologist Dr. Christine Whelan, Consuming Happiness course has quickly become one of the most talked-about classes on the campus. Whelan researches and writes on changing dating and marriage patterns, and how those “norms” are right now shaping young adults in college.

Dr. Whelan recently sat down with Linda Zwicker to talk about the class, why it’s relevant and reveals what makes her happy.

What inspired you to teach this class?

As the saying goes, you can’t buy happiness–but in modern America, we certainly try. From buying a self-help book to charitable giving, from goods to services, from spending to saving, how do we use the consumer economy (successfully and unsuccessfully) to boost our well-being?

What do you hope students will take away from this course?

Happiness is a complicated word: Flourishing, thriving and well-being is more what we’re all seeking — but to get there often requires delayed gratification and saying no to hedonic happiness in the moment. Pro-social spending, experiences and socially conscious can boost individual and collective happiness – this course shows how.

Have you found that there is one topic or activity in particular that seems to engage or excite students?

I teach this class on two levels – as an academic course with the same rigor and expectations for student participation as any of the social science courses, and at the same time, we explore how students can to apply this to their own lives, beyond the classroom. New research into the field points to a correlation between positive emotions and resiliency and broader thinking – that’s essential for life after graduation.

I believe in using pop-culture — self-help books, reality TV, etc. — as teaching tools. By offering real and relevant material, underpinned by solid research, everyone is a participant — and I get to learn from the students, too. It’s a two-way relationship

Who can take this course?

This course is open to all UW-Madison students, and so far it’s mostly juniors and seniors in SoHE.  I’d like to expand it to the University as a whole: With an interdisciplinary approach, plus L&S, Social Science credit and a cross-listing in Religious Studies, it’s a good fit for students in many disciplines.

Has teaching this class given you any surprising or unexpected learnings?

My approach to teaching comes from Seneca: “Not for school, but for life we learn.” This class applies that in spades, and I’m thrilled to see students engaging with the material with gusto. What surprised and delighted me most? The heartfelt thank-you notes I received at the end of the class. It’s an honor to teach material that has such a profound impact on young-adult lives.

Where do you see this course headed?

I’d like to expand the course to reach more students across disciplines within the University, while at the same time keeping the personal feel and connection.  It’s getting a reputation as “the Happy Class,” and that makes me… happy!


Dr. Christine B. Whelan is a faculty member in the Department of Consumer Science. She received her doctorate from the University of Oxford, graduated magna cum laude from Princeton and is the director of the MORE (Money, Relationships, and Equality) initiative in the School of Human Ecology.  In partnership with the Center for Financial Security, Dr. Whelan teaches and conducts research on topics of self-improvement, gender, relationships formation and purpose throughout the life course.


For more information about this course and others like it, please contact:

Advising & Career Center (ACC)
School of Human Ecology (SoHE)
1194 Nancy Nicholas Hall
Fetzer Center for Student Excellence
1300 Linden Drive, Madison, WI 53706
Phone: (608) 262-2608
Fax: (608) 265-3616

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