Something to Smile About

The world over, happiness is more about what we do than what we buy.

By Doug McPherson

Publish Date: January 30, 2014


“Many people believe that if they get that promotion or new car or
bigger house, then they’ll be happy," says MSU Denver Professor of
Psychology Mary Ann Watson. "It’s just not true in the long run.”
Illustration by: Pawel Joʼnca

Mary Ann Watson and Layton Curl are sitting in a sunbaked field in Ethiopia with tears in their eyes. They’re about 30 feet from a 12-foot by 12-foot structure made of sticks. In most places it would be a hut. But here, on the hard, open, eastern plains of Africa, it is a school.

“I walked up and they were just sitting there wiping their eyes,” says videographer Scott Houck, assistant director of the Educational Technology Media Center at MSU Denver. “I could tell they were overwhelmed, and they felt like they had to make things better for the kids. I think they were overwhelmed and encouraged at the same time.”

It was one of many moments the two MSU Denver psychology professors and their videographer shared while producing three videos about culture, happiness and altruism in a land where scientists say the roots of humanity took hold three million years ago.

You could call Watson the Steven Spielberg of educational films. For more than two decades, she’s been behind and in front of the video camera, sharing her findings in 17 award-winning documentaries with printed instructor guides. The films have been viewed more than 10,000 times and shown in university classrooms around the United States and Canada.

About 10 years ago, Watson enlisted Curl to help her with a video, and the two have been working together ever since.

Their films, funded mostly by small grants and modest royalties from past videos, offer students slices of the human condition through the lens of those who’ve been negatively stereotyped.

Janet Hyde, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin, has been showing Watson’s videos on Muslim women and rape survivors for a decade. “It would be difficult for me to bring in an actual victim of rape or several Muslim women,” Hyde says. “The students respond well to the videos; they stimulate important discussions.”

That’s music to Curl’s ears. “That’s exactly what we want. Textbooks are dry. Videos are more dynamic; they show real-world examples with real people in their own words. When we’re editing, we leave their words as they are.”

Those words have come from all kinds of folks: strippers, comedians, transgendered, gay, straight and everyone in between. Watson and Curl’s “Portraits in Human Sexuality” video series comes with a note to professors: “Warn students that these interviews may trigger strong emotional responses.”

Watson has been interested in different people and different cultures since she was a little girl growing up in southeastern Ohio.

She took her interest and ran with it, earning a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh and post-doctoral studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, specializing in sexology, thanatology and cultural diversity. She’s received two Fulbright-Hays teaching fellowships to study in Kenya and Egypt. She’s authored several texts, workbooks and numerous articles in professional journals.

Curl, chair of the MSU Denver Psychology Department, earned his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Mississippi and holds a master’s in experimental psychology, a bachelor’s in psychology and a diploma in Asian Studies from Kansai Gaidai University of Japan. His scholarship includes a half-dozen educational films, published peer- and editor-reviewed articles, and frequent peer-reviewed presentations covering a diverse range of psychological topics.

In their most recent work, Watson and Curl interviewed college students from Ethiopia, South Africa and the United States on positive psychology—a relatively new field of study that examines how to make life more fulfilling.

The findings? Not surprisingly, U.S. students often equate happiness with material goods (cars, clothes, jewelry, etc.) and individualism, while African students tend to find comfort in relationships, collaboration and access to education.

Both Curl and Watson say they came away with insights that reinforced their beliefs that individuals can do certain things, no matter what their culture, to become happier. “Happiness is more universal than you might think,” Curl says.

Watson agrees: “We know that about half of our outlook is genetic, what we’re born with. That leaves us with another half that’s changeable—with things we can actually do to be happier. That’s pretty significant.”

Among the actions humans can take for a jolt of joy: having a routine of exercise and sleep; being mindful of the present moment; socializing regularly with friends and family; being grateful; and helping others. And, in the United States, if you’re making less than $75,000, money can make you happier, but beyond that amount, not so much.

“We know that in the U.S., a salary of more than $75,000 doesn’t increase feelings of happiness,” says Curl. “In studies of lottery winners we see a kind of instant surge in happiness when they win the money, but within a few months they go back to the level of happiness they were at before they won. New cars and things give us a momentary blip of happiness, but it doesn’t last.”

Watson says a trap people in the United States often fall into is a kind of “if that, then” factor. “Many people believe that if they get that promotion or new car or bigger house, then they’ll be happy. It’s just not true in the long run.”

She summarizes three kinds of happiness: the pleasant life (what gives us momentary glee such as chocolate or sex), the engaged life (doing enjoyable activities such as hobbies and going on family vacations), and the meaningful life (experiencing gratitude and taking part in altruistic endeavors).

As it turns out, Watson’s own life is a pretty good example of that meaningful life. She does a lot more than just produce videos; she’s spent countless hours conducting book drives, gathering school supplies and raising money to build schools in impoverished regions.

In her Plaza Building office one day in December, Watson points to photos of her trips to those places. One 8x10 shows children dressed in rags, some barefoot, bathed in abject poverty. Yet they’re smiling. They’re standing next to a small cinderblock building framed above by an azure sky. It’s a school.

Watson stands in silence looking closely at the faces. “It’s not so much about the photos, it’s about the people and the experiences,” she says quietly.

On her face is a universal expression of joy: a smile.