As positive psychology research shows, it’s not material goods that make our lives rich and fulfilling, but rather work, love, play and service to others. Reminding students of that notion is the focus of the University of Michigan’s fall semester. The school is hosting special courses, workshops, lectures and other events under the theme of “What makes life worth living?”

“We want to get people out of their heads, into their bodies and into the world,” says Christopher Peterson, PhD, who is helping direct the theme semester along with psychology professor Nansook Park, PhD, and political science professor John Chamberlain, PhD.

Theme semesters are held once a year at the university and have included China and Brown v. Board of Education. Peterson proposed this year’s topic as a way to teach students about positive psychology and think about what truly makes them happy.

Speakers will include David Levin, co-founder of the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) charter school network, who will talk about service opportunities, and Sister Helen Prejean, the nun featured in the movie “Dead Man Walking,” who will speak about her work with death-row inmates. Psychologists Martin Seligman, PhD, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD, and Dacher Keltner, PhD, will visit the campus and speak to the theme. More than 100 courses offered throughout the university’s College of Literature, Science and Arts are weaving in tenets of positive psychology or otherwise addressing the theme, adds Peterson.

Organizers are also celebrating the 50-year anniversary of the announcement of the Peace Corps, which John F. Kennedy mentioned for the first time at a speech on the steps of the university’s student union on Oct. 14, 1960.

On the cultural side, the university will host art and poetry competitions around the theme, and student dance groups will offer workshops and free performances. The school hopes to partner with restaurateurs to host cooking classes, and with local museums to offer workshops on art and art history. Peterson and other organizers are also planning workshops on how students can best appreciate local culture when they study abroad, as well as to highlight an “alternative spring break” that involves service.

“There is, of course, no single answer to the question of what makes life worth living,” says Peterson. “Our hope is to underscore the importance of the question and the variety of possible answers.”

—J. Chamberlin