Tim Bono: 2011 Outstanding Graduate in the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Pursuing the science of happiness

Bono, who arrived on campus 10 years ago as an undergraduate, is going to put his research on the science of happiness and his PhD to good use as assistant dean for student services program assessment at WUSTL.
Bono, who arrived on campus 10 years ago as an undergraduate, is going to put his research on the science of happiness and his PhD to good use as assistant dean for student services program assessment at WUSTL.

Ten years to the day after Tim Bono first stepped foot on campus as an admitted high school senior, he was seated at the dining room table in the Alumni House defending his doctoral dissertation.

Bono, who will receive a doctorate in psychology at the May 20 Commencement, first sat at that table in 2001 as a finalist for an undergraduate scholarship.

This year, after comparing the schedules of the six faculty members on his defense committee, March 31 was selected as the day. When he realized it would be exactly 10 years, he asked a staff member in Alumni & Development if he could use the dining room.

“I’m a sentimental person and there’s no apology for that,” says Bono, a native St. Louisan who completed his undergraduate degree in 2005. “Growing up, I never imagined I’d have an opportunity to attend a private university — let alone one of this caliber — so receiving a scholarship to come here was quite a thrill. I still feel so fortunate to be here.”

Bono was the model of an engaged student as both an undergraduate and a graduate student, serving in a myriad of roles, including most notably as the graduate student representative to the Board of Trustees and to the search committee for the dean of the faculty of Arts & Sciences. But that doesn’t mean things didn’t start off a little rocky.

“The high school I attended wasn’t especially rigorous, so at first the level of academic challenge here was a bit overwhelming. But I made it somehow,” says Bono, who also went on to make the dean’s list all eight semesters and graduate summa cum laude. “And I think it was because of the support I received and the opportunities I had to become engaged in the university community.”

And so a seed was sown for his graduate work. Bono’s dissertation investigates predictors of academic performance and university satisfaction among undergraduates at WUSTL and looks at aspects of undergraduate life such as academic and co-curricular engagement, happiness, social support and regret.

“What we’re finding is that when students come in, there are some things about their personalities that push them in one direction or another in terms of academic performance and their satisfaction with the university,” says Bono, whose dissertation was guided by Randy Larsen, PhD, chair of the Department of Psychology in Arts & Sciences.

“But it’s also a matter of, once they’re here, how much they get involved and what kind of a support system they develop.”

The past three years, Bono has taught a freshman psychology course with Larsen and, as part of the class, students completed weekly surveys gauging their transition to college life. Bono then tracked the students for several years to see what predicts academic and social success in college.

“Tim has a passionate interest in college students and in understanding the changes they go through during the college years,” says Larsen, the William R. Stuckenberg Professor of Human Values and Moral Development.

“He is an outstanding teacher, even earning higher student evaluations than me, and I’ve been at this for 25 years! His research has important implications for the kinds of programming services colleges and universities can provide to their students in order to facilitate success.”

Following Commencement, Bono isn’t going very far. He has accepted a position on campus as an assistant dean for student services program assessment, where he’ll be putting his research to work and building an assessment program for Campus Life and the First Year Center.

He’ll also be teaching and doing research in the psychology department. The research that Bono and Larsen perform is based on the relatively new field of positive psychology.

“It’s the science of happiness, essentially,” says Bono, who frequently gives talks on and off campus on the subject. “It’s taking a scientific approach to the question, ‘How do we build a life of meaning and purpose?’ ”