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Five Questions with Dr. Joel Vallett

Joel Vollett

In our “Five Questions” feature we ask scholars, activists, and public officials five short questions about their work (and other things).

Joel Vallett is on the faculty at Southern Utah University (SUU) and teaches in the Master of Public Administration (MPA) program. Joel teaches courses in Ethics, Research Methods, and Comparative Policy. His research interests center around policy incentives as a driving force for policy implementation, success, and ethical decision-making. Joel has continued to implement elements of the science of happiness in his courses and looks forward to helping his students develop into committed public administrators.

You’ve been busy since completing your Ph.D. at Boise State. How did your Ph.D. prepare you for what you’re doing now?
My Ph.D. at Boise State has been foundational to where I am right now in my career. When I look at my current research agenda and teaching, it all goes back to what I was doing at Boise State. For example, as I was completing my dissertation, I had the opportunity to teach a research methods course. Dr. Luke Fowler suggested that being able to teach this course would differentiate me from other candidates when I moved into the job market. He ended up being exactly right. I am confident that my teaching experience at Boise State, particularly in research methods, was one of the key factors helping me get the position I have now.

Luckily for me, this teaching example is just one of many. The research from my dissertation has also provided me with multiple publications, including a solo article with a top policy journal that has helped me advance in the academic field. I am excited that the same research vein from my dissertation supports my current career and additional academic endeavors. I know I wouldn’t be where I am without Boise State and the wonderful faculty that supported and inspired me to do more.

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Photo: Matthias Mullie,

Why is connecting with and developing rural elected officials – such as the rural leadership academy you’re working to establish – so important?
Similar to Idaho, the majority of Utah’s elected officials come from areas labeled as rural. That means these elected leaders are making decisions that influence many different parts of the state. As a graduate program, we looked at these important leaders throughout Utah, and we realized that many of them were doing their work with limited training. While the State of Utah is trying to improve this lack of instruction, we decided as a program that we could effectively help to meet this niche and better serve our rural communities.

To help us meet this need for greater leadership training, Utah has a governor dedicated to the rural needs of the state. Governor Cox recognizes that elected officials with more tools in their toolbox are better equipped to handle the challenges rural Utah faces. Additionally, he supports this training initiative because he knows that more effective local leaders will help reduce the administrative burden on the state and provides rural communities with more autonomy to govern as they see best. As a facilitator within the Utah Rural Leadership Academy, I am excited to help our rural elected officials develop a leadership network that can support them as they make tough decisions that not only impact their communities now, but also well into the future.

As a student at Boise State, I had the opportunity to study networks and governance, and I have seen in the literature how well-connected leaders can serve more effectively. I am excited to be able to apply this network training to help the Utah leaders not only grow, but better serve the communities with which they have been entrusted. It is a powerful experience to see how the academic scholarship can help support the work of our local leaders in an applied setting.

You wrote a portion of your dissertation about Erin’s Law, and how different states have passed the law over time. For our readers that may be unfamiliar with it, what is Erin’s Law and what did you discover in your research?
Erin’s Law is a child abuse prevention education policy that focuses on providing educational resources to teachers and students who may have to face the unfortunate realities of child abuse. In addition to combating child abuse, Erin’s Law is particularly interesting because of the rapidity with which it spread across the U.S. In less than nine years, Erin’s Law was adopted by 37 states. In terms of policy diffusion, the adoption of Erin’s Law across so many states is simply amazing. As part of my dissertation, I wanted to understand what influenced this rapid diffusion, and I was surprised by what I found.

Erin’s Law was developed and supported by a policy entrepreneur named Erin Merryn. Merryn, a former social worker and child abuse victim, then pushed for the policy adoption across the states. As part of her advocacy work, Merryn traveled to 34 different states for various speaking engagements with state lawmakers, governors, and state organizations. As I considered many of the other factors that influence policy diffusion, the work of Merryn continued to serve as one of the most significant influencing factors. This finding is special because it demonstrates the powerful role that a single policy entrepreneur can have in the policy process. As I continued to study this policy, I also found that the policy influences the way teachers report suspected abuse and may lead to improved reporting for children facing the atrocities of abuse.

Overall, I was so impressed by what one person can do to influence change, and I thought that was important to recognize and celebrate. I am also fortunate that the academy agreed that this finding is important, and published my findings in a separate article in the Journal of Policy Studies. I am excited to continue this line of research and identify the good that we as humans are capable of within the policy arena.

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Photo: Sander Weeteling,

You have studied the science of happiness and even taught a class on the Art of Happiness at Boise State. Is happiness an art, a science, both or neither?
I am a firm believer that happiness is both a science and an art. Happiness is a science because it can be empirically studied and evaluated. Researchers are constantly learning more about happiness and how it influences many aspects of human life. As a science, the study of happiness is a continually developing field. We can look across some of the most prestigious academic institutions within the country and find that many have dedicated significant resources to studying happiness or a component of happiness on their campuses. As this academic field evolves, I am excited by the research that will come forward and how we will use the research to help humankind develop and grow. I am confident that we still have a lot to learn about happiness, but what we already do know can make a big difference in our lives. For example, one of my favorite studies comes from the Harvard Study of Human Development. This study demonstrates that close human relationships are instrumental in developing and sustaining happiness. As I read this study, I wonder what more I can be doing in my life to build and strengthen my relationship with others. Additionally, I evaluate what things in my life get in the way of me developing close relationships.

While having this scientific foundation for happiness is important, implementing these principles of happiness is more of an art. While I know that human relationships lead to greater joy, I have to cultivate these relationships for them to work. This cultivation requires a lot of time and energy, similar to developing artistic talent. Moreover, some elements of happiness are easier for me to implement in my life and others take a lot more work.

I am grateful for the opportunity to develop these habits of happiness, and it was such a great experience for me to teach these skills to students at Boise State. I still have students from when I taught the class reach out to me and share experiences demonstrating how principles from the course have helped them in their personal and professional lives. As a teacher, this is fulfilling and attests to the science and art of happiness.

While some people are thriving these days, many others are struggling. Do happy people think or act in ways that unhappy people don’t?
Yes, there are things happy people do and also do not do that impact their happiness. For example, happy people are more grateful and look for opportunities to share their gratitude with others. As I already mentioned, happy people also find opportunities to cultivate relationships. Happy people do things to demonstrate happiness; they look the part. Appearing to be happy improves your attractiveness and leads you to be with other happy people. Happy brains also respond differently to negative experiences and better regulate their negative emotions. Happy people don’t sweat the small stuff. We can go through the academic literature and identify different habits that happy people do that help them to be happy. Overall, there are a lot of factors that influence happiness. If we can develop a few skills that influence a couple of these factors, we will notice our happiness outlook positively changes.

Now, while I talk about the differences between happy and unhappy people, I should also note that it is not possible or healthy to be happy all of the time. We will experience challenges that negatively impact our lives. At these times, it is okay to grieve and feel sadness. We can utilize this sadness to develop motivation to be happy again and to improve. In our world of social media and the bombardment of false perfection, we often forget that happy people are also sometimes sad, and that is okay. Ultimately, we can do things that help us be happy, and I take a lot of personal comfort in that concept.