Getting smart about getting happy
Feeling optimistic can feel next to impossible at times, including for college students. But students can learn how, in the face of all their challenges. A new project stemming from a Northfield, Minnesota partnership finds that students can be helped to build skills that can add up to greater resiliency and, yes, happiness.
This month a small group of Carleton students will conclude the latest round of the Happy Hour project, a non-credit course focused on learning about and taking advantage of some aspects of positive psychology; they’ve been meeting for an hour a week over 10 weeks of the fall term. The project had previously been tested in the Northfield area at several locations, including with St. Olaf College students. And it is now being put to use at The College of St. Scholastica as well.
Consider the Carleton student who used what she learned about optimism through the Happy Hour project to try to reframe her reactions to a difficult test this fall. As relayed by Janet Lewis Muth, Carleton’s director of health promotion, the student said that after a tough test, she stopped her self-criticism, applying some of what she had been learning about and discussing with her peers. Muth said the student realized she may have done okay and stopped beating herself up for the rest of the day, which in turn could allow her to keep moving ahead on all her other classes and assignments.
“It is important to be proactive, to help provide students with opportunities to develop skills that will serve them well here as well as when they go out in the world,” Muth said.
There’s growing concern about the amount of depression and anxiety among college students, Muth said. With colleges responding in several ways, including seeking to expand access to counseling resources, the Happy Hour project is an example of how prevention-focused efforts can be part of the mix.
Carleton-St. Olaf partnership
Positive psychology gained attention in the last 20 years as some in the field have looked to broaden the focus beyond what can go wrong, explained Donna McMillan, Associate Professor of Psychology at St. Olaf College. “This is the study of life going well and all that is involved in that,” she said.
Muth learned about positive psychology and saw it as the basis for creating a research-based program and curriculum aimed at helping people build skills to increase their resiliency. Working in the community and part of the Rice County Mental Health Collective, Muth was looking at ways to prevent or limit mental health problems. “Thinking about this from a public health model, we know we should exercise, eat our veggies,” she said. “But we were asking ourselves, ‘What does it mean to really promote mental health?’”
Seeking local expertise, Muth found McMillan, who teaches a course at St. Olaf on the science of positive psychology. McMillian’s contribution has included assessing the program’s impact — with the help of student research assistants.
The results that first year were positive. Students who went through Happy Hour took a pre- and post-program assessment, as did a control group of students who were not taking part. After their 10 weeks of learning about aspects of positive psychology, having the support of a cohort and being asked to try out the skills they were learning, McMillan said the participants demonstrated improved well-being. When compared to those in the control group, the participants reported more positive emotions, fewer negative emotions, fewer depression symptoms and higher levels of both optimism and gratitude.
The program continues to prove itself, including at Carleton where Muth now works. She and McMillan are watching for how well it succeeds in various settings and with different populations. There’s also awareness of the need for institutions to do what they can at an organizational level to address what can cause problems. “Teaching particular skills is one piece,” Muth said. “And creating an environment where people can practice them is the other. We need to ensure we’re working to remove barriers as institutions.”
St. Scholastica addresses resiliency
Starting this fall the Happy Hour project has migrated north to The College of St. Scholastica. It began with Julie Zaruba Fountaine, the college’s wellness coordinator, who went to a training this summer in Northfield that McMillan and Muth offered to help others become facilitators. Liking what she learned and thinking about how to augment existing efforts to build student resiliency, Zaruba Fountaine has found her campus receptive. Students she works with as peer health educators have been going through the Happy Hour program themselves. A faculty member is bringing the Happy Hour project into her first-year seminar next semester, given the student needs she’s seeing. And a 10-week session for staff and faculty filled up before it was even publicly posted.
And in a new twist, Zaruba Fountaine is working with the online education experts at St. Scholastica to create an interactive online option to share Happy Hour with more nontraditional students. Set to be available in 2018, it’s an experiment that McMillan and Muth will be watching closely, since it uses a different technique to help students build these skills.
This comes at a time at a time when demand for campus mental health services is on the rise, as shown by patterns of usage, waiting lists and student surveys, Zaruba Fountaine said. Faculty members are also reporting more related concerns about student behavior and questions about how to respond. “If they have a student who says, ‘I’m not coming into class because I need a mental health day,’ they don’t know what to do,” she said. “What does the follow-up conversation look like? Or in the course, if a student is not able to receive a constructive critique and they have an emotional response, the faculty members aren’t sure how to respond.”
The aim is to find new ways to help students’ mental wellbeing, in addition to the existing supports and resources that extend from resource centers to residential hall staff to on-campus counseling. While Zaruba Fountaine said that Happy Hour skill-building won’t address the need for supports for students with depression and mental health crises, it can translate into some students being better able to cope with the challenges they face.
“To focus on our mental wellbeing is just as important as our physical wellbeing — it is part of taking care of your health,” Zaruba Fountaine. “These skills are just like eating a banana at breakfast or doing meditation, it is part of taking care of your body and mind.”
But just like any health promotion effort, there’s the challenge of building awareness and building knowledge early enough — when students will insist they’re fine and don’t seem to have a worry in the world. “And then, all of a sudden, they can’t sleep and they’re not going to class,” Zaruba Fountaine said. “So how do we pre-emptively address these issues so students can keep swimming along and don’t end up in that mental health crisis?”