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Can you teach students to be happy? Colleges are trying.

Can colleges address mental health problems in students before they begin? Teach students to be more resilient, mentally healthier, maybe even happier?

Shawn McLaughlin and Ilana Stern play a board game meant to help students build deeper connections at Temple University's Resiliency Resource Center.
Shawn McLaughlin and Ilana Stern play a board game meant to help students build deeper connections at Temple University's Resiliency Resource Center.Read moreAnthony Pezzotti

After three years at the University of Pennsylvania, Brielle Weiner has perfected the one-sentence introduction she gives in every new class: a 21-year-old senior majoring in chemical and biomolecular engineering from Wellesley, Mass.

But this semester in a course called the Pursuit of Happiness, she was forced to try something new: an introductory anecdote that showed her at her best.

Weiner spoke about how caring for her 95-year-old grandmother, who came to live with her family eight years ago, forced her to grow as a person.

“It’s not often that I go into details about this story to anyone,” she said, “let alone a complete stranger.”

That’s the point of the assignment, said James Pawelski, professor of the course. It forces students to build deeper connections with each other, he said.

The course is the first large-scale class at Penn to focus on the practice of positive psychology, the scientific study of what goes well in life and how to cultivate more of it. Nearly 200 students are enrolled — double a typical lecture course.

It comes at a time when universities across the country are desperate for new ways to improve mental health on campus. A 2018 study found that college students are reporting increasing levels of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts for the eighth year in a row. Although many colleges, including Penn, have hired more counselors and increased counseling center hours, some are wondering whether there’s more to be done. Can they stop the problem before it begins? Teach students to be more resilient, mentally healthier, maybe even happier?

“Happiness isn’t one size fits all. We can’t just dole it out to everybody," Pawelski said. "Our goal in class is to explore the pursuit of happiness together.”

The course encourages students to try meditation or journaling, and teaches them to build stronger relationships, which are known to boost happiness.

The introduction that Weiner practiced with her classmates embodied two core concepts of positive psychology: emphasizing individual strengths and building human connections.

“It made me think, ‘I know who you are. I know something important to you,’ ” Weiner said. “Now if I pass you on campus, I’m definitely going to say hi.”

More than a decade of research has shown that teaching youth resilience and positive psychology can reduce and prevent symptoms of depression and anxiety, lower stress, and promote well-being. It can also improve grades.

Similar courses at Harvard and Yale drew more than 1,000 students each, becoming the most popular courses in each university’s history.

Other schools are trying similar initiatives, though on a smaller scale. Pennsylvania State University and Villanova University have been offering courses on positive psychology for more than 10 years, but they are focused more on the field than application, and are often aimed at psychology majors.

Temple University has created a Resiliency Resource Center with tools for students to use their own strengths to address depression, anxiety, and interpersonal conflict. Saint Joseph’s University offers weekly mindfulness sessions, and Drexel University is planning to add mindfulness training to freshman orientation.

“It’s important that wellness not be thought of as something important solely for mentally ill students,” Pawelski said.

A long time coming

Martin Seligman, known as “the father of positive psychology,” founded the Penn Positive Psychology Center in 2003. He and Pawelski started the master’s of positive psychology program, the first graduate degree in the field, two years later. The center has also conducted large-scale resilience training for the U.S. Army.

Yet Penn was years behind other schools in offering a large-scale class on the practice of positive psychology for undergraduates.

“Penn is where positive psych began, but in undergrad, at least, no one uses these resources,” said Armghan Ahmad, a senior economics major who is in the Pursuit of Happiness class.

Headed into an investment banking job after graduation, Ahmad knows he will have long hours and lots of stress. “I want to learn the mindset and small habits I can commit myself to in a consistent manner to boost happiness,” he said.

Penn previously offered a positive psychology course focused on theory, but the new course has a greater emphasis on application.

On the first day of class, students were asked to pretend they were meeting people while walking around New York City. First, they introduced themselves to people who were not interested in meeting them. Then to powerful individuals, such as CEOs. And finally to a friend they hadn’t seen in five years.

“Each time it got progressively more enjoyable to introduce yourself,” said Jake Singer, a sophomore business major.

The realization has prompted him to change his daily interactions. At a recent visit to the Apple Store, he made sure to look the salesperson in the eye and smile. He asked how their day was going.

“That felt nice instead of just going there for the purpose of getting my phone fixed and leaving,” Singer said.

Building on student strengths

Down the hall from Temple University’s counseling center is a room with dim lighting and soothing music. Colored mandalas and other art projects called “zen doodles” decorate the wall. iPods loaded with meditation apps are placed near massage chairs.

This is the Resiliency Resource Center (RRC), established seven years ago to complement individual and group therapy provided in the counseling center. It’s meant to help students take charge of their own mental health.

Although it’s run through the counseling center, it’s not limited to students with mental illness.

“It can be as severe as PTSD and bipolar or just someone wanting to communicate better with their roommate,” said Brandon LaBarge, assistant coordinator of the RRC.

Up to 20 students come through on a given day, with nearly 800 students using the center last semester, LaBarge said.

Ilana Stern, a senior psychology major, first came to the RRC a few weeks into seeing a therapist for anxiety. She used the Muse meditation headband, one of the most popular items the center offers.

It measures brain waves and signals to students when their minds are calm, neutral, or active. The longer they stay calm, the app rewards them with points.

Stern found the experience empowering.

“Of course I do things my therapist tells me to,” she said. “But it was fulfilling and rewarding to know I can help myself, too.”

That’s the idea behind a group LaBarge runs in the RRC. It’s called mindfulness-based strengths practice. Up to 10 students come together for eight weekly sessions to learn how they can use their own character strengths to cope with problems and increase happiness.

The program began in fall 2017, and has since grown to two eight-week sessions a semester to accommodate the demand.

Students take a character strength survey, which ranks them on 24 inner strengths that positive psychology says every individual possesses in varying degrees. The strengths range from creativity and honesty to gratitude and humor.

The sessions are then spent helping students find ways to use those strengths to improve their lives.

Zainab Nyazie, a senior psychology major who participated in a drop-in version of the group, was initially upset to learn that one of her top character strengths was forgiveness.

“Does that mean I’m a pushover?” she said.

But through the program, Nyazie learned to use the strength to resolve roommate conflicts and also forgive herself.

“They start to learn they’re not their depression, they’re not their anxiety, they’re not their chemistry homework,” LaBarge said. “It brings perspective back to who the person is and how their character can help them deal with this.”