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From happiness 101 to existential despair

Paul Greatrix looks at three US courses that aim to support students in developing their mental wellbeing.
This article is more than 5 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

Today’s students face many and varied pressures. This is having a huge impact on their mental health and universities are providing support for students’ well-being and academic work. While there are no definitive solutions to these challenges we need only look to the US where universities appear to be trialling innovative and thoughtful measures.

Last year, Yale University offered what was claimed to be the most popular course in its history. Over 1,200 students enrolled on the module Psychology and the Good Life, which aimed to teach students how to lead a happier and more satisfying life.

According to the leader of the course, Laurie Santos, a psychology professor:

Students want to change, to be happier themselves, and to change the culture here on campus. With one in four students at Yale taking it, if we see good habits, things like students showing more gratitude, procrastinating less, increasing social connections, we’re actually seeding change in the school’s culture.”
Santos speculated that Yale students are interested in the class because, in high school, they had to deprioritise their happiness to gain admission to the school.

Hack yo’self

The course focused both on positive psychology and behavioural change and students were required to take quizzes, an exam and, as their final assessment, conduct what Santos called a “hack yo’self project”, a personal self-improvement project. Interesting.

Sadly, despite the popularity of the course, it appears there are no plans to run it again.

Meanwhile, Inside Higher Ed has a report on some other courses at the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton and Vassar all designed to encourage students to reflect, relax and slow down.

The course at Penn is, intriguingly, called ‘Existential Despair’ and, according to its leader, isn’t actually about anything:

My students have resumes and CVs that are longer than most adults when they’re 18,” said Justin McDaniel, a religion professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “They have internships up the ass, they shadowed this person, they won on the debate team.”
McDaniel teaches a course that meets once a week for seven hours, with no homework, no tests and no syllabus. Instead, every Tuesday he hands students a book upon arrival, which they read from cover to cover. After four or five hours of silent reading time, the group discusses the book.

McDaniel is positive about the experience:

In 17 years of teaching, there is no comparison,” he said. “It’s the best conversation I’ve ever had in a classroom.”
The students are graded on attendance and participation, and they’re required to write a two to three page journal entry each week, which they often complete in class. They also contribute to an online, week-long discussion forum.

Number one

At Princeton, a student decided to establish a self-help student group, called Workshop No 1, to address a similar need. Alec Gerwitz set up the group to help students solve the problems they face outside the classroom:

Students didn’t have a place where they could reflect on how to build more fulfilling lives. They often found that they couldn’t do that in the classrooms, and students who weren’t involved in religious groups didn’t have a place where they could do that,” Gerwitz said
Gewirtz likened the workshop to religious communities that people lean on for support and guidance, but the group has no religious ties or requirements to join. At each meeting, a student presents on a topic or problem they are facing in their own life — such as building a meaningful relationship with their parents as adults, handling the death of a loved one or navigating some part of their career. Then, others will chime in about how they’ve confronted a similar problem. Discussions last about an hour.

A more formal course, an introduction to contemplative studies, was recently offered at Vassar College by Carolyn Palmer, a psychology professor:

Each week, students in the class are introduced to different methods of contemplation and introspection — everything from social justice and pilgrimage to journaling and meditation.

In addition to regular classroom periods, students meet for a “lab” period once a week, similar to science course schedule. One day, a music professor walked students through the “soundscape” and asked them move slowly, focusing on their balance and what they heard. During another lab, a staff member at the counselling centre led the students through meditation.

While the scale of this course is much smaller than those at Penn and Princeton, involving only 10 students in its pilot year, it is nevertheless hoped that it will grow in popularity in future years.

Given that the significant pressures on students are unlikely to diminish anytime soon there is every reason to expect that courses like these, which help students to manage their way through their university journeys successfully, will continue to grow in popularity.

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