Mandatory Happiness Classes for College Freshmen? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Mandatory Happiness Classes for College Freshmen?

Mandatory Happiness Classes for College Freshmen?

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu



Because one credit hour of happiness could last a lifetime.

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu

“Stop and smell the roses” may be a sappy cliché, but at Stanford University, it’s also a homework assignment. For extra credit, you can “show gratitude,” “feel the sunshine” or “just breathe.” 

Anything to get ahead, right?

Sounds like an easy A-plus. Except “Exploring Happiness and Health” was one of the most challenging classes of my college career. Despite its name, the course is no hippie-dippie project — it’s a measured response to the overwork university students face during their four years of classes, exams, meetings and internships, says professor Fred Luskin. He helped design Stanford’s signature Wellness Certificate, which students can earn after taking a handful of mind-body wellness classes. Let’s face it, the approximately 20 million students who will enter college this fall face a grueling four years ahead of them: Nearly 10 percent of incoming freshmen — a near all-time record — report feeling “frequently depressed,” according to the 2015 American Freshman Survey. So, let’s help stave off some of that emotional fatigue early on — by making happiness classes mandatory, part of a core curriculum, for all college freshmen.

Luskin’s course is among a growing number of so-called happiness classes at American colleges like Harvard and Brown. The syllabuses for these courses are as philosophical as they are practical: to equip students with the secrets to a “meaningful” life through experiential learning and to teach them tools like compassion meditation, stress management, gratitude journaling and awe walks. And these not-so-pedantic courses have proved wildly popular among hundreds of thousands of students who sign up each semester: A 400-person wait list is not unusual for UC Berkeley’s 200-person course “The Science of Happiness,” says psychology professor Dacher Keltner. 

In this age of trillion-dollar student loan debt and rising tuition costs, there are many who will find the idea perverse: How, in good conscience, could we demand students to spend thousands of dollars to learn how to be happy? Indeed, whether happiness can actually be taught is a matter of debate; some scientists believe it’s innate. On top of that, students don’t want to be told how to lead their lives — least of all by an institution. Making anything mandatory could “lead to some resentment or create a rebellion,” concedes Carole Pertofsky, director of wellness and health promotion services at Stanford’s Vaden Health Center. Force-feeding students “positive psychology” is no easy task either. 

To this point, Alejandro Adler, a positive psychology researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, offers mountains of scholarly data on forgiveness, resilience and self-awareness. While you can’t teach people to be happy, he says, you can certainly give them the lifelong skills to “live the best possible life.” Adler has already implemented mandatory well-being classes for college freshmen throughout his native Mexico. More important, making room in your schedule for “me time” is essential to staying sane in college; a required weekly happiness class could help students carve out dedicated chunks of time in the midst of college’s frenetic pace. Luskin believes there’s not enough lightheartedness on today’s college campuses — and he’s not counting beer kegs. Rather, there’s already an “emptiness” inside students who strive for only straight A’s or for Rhodes scholarships. Luskin’s key takeaway? “It’s all under your control,” a lesson that many of his students don’t realize, he says. Granted, the pursuit of happiness can’t be contained within the four walls of a classroom. But, Luskin says, you have to start somewhere.

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