After three years at the University of Pennsylvania, Brielle Weiner has perfected the one-sentence introduction she gives in every new class: She’s “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, Weiner 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 their 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 which, he said, forces students to build deeper connections with each other.
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 college students are reporting increasing levels of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts for the eighth year in a row. While many colleges, including Penn, have hired more counselors and increased counseling center hours, some are wondering if 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, for example, 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. “It’s important that wellness not be thought of as something merely important for mentally ill students,” Pawelski said.
Martin Seligman, known as “the father of positive psychology,” founded the Penn Positive Psychology Center in 2003. He and Pawelski started the Masters of Positive Psychology program the same year, the first graduate degree in the field. The center also conducts large-scale resilience training for the U.S. Army.
Armghan Ahmad, a senior economics major, is taking 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 mind-set and small habits I can commit myself to in a consistent manner to boost happiness,” he said.
Penn previously offered a smaller 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, like 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 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,” Singer said, “instead of just going there for the purpose of getting my phone fixed and leaving.”