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School of Happiness: A new class and institute at VCU unites students, researchers and faculty in mental health awareness and well-being

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Danielle Dick, Ph.D.
Danielle Dick, Ph.D.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon at Hibbs Hall, a roomful of students grew quiet while a soothing voice emanated from a laptop speaker:

Let your shoulders relax …

Become aware of your breathing and rhythmic rise and fall of your chest …

Allow your focus to expand to your arms and hands …

Expand your focus to include the whole body — this is you, alive and present.

Meditation is a natural beginning to The Science of Happiness, a new course at Virginia Commonwealth University that kicked off in January. Part academic, part self-help, the curriculum folds research and data with personal experience to examine what contributes to happiness and what detracts from it.

Bridget Condron
Bridget Condron

“It’s a unique educational opportunity,” said Danielle Dick, Ph.D., professor in the Departments of Psychology, African American Studies, and Human and Molecular Genetics. She’s the course director with Aradhana Bela Sood, M.D., professor in the Department of Psychiatry. “Students learn about what factors contribute to mental health and happiness. But it’s also preventative in that it gives them life skills that promote well-being.”

The topic seemed to hit home. As soon as the class was circulated, it filled up. Bridget Condron, a junior education and psychology major who secured a seat in the class, was drawn to the positive psychology component, and also the prospect of being able to learn more about herself. “I love how the class encourages you to examine your values, habits and behaviors,” she said.

Happy lessons

Back in Hibbs, all sets of eyes opened and readjusted to the light, Dick stepped to the front of the classroom to introduce the week’s instructor, Jessica Salvatore, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology. Salvatore is part of a rotating group of 12 staff and faculty members from the Schools of Allied Health Professions, Business, Education, Medicine and Pharmacy and the College of Humanities and Sciences who are teaching the class. They cover a range of topics on mental health, well-being and substance abuse, focusing on how they relate to a typical student’s life.

This week’s theme: the intersection of romantic relationships and well-being, timed appropriately on the heels of Valentine’s Day.

Data shows that one of the things people say most contributes to happiness is having a satisfying relationship, according to Salvatore. She asked the class to reflect on the happy and unhappy couples they know. What makes them work or not work?

A video showing comedian Jerry Seinfeld and rapper Wale discussing readiness for marriage sparked a discussion. Salvatore, a developmental psychologist, zeroed in on Seinfeld’s take that as you grow, you can never actually be ready for something new because it’s something you’ve never done before. “You have to reorganize the skill sets you’ve developed across time and experience and use them in a different way,” Salvatore said. Competency in romantic relationships is an emergent property, a tying together of outcomes from preceding relationships but in an entirely different way.

There seems to be an underlying theme to the lesson and a new way to think about perceived relationship failures and personal growth: It’s OK to be uncertain and if it doesn’t work out, you can do better — or different — next time. The lesson comes at an important time for many students who may be new to exploring love and romance, which can either be a wellspring of happiness or the door to darker territories in the psyche.    

Mounting anxieties

Linda Hancock, Ph.D.
Linda Hancock, Ph.D.

Mental health concerns have been growing consistently in university students, according to Dick. It has been long understood that college is a major life transition and kids are navigating new friends, more freedom and increasing pressures. They might struggle with anxiety and depression for the first time, and start using alcohol and drugs. 

However, there seems to be more strain for this generation, according to Linda Hancock, director of The Wellness Resource Center. She has noticed a general lack of anxiety-management skills in students, and all that accumulated stress is no good. “Stress is the No. 1 thing that messes up academic success. The more stressed and anxious students are, the less effective they are,” she said.

Hancock is a big proponent of teaching mindfulness and educating students on the positive daily practices they can do to balance and nurture their lives, along with prevention programs. “If they can learn these skills and calm themselves down, it helps them be more effective. They’ll be happier,” she said. 

The exercises in The Science of Happiness are designed to do exactly that. Students are learning how to build forgiveness, to find positive spins in negative situations and even to understand how food affects mood by keeping a food journal. They’re also examining sleep, the impact of their acts of kindness, and self-awareness through mindfulness.

Georgia Cipriani
Georgia Cipriani

Social media and sharing is a major part of the grade. Fifty percent alone is blogging. “We tie in one of our readings, what we learned in class, and what our personal experience is with both, and then a reflection on all of it,” said Georgia Cipriani, a senior psychology major.

Cipriani has always wanted to start a blog, and the weekly prompts have given her structure for evaluating the course material — and her life. “I feel so much happier because I can post my own things on the blog, and also it helps me wrap up what I’m learning in class.”

She and her classmates are also expected to read and comment on each other’s posts and spread the love through social media, whether that’s sharing a positive video over Facebook or simply sending an email of thanks. “Studies show you’re 10 percent happier than you would have been if you didn’t send that email,” Cipriani said.

Well-being umbrella

VIDEO : The Science of Happiness, a new course at VCU, folds research and data with personal experience to examine what contributes to happiness and what detracts from it.

The Science of Happiness class is part of a greater movement toward bringing all of the people at VCU working on substance abuse and mental health issues under one umbrella, The College Behavioral and Emotional Health Institute, which Dick launched in November.

COBE grew directly out of Spit for Science, a campuswide research project jointly headed by Dick and Kenneth Kendler, M.D., director of the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics, to understand how genes and the environment contribute to alcohol abuse and emotional stress. From 2011 to 2014, researchers invited incoming students to complete surveys and give DNA samples, and they follow up each year with a survey on how they’re doing.

“What came out of that project was this whole network of faculty around the university who work on substance use and mental health outcomes,” Dick said. The aim of COBE is to unite these people with the staff who work directly with the students — people like Hancock and those in student affairs — and to use research to inform how the university approaches prevention, intervention and treatment for the students.

They have a head start. Dick recently received permission to link the de-identified Spit for Science data to anonymized university data such as academics, retention and use of recreational sports, among others. By combing these numbers, faculty and staff receive a holistic picture of what contributes to student well-being and a better understanding of how to help students perform better and increase retention rates.

Already, Hancock has been able to use the data to confirm The Well’s education efforts are having a positive effect. “I’m working on an article using the Spit for Science data that shows that students who are readers of The Stall Seat Journal [The Well’s monthly health and wellness journal] consume less alcohol and have fewer blackouts,” she said. “I would never be able to have the power to be able to prove its efficacy because I just don’t have the research capability.”

Growing awareness

Dick will keep the well-being momentum going next semester with the launch of Thrive, a program-in-residence for first-year students interested in living a healthy lifestyle. They’ll get first dibs on a seat in The Science of Happiness and access to researchers studying mental health and substance abuse.

There are other ventures in the works, too, particularly those that get the word out about well-being to the entire student body in ways that are meaningful and that stick. Dick is collaborating with students in the Robertson School of Media and Culture, the VCU School of the Arts, and the ALT Lab to make COBE-related research accessible and understandable. Much of the focus is on connecting online and on mobile devices through podcasts, apps, quizzes and even video games.

“One of the things I love about VCU is that it’s a younger university and it’s allowed us to be more nimble and to do things that are innovative and collaborative,” Dick said. “Spit for Science is an example of that and COBE is now an example of that, and my hope is to continue to grow novel, interdisciplinary research and programming that supports student success.”

One of the things I love about VCU is that it’s a younger university and it’s allowed us to be more nimble and to do things that are innovative and collaborative.

 

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