Not your typical group project
At the start of the term, 27 students were divided into 5 groups, but this wasn’t your typical group project. The assignment? Spend 20 minutes together every week just hanging out.
The class is called Healthy Relationships (HE 420), and while relationships with others is part of it, the students also explore their personal relationships with everything from food to finance and most importantly, themselves.
“We study the theory, and then we go beyond and apply the concepts, making the discussion more personally meaningful,” says Instructor Shawn Sellers, who teaches the course, “The thing that makes this course different is that we also focus on behavior change. You can’t really teach how to make friends or how to be more present or how to be vulnerable. The best way to learn is to practice.”
The culminating assignment for the course is a “happiness project,” in which students are tasked with applying what they’ve learned in class to improve some aspect of their own lives using the Dimensions of Wellness as infrastructure. Past projects have included anything from personal budgets to gratitude journals.
Reflecting on her experiences, one student shared, “I have learned to practice reflecting on the state of my well-being as well as how others may see me.”
Some academics may question whether classes like these belong in a college setting. But there are reasons courses on happiness are cropping up everywhere across the U.S.
Sellers says the course resonates with students who are striving to reconcile academic and professional demands with social connectedness and life satisfaction. “You look at substance abuse, depression, and suicide and what’s something they all have in common? Isolation. College students are overwhelmed, stressed, anxious, and depressed. I think we really have a problem in how students are doing in terms of self-care and mental health,” says Sellers.
The data supports Sellers claims. In 2017, nearly 40% of college students said they had felt so depressed in the prior year that it was difficult for them to function, and 61% of students said they had “felt overwhelming anxiety” in the same time period, according to an American College Health Association survey of more than 63,000 students at 92 schools.
“Students deprioritize happiness because they’re so busy with classes, homework, jobs, and other demands so there’s this sense of ‘I’ll catch up with that person next month’ or ‘I’ll worry about exercise in the summer.’ But the truth is there’s always going to be something standing in the way – even after college. You need to find ways to fit these habits into your life.”
Sellers believes classes like HE 420 helps give students the opportunity to explore their perceptions and practice the skills necessary to find life satisfaction. She notes that some of the students even remain friends after the class ends.
Next week during finals, the HE 420 students will be having a potluck and game day. The course challenges students to confront some of their biggest weaknesses and fears, so the final is a chance to celebrate the hard work they’ve already done and remember “families that play together stay together!”
Sellers teaches the class every quarter. It’s usually full with a wait list. “I can’t take the credit,” says Sellers, “the class was developed before my time, I just get the honor of carrying forward Dr. Braza and Jamie Tatum’s legacies.” It’s one of the best kept secrets at WOU she jokes.