College is a time of strong emotion, from the joy of meeting new friends to the anxiety and even depression that can be triggered by academic intensity or increased social pressure.
During his time as a student at Carleton College, Ezra Sergent-Leventhal felt that he experienced the full range of emotions. Three years in, he started to think he could use a little help to regain his even keel.
“Carleton is this tight-knit community, but it can sometimes start to feel insular and claustrophobic,” Sergent-Leventhal recalled. “By my junior year, I was experiencing some social anxiety. I was constantly worried about running into people and feeling anxious about how I should react to them. There were times when it felt overwhelming.”
When a friend told him about a 10-week, no-credit class devoted to stress reduction through mindfulness and positive psychology, it seemed like the perfect opportunity.
“It’s a class devoted to happiness,” Sergent-Leventhal said, laughing. “That’s all I needed to hear. I was like, ‘Sign me up.’”
The class, known officially as “Happy Hour,” was created back in 2012 by Janet Lewis Muth, Carleton’s director of health promotion. In those days, Muth worked for the Rice County Mental Health Collective. “One of my tasks,” she explained, “was to develop a comprehensive community-wide public-health approach to mental well-being.”
To do that, Muth worked with an AmeriCorps VISTA worker to develop a mental-health improvement class that could be offered to local residents. “We searched for a curricula we could use,” Muth said. But they couldn’t find what they were looking for. “So,” she added, “we decided we had to create something ourselves.”
As they worked to assemble the class, the pair stumbled on the concept of positive psychology, or the scientific study of the positive aspects of the human experience that make life worth living. Positive psychology “perfectly suited what we were looking for,” Muth said. The finished course, which the pair dubbed, appropriately, Happy Hour, is deeply rooted in the concepts of positive psychology.
It didn’t take long for the course to gain popularity in Rice County, Muth recalled: “We started offering it more frequently and broadly and it had a really good reception.”
By 2015, Muth recruited a St. Olaf College psychology major to run a randomized control study of the Happy Hour course. She wanted to confirm that it had a positive impact on participants.
The study revealed what Muth had already suspected.
“Participants in Happy Hour reported seeing positive gains in their optimism, gratitude, positive emotions and emotional balance,” she said. “Depression symptoms went down. All those things went in the direction we wanted them to go in.” This finding was in contrast to members of the control group, she added: “Their attitudes didn’t move or even got worse.”
In 2016, Muth interviewed for the health promotion job at Carleton. She told them about Happy Hour and the positive response she’d seen in participants. When she was offered the Carleton job, she accepted, confident that Happy Hour would be a perfect fit for a college audience.
“I think mental health and well-being skills are needed for all college students,” Muth said. “A class like this is a great way to spread that message.”
What happens at Happy Hour?
At Carleton, the Happy Hour class is offered in 10 one-hour sessions. Though some overscheduled students have balked at the time commitment the class requires, Sergent-Leventhal said he was happy to dedicate one hour a week to learning more about happiness and mental health.
“I didn’t know any of the other students in the class,” he said, “and it felt great to meet people in a different context. It was a really positive experience for me, something that happened at the right moment. I appreciated taking the time to do something like this.”
“There are eight topic areas,” Muth explained. “When it is done in 10 sessions, the first session is an intro to the concept of positive psychology and the final session is reflection and sharing.” The class covers positive emotions, neuroplasticity, learned optimism, positive relationships, character strengths, engagement, meaning and purpose, and gratitude.
Participants are given “homework,” or simple tasks that they are asked to complete at home and discuss the following week.
“One of the tasks that people are asked to complete is building a ‘positive portfolio,’ or a collection of tangible reminders of times they have experienced positive emotions,” Muth said. “Later, they are asked to bring in their portfolio and share some of its contents with the group.”
Happy Hour classes follow a set format, Muth said. “At the beginning of each session, we check in from last week, then jump into the topic for the day. There might be a TED Talk or a presentation from the facilitator on the topic of the day. Then there is an in-class activity, then a discussion of homework or a strategy or intervention that they can try in their own lives for the next week. When they come back the next week, we spend a little bit of time unpacking, saying, ‘What did you try this week? How did it go?’”
So far at Carleton, Happy Hour has been casually promoted, Muth said, through “sidewalk chalking on campus, table tents in the dining hall and campus-wide emails.” A little over 106 students and just shy of 48 staff have completed the program.
Spread the joy
Happy Hour isn’t limited to Carleton. Muth has taken on the role of evangelist, leading weeklong training sessions for potential facilitators from other colleges and universities around the country. The idea is to get the word out about Happy Hour, and to have more people out there in the world who can lead the class.
“We want people to run Happy Hour in other places,” Muth said. Representatives from several schools in the region have completed the training.
“The College of St. Scholastica is doing it. There are some folks from University of Minnesota- Morris that have also been trained. They’ve made it into a credit-bearing course. One person at Gustavus has been trained. Folks from Concordia-Morehead have also been trained.” And representatives from other, more-distant schools, including Washington State University, Pitzer College and Claremont Graduate University, have also completed the Happy Hour training.
This gradual spread is, Muth said, “what I was hoping for. The idea is to get it out to as many people as possible.”
Julie Zaruba Fountaine is wellness coordinator at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth. When emails about Happy Hour first arrived in her inbox, she’d grouped them in the “junk mail” category, thinking they had something to do with an after-work party.
“I get lots of emails about potential trainings,” she said. “The first time I saw a Happy Hour email, I skipped by. Because of its name, I thought it was something about alcohol. But then something made me go back and reopen it. When I looked closer I realized, ‘This has to do with positive psychology.’”
In the summer of 2017, Fountaine attended a weeklong Happy Hour training at Carleton. “It was all people interested in this work of mental health improvement,” she said, “people who had been doing it in different ways, but didn’t have the time to dedicate to finding all the evidence-based based practices. Janet had pulled it all together for us.”
After completing the training, Fountaine was convinced that Happy Hour was something she wanted to present at St. Scholastica, but she needed to make a few changes.
“I wanted to change the name,” she said. “I thought, ‘What if a staff member gets an email that says, “Happy Hour” on it? What if their supervisor saw that on their weekly calendar?’”
During the training, Muth said that participants were welcome to make changes to the program to suit their population, so Fountaine enlisted a graduate student to come up with a new name that better suited the climate at St. Scholastica. The student’s suggestion? “Seeing Optimism Uplift Life,” or SOUL. “We call it ‘SOUL training,’” Fountaine said.
The first SOUL training was held for St. Scholastica employees. Later sessions were scheduled for students. “We’ve done it a little bit differently from Carleton,” Fountaine said. “We offer it in a classroom setting for nursing students as part of test preparation. Students are given the opportunity to use it as a way to reduce stress around tests.” St. Scholastica also offers a modified version for their School of Business and Technology and for students in their Saints Leadership Program.
They’ve also adapted the course’s format to fit their college’s specific needs. “We’ve done eight-week sessions, three-week, sessions five-week sessions,” Fountaine said. “I always give credit to Janet. Without her this would never have happened.”
No matter what format SOUL has taken, the response has been the same, Fountaine said: “We do an evaluation every time after each session. The feedback has always been very, very positive.”
The mental health concerns of St. Scholastica students are similar to that of students at other colleges and universities.
“Scholastica isn’t immune from the national trends,” Fountaine said. “Our students are under the same pressure that other students around the country are under. We have the same reports of depression and anxiety. This is one way to improve your mental health and build positive relationships, one way to look at life through a positive lens.”
The whole point of the Happy Hour program is to rewire participants’ brains, to teach them about basic positive psychology skills and how to make these practices part of their daily lives.
That means that in order to fully realize the benefits of taking the class, participants need to keep up the practices they’ve learned. It’s not a “one-and-done” situation, Muth said. Mental health, like physical health, needs to be maintained.
“Health is not a spectator sport. You have to work at it. If it’s your physical health, you can’t watch other people run a 5k and get the benefits. You have to do it yourself. The same is true with your mental health.”
Fountaine likes to use the word “well-being” to describe overall health, an approach that ties physical and emotional health together, acknowledging that both rely on one another.
“Well-being focuses on the whole person,” Fountaine said. “As whole people we of course have stress that can be acute or chronic or can even be beneficial. But we also have a lot of joy.” Programs like Happy Hour or SOUL, she added, “are about learning to recognize and lift up that joy. That’s why they are so important.”
The idea of taking a multiweek course about mental health and positive psychology may feel overwhelming, but Fountaine said her participants have reported that the results were well worth any extra effort.
“I would encourage people to be open to this content. Sometimes it can be intimidating or hard to make the time for something new, but learning about positive psychology can be really beneficial, especially in this climate of intense emotions. It can help with emotional regulation. It is well worth it.”
Sergent-Leventhal said that two years later, he is still using some of the positive psychology techniques he learned in his Happy Hour class in his daily life. “One of the more meaningful exercises included building a ‘toolbox’ of mindfulness and positivity techniques for the purpose of contributing positively to our mental health,” he said. “I still remember what I put in my toolbox, and think about how it felt to share that with others.”
He also remembers being asked to write a “gratitude letter.” In that activity, Sergent-Leventhal recalled, “You write a letter to a friend or a family member, but not your parents. You write why you are grateful for them. Then you call them or sit down with them face-to-face and read the letter out loud. I wrote a letter to my roommate. When I read it to him, I remember getting choked up. I thanked him for being my friend.”
That experience was formative, Sergent-Leventhal said. It deepened his friendship and illustrated the importance of acknowledging the positive impact of those closest to you. While the exercise felt a little awkward at the time, it also filled him with a joy that has carried over into his adult life.
Post-college, Sergent-Leventhal is working in Zion, Illinois. as a scholar coach for the Schuler Scholar Program, a college access program for high-achieving, underrepresented students in the Chicago region. He said that he is working to pass on some of the skills he learned in Happy Hour, encouraging his students to keep a gratitude journal, a technique that he learned back when he was a slightly overwhelmed college junior.
Keeping a gratitude journal is easy, Sergent-Leventhal said, and research has shown that it can have a positive impact on your mental and physical health.
“You write down three good things that happened to you during the week or the day. Then you write down why those things made you feel good. This serves to rewire our brains toward positivity.” It’s a simple activity that he still tries to keep up today. “I found that to be the most helpful activity from Happy Hour, so I decided to pass that on to my students. They both really liked it, and maybe one day they’ll pass it on to someone else.”