Julia Montag: Instructing wolverines on larger lessons

Wednesday, May 30, 2018 - 9:35am

I spent this past weekend moving into a new house, "new" meaning not yet lived in by me, but old by all other standards. My father and I rolled up our sleeves and got to work, climbing up and down three stories, arms filled with boxes of oddities, mementos of game days and fragile mugs. We worked strategically and hastily, combining our mental and physical capacities to rebuild the deconstructed IKEA bed in the designated corner of my uniquely shaped room.

My dad taught me how to do this–how to move. How to ready cardboard boxes for packing, how to use a set of tools, how to lift boxes from your knees (not your back) and how to declutter. I had 45 minutes a day in the third grade dedicated to cursive, another 45 to long division. In high school, 60 minutes a day were set aside for lacrosse and another generous 60 to seeing friends. However, among the dance classes and math tutors, there was one lesson I was never explicitly taught, a sport for which I've never attended practice. Nobody has taught me how to be happy.

Intrinsically, we are inclined to try to find happiness ourselves. We all take a break from homework to surround ourselves with positive friends or music, allow ourselves to wander and get lost between the pages of a book, go for a run or stop for an ice cream cone just because it makes us happy. But when those tactics don't work, I (along with many other college students, it seems) don't know where to turn. My classmates and friends are often stressed and unhappy, riddled with anxiety and inclined to hide it in order to prioritize the coursework that needs to be done by tomorrow. And the day after tomorrow. And the day after that. Slowly, classes trump hobbies, and the things that make us happy succumb to the tasks that keep us enrolled in school; it's hard to enjoy the pages you're reading when they come with a looming due date or require a 10-page analysis.  My lacrosse coach and third grade teacher taught me how to work hard but not how to be happy. Who is responsible for doing that now?

Colleges and universities nationwide are beginning to recognize this gap in education. At Yale University, Happiness 101 aims to change the culture on campus by promoting social activities, organizational skills and gratitude while pointing out detrimental habits like procrastination and sweeping emotions under the rug. Nearly a quarter of Yale's undergraduate population enrolled in the course this semester, a statistic that reflects the need and desire for information about happiness and how to achieve it.

The University of Michigan is following this trend and joining Yale in offering courses designed to discussing happiness. For example, a first-year seminar offered this fall term called Psychology as a Social Science addresses what makes life worth living and promotes practices that align with a healthy and meaningful life. Another course, titled Happiness and Health: Exploring the Science, will hit on similar ideas, asking if laughter can heal us, if thinking positively can help us succeed, and how stress, depression and anxiety play a role in the world of psychology and medicine.

A big question that we must ask ourselves is whether we think our University can fill that role and promote a noncompetitive, grade-independent well-being rather than focusing simply on academics. Certainly the kinks would need to be smoothed out and questions answered regarding how one would be graded in a U-M Happiness 101 class. But I believe Wolverines would welcome this class into the LSA Course Guide with open arms. Many of us prioritize our classes over anything else (to any who discredit that claim, I challenge you to find a table at the Shapiro Undergraduate Library on any given Sunday), meaning this week's statistics lecture takes the No. 1 spot on our to-do list, and our hobbies and interests are slighted. We've been conditioned to deprioritize happiness in order to achieve a high grade point average, resulting in life habits that are harmful and unsustainable. That's why I think that a Happiness 101 class here at the University would allow us to reprioritize happiness along with our GPAs and forgo those harmful habits altogether. Given the competitive nature and drive for success that is bred at the University, Happiness 101 might be the only way to simultaneously focus on our work and well-being.