Fostering Happiness

July 29, 2021

For almost a year and a half, the pandemic has affected how most people work, play, and generally conduct their lives. Now people are emerging from their social bubbles, re-engaging with colleagues, and, very likely, trying to increase their happiness during a period of prolonged stress.   

Eric Schumacher, professor in the School of Psychology, taught a course this summer on stress and happiness. In his class he discusses how students can learn better study habits, learn to overcome disappointment, and improve their general well-being. They also learn about the science of the stress response, what it’s good for, and the negative effects of chronic stress.

He teaches that, with intentional practice, people can improve their happiness level regardless of the circumstances and their individual predisposition.

“In this course, especially given what has happened over the last year, I was interested in discussing the science behind the physiological stress system and then what can we do beyond that to increase our happiness,” he said. “We can work to reduce our stressors, and then can we do more to improve our happiness.” The course is not a substitute for seeing a therapist or taking prescribed medication. 

“We often think that happiness is largely determined by external forces,” he said. “Some of us might be stressed about how to pay the rent or mortgage this month or how to pay for school or a trip. So people think, ‘If I just had more money I would be happier.’ But the research shows that for most people who end up with a change in their financial status, it produces only a short-term increase in their level of happiness.”

Schumacher said there are techniques to help adjust how you frame the way you think about stress. That’s why Madeline Berns, a third-year neuroscience major, took the class.

“I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety for a long time and thought the class could teach me new outlooks and skills for handling stress,” Berns said. “I learned that stress is a very physical problem. Even when it’s not a life-or-death situation, your body is acting like it is; it’s trying to protect you via fight, flight, or freeze. So, stress is the body trying to help you out, and sometimes you can trick it into calming down through physical activity.”

Berns believes the class was particularly meaningful in teaching long-lasting strategies for viewing and treating stress.

“It didn’t just focus on one happiness-inducing activity,” she said. “Instead, it actually taught us meaningful activities like paced breathing, forgiveness prompts, mindfulness and meditation, and others that we can use over and over again, often with little to no effort at all — but a large payoff.”

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Victor Rogers

Institute Communications