A unit of happiness

Jan. 11, 2012, 3:02 a.m.

Now in the thick of her sophomore year, Najla Gomez Rodriguez ’14 spends more time with caffeine than she does with her own friends. An aspiring civil engineering major and possible law student, Gomez Rodriguez juggled a tightly-packed schedule her autumn quarter – 17 units of engineering, physics and math – along with leadership positions in Sigma Theta Psi, El Centro Chicano, the First-Generation Low Income Partnership and the Latino Sib Program. Swamped with meetings, midterm review sessions, classes, rallies and events, this is the busiest she has ever been. At times, her workload is, in her words, “barely manageable.”


In a recent post on Facebook, Gomez Rodriguez wrote, “Slept 20 out of the past 28 hours…Catching up on sleep much?” A friend commented, “You deserve it!”


Yet it’s not just sleep that Stanford students lack. Fred Luskin Ph.D. ’99 P.D. ’99, a senior consultant in health promotion at Stanford who speaks nationally on the importance of managing stress, hesitated as he searched for the right words.


“There’s just not enough ‘kidness’ left,” Luskin said. “There’s a lack of carefreeness, exuberance and exploring for the sake of exploring. They’re too scheduled, too organized, too future-oriented.”


A unit of happiness
(ALEX BAYER/The Stanford Daily)

Luskin, along with Carole Pertofsky, director of health promotion at the Vaden Health Center, hopes to counter this issue. Together, they teach Athletic 196, a one-unit course called “Happiness.” According to Luskin, Stanford students tend to be high-achieving – reaching for excellence but straining themselves in the process. Yet achievement, he explained, does not necessarily mean happiness.


“I think there’s an emptiness within a lot of people who make straight A’s or get a Rhodes scholarship, but don’t have the deeper qualities that make life rich,” Luskin said. “You can go out and notice how beautiful it is and still get straight A’s. If you make sure you have real relationships, then the straight A’s will mean more than just getting them.”


In addition to cultivating meaningful relationships and acquiring a healthier appreciation for life, the course seeks to define what happiness is, how to gain it and ultimately, how best to incorporate it into daily activities. It’s the little things, Luskin argued, that make us happy.


“Reminding people to relax a little, to smile, to taste the coffee, whatever it is, [is] so helpful,” he said. “So much of psychology is focused on what’s wrong with people and not on how to be happy and healthy.”


Luskin and Pertofsky originally taught a course titled “The Pursuit of Happiness and Health” in the School of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, which in 2007 evolved into the happiness class offered now, taught twice a year through the athletics department. The happiness class covers topics such as gratitude, mindfulness, human connections, forgiveness and meditation, and reaches a wider student audience.


Annemarie Estess B.A. ’09 M.A. ’10, now an undergraduate admission counselor, helped design the course’s curriculum.


“We were especially driven by student testimonials denoting a pattern of high stress, high expectations and a desire to dedicate more resources toward personal introspection and growth,” Estess wrote in an email to The Daily.


The happiness class pertains to people from all walks of life. According to Luskin, nearly anyone can benefit from its readings and guided practices. Assignments often focus on self-reflection and deep fulfillment, varying from simply savoring your own food to thanking someone you take for granted.


“Rather than having to work on some math problem, you’re having to figure out how to live a more satisfying life,” said Nick Enge B.S. ’09 M.S. ’10, an earth systems graduate student and a teaching assistant for the course. “It’s harder to come into a class where you’re expected to think about and reflect on and change yourself. It’s a completely different kind of problem; but I think it’s equally, if not more, important.”


Some take the course to learn new ways to handle their stress. Others like Steven Crane ’12, a former student and TA, are simply curious about the topic.


“I just typed ‘happiness’ into Explore Courses, because that’s what I wanted to learn about,” Crane said.


Two years ago, Crane served as president for Stanford Peace of Mind, a group dedicated to addressing students’ mental health issues. He cited the course as pivotal to gaining a greater sense of self-awareness and a deeper understanding of his character strengths. Moreover, he said, the course has also helped students with issues that require more help than the course can offer.


“In the journals and conversations we have, we sort of get a sense that a person is really struggling,” Crane said. “We identify people who definitely need help and refer them to CAPS [Counseling and Psychological Services].”


In the future, Luskin and Pertofsky envision making the tenets of the course accessible to all incoming students as part of their freshman curriculum. Ideally, Luskin wants every student to be equipped with the fundamentals of long-term happiness through an optional “wellness” certificate that would appear on transcripts. In theory, these initiatives would introduce students to the basics of a well-rounded lifestyle.


“We need to include these courses as part of a multi-layered approach throughout the University if we are to support students in not only preventing mental illness, but in flourishing during their time on the Farm,” Estess said.


Busy with school and a dizzying number of extracurricular activities, Gomez Rodriguez knew little about the happiness class and its growing success. However, she’s interested in enrolling.


“I think that inside the busy bubble that is Stanford, we often forget…the importance of slowing down to appreciate the moment we are living without realizing what we are missing, and I think this course is a step towards addressing this issue,” Gomez Rodriguez said. “The happier I am, the easier it becomes to reach my highest potential.”


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