By SHANNON O. WELLS
To set the tone for his Health Policy and Human Flourishing course, Pitt’s Grant Martsolf established a “no device” policy — as in no phones, tablets, laptops or other electronics. Suffice it to say, it’s not a guideline students tend to warmly embrace.
“The students said, ‘I can’t believe this. This is so patronizing! I can control this!’” he recalled of its initiation. “And then at the end of semester, I get five or six students out of 20 say, ‘I’m so grateful that you did that. I hated it. But it was actually the only time of my day when I can sit and think and ponder and just be present in a space without also taking notes,’” which he thought was “probably code for shopping or going on Facebook.”
Based on such perspective-changing encouragement, Martsolf, Pitt professor and UPMC Health Systems chair in nursing science, teamed up with David Sanchez, associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Ryan McDermott, associate professor in the Department of English, to create the Happiness and Human Flourishing course, set to debut in spring semester 2023.
The instructors said the course is a response to a national health crisis in which, for the first time since the early 20th century, the U.S. is experiencing a reduction in life expectancy overall and particularly in vulnerable communities.
The three-credit interdisciplinary class will explore the “happiness crisis” in the modern west, which is experiencing “historic levels of depression, anxiety and lack of meaning,” the NUR 1014 class description reads. The course examines conceptions of happiness while developing a “capacious definition of happiness as ‘human flourishing’” and exploring the “pre-conditions necessary” to promote this. The ultimate goal is to help students “reflect on their own lives and how they might construct flourishing lives in college and beyond.”
The instructors — all good friends, Martsolf noted — have taught “happiness”-oriented courses within their respective academic fields, so they decided to pool resources and insights for one jointly taught course. In addition to Martsolf’s Health Policy and Human Flourishing, which he started in 2020, McDermott teaches a freshman composition course based on happiness-related literature, while Sanchez leads a non-credit seminar class called Engineering Happiness.
Anecdotally, we’re getting reports that class absences for anxiety — particularly intense anxiety and inability to leave the room — those are up even more this year, even more than during (the height of) COVID.
Ryan McDermott, associate professor in the Department of English
“Those three courses, we realized that they’re very similar, at least in their goal and their content,” Martsolf said, “so we decided in the spring to teach this course together.”
While the curriculum expands beyond current happiness-compromising factors like the COVID pandemic and social media-fueled political polarization, the course instructors find a class of this nature remarkably timely, complementing Pitt Provost Ann Cudd’s declaration of the 2022-23 as the Year of Emotional Well Being.
“Anecdotally, we’re getting reports that class absences for anxiety — particularly intense anxiety and inability to leave the room — those are up even more this year, even more than during (the height of) COVID,” McDermott said. “And the Student Counseling Centers are even more overbooked than during COVID. It’s really remarkable. Of all the years that the provost could have a year of focusing on mental well-being, this would be the one. Even more than during the COVID years, surprisingly, there’s a real crisis of depression and anxiety.”
Another goal of the course, Martsolf noted, is to reinvigorate the idea of “the university” as not just a professional training ground but a generator of citizenship and philosophical and moral engagement.
“I think in many ways, we’ve lost our calling to also do moral formation in our students — help them be good citizens when they leave here,” he said. “I don’t mean just ready to get a job, but how to participate in a pluralist democracy — but then also give them some sort of vision of, not just what can I do to work, but how can I live and live well.”
For all the disruption and challenges to emotional well-being the pandemic created, it also presented opportunities for students and their instructors to have open and honest conversations about how it was affecting them emotionally. Sanchez said he picked up on a rise in anxiety and threats to general well-being even before COVID showed up in early 2020.
“I think COVID definitely exacerbated it … but even pre-COVID, there was a continuing increase, whether it’s anxiety, a number of fears, accommodations that students need to have simply by being overwhelmed,” he said. “Even in conversations when they invite me outside of class, there’s a lot of challenges around (their) direction and meaning and purpose. So creating just a space for us to have those conversations and to visit these cultural repositories or the wisdom literature to gain a sense of ‘Well, how have we approached these larger questions?’”
His Engineering Happiness class drew interest despite not being a credit-based course. “They came of their own free will,” Sanchez said. “They came because it was resonating with something that was really important to them. So there are things like: ‘My identity is my GPA.’ ‘I’m only as good as my last success.’ The fear of missing out. ‘Everybody else gets it, but I don’t.’ Those are palpable, and when you actually mentioned them to students or articulate their fears here for them, it was quite helpful for them to get some traction about what’s going on and ‘Why am I so overwhelmed?’”
As well as the effect of digital technology and social media, the curriculum also calls for teaching theories of happiness, with McDermott focusing on “wisdom traditions” from Eastern and Western schools of thought: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, ancient China, Greece. Martsolf’s material will draw from the social science of happiness and human flourishing, and human anthropology.
The overall goal, Martsolf said, is not just to compare theories of “well-being vs. happiness vs. flourishing vs. life satisfaction,” but also “to help students create habits that would allow them to take this knowledge and understanding and apply it to their lives. We hope that at the end of the course, students have a better understanding of how to pursue full and flourishing lives.”
Sanchez concurred that “deep critical thought” is the foundation from which practical habits are translated into action and ways of life.
“That means not only understanding the philosophy behind how I approach these bigger questions, but translating that into practical habits that actually have an effect on them,” he said. “So it’s not only about that intellectual formation, but it’s also about personal formation that they can apply as we go throughout the course.”
This being a brand-new class, and one involving highly dynamic societal circumstances, the instructors recognize there will be some trial-and-error based on how students react and connect to the material and concepts.
“We recognize that every new class is different, and we’re going to be learning about how this lands and resonates with our students as well,” Sanchez said. “And I think that’s one thing that’s pretty exciting about it.”
Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com.
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