MISSOULA – “Old age is not an easy road to travel in the best of times,” said 87-year-old Missoula resident Lidia Donahue.
But during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Donahue experienced what she calls a “bright spot” while enrolled in the Art and Science of Happiness course at the University of Montana.
The course, developed by UM counseling Professor John Sommers-Flanagan and Professor Emerita Rita Sommers-Flanagan, aims to help learners of all ages understand the myths and truths of a well-lived life. The goal at the conclusion of the course? Provide students with the education needed to develop a better map to pursue a happy life.
“I found the course interesting and rewarding far beyond my expectations,” said Donahue. “The multigenerational aspect of the participants was an important factor and an unexpected bonus. Listening to and interacting with so many different people with so many backgrounds was stimulating.”
That multigenerational dynamic was exactly what John Sommers-Flanagan had in mind when he decided to open the course to the community last year. Through the help of UM Online, Sommers-Flanagan was able to teach the class remotely during the spring semester with 30 traditional UM students and 20 community participants.
“Words are inadequate to express my gratitude for the happiness class,” said Missoula attorney Torian Donohoe. “The class literally transformed my life after a very difficult and sad nine months. Plus, it was a heck of a lot of fun.”
Sommers-Flanagan constructed the class to encourage participants to engage in activities that stimulate happiness. Rather than a lecture, he organized the class around what he calls “happiness labs,” where each week the focus would shift to a new core research study and dissect how students can apply that data to real life.
Rooted in the seven life dimensions through which people often experience happiness and sadness, Sommers-Flanagan emphasized goal-setting and the importance of developing effective plans to achieve personal goals.
Students were asked to complete minor assignments each week to help determine what intervention worked best for them in order to incorporate happiness into their daily lives. Sommers-Flanagan said many students found that injecting things like positive music, gratitude assignments, writing about difficult emotions, acts of kindness, savoring and methods of meditation and relaxation helped students understand how to achieve their best possible self.
At a time when people are experiencing less happiness, more depression and higher rates of suicide, he hopes the Art and Science of Happiness course will help his students outline the simple steps that can be taken to get more happiness in their daily lives.
“I have to say I feel a major shift in my thinking, I am now more focused on gratitude and living in the moment and have developed an unexpected confidence about facing the inevitable challenges that lie ahead, a confidence that even others have noticed,” she said.
UM students or community members interested in enrolling in UM’s Art and Science of Happiness course can sign up for the class again in the spring 2022 semester. The public is also invited to enroll in a similar happiness class from UM Ph.D. student Daniel Salois beginning on July 12.
Contact: John Sommers-Flanagan, UM counseling professor, 406-721-6367, firstname.lastname@example.org.