Mar 13, 2024 - News

Iowa State offers class on science of happiness, best practices

Illustration of a speech bubble colored yellow with a smiley face.

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

A new class at Iowa State University teaches students the science behind happiness and offers best practices for higher well-being.

Why it matters: Mental health, especially for teenagers and college students, was on the decline even before the pandemic.

  • More than 40% of teens said they persistently felt sad or hopeless in 2021, a CDC survey found.

State of play: 85 students signed up for the inaugural spring course that started in January, says Amie Zarling, a clinical psychologist and ISU professor who started the class.

  • The topic resonates because even if students aren't struggling themselves, they likely have a friend or loved one who's dealt with mental health challenges, she says.

The intrigue: Research shows that genetics factor into 40%-50% of one's happiness, so everyone's temperament starts at a different base, Zarling says.

Yes, but: We can work on the other half of our well-being.

The bottom line: Giving ourselves affirmation and recognizing that suffering or negative thoughts are normal parts of life are among the topics Zarling covers.

  • "Our brains work by addition, not subtraction," Zarling says.

What's next: The class will be offered again in the fall.

3 tips for better well-being

  1. Savor the moment: If you are experiencing something positive, relish and "squeeze" it until its last drop, Zarling says. Being appreciative and taking the time to acknowledge all five of your senses can help you be more present.
  2. Find purpose: Finding meaning helps create a stable sense of well-being. Relationships with other people are a way to feel significance in life — though they should be well-balanced with time for yourself.
  3. Give self-compassion: This is the hardest practice, Zarling says. Our brains are wired to search for threats and negativity and turn on themselves when we mess up. Here are six researched steps to better self-compassion.

The big picture: People who have less compassion for themselves are also less likely to feel compassion for others, Zarling says.

  • And while some people feel like their inner critic helps motivate them, research shows that shame demotivates us, she says.

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