Everyone agrees that the human brain is amazing. Perhaps the most amazing quality of human brains is the ability to shift focus. In an instant and at will, you can shift your focus from a current life conundrum, to the big toe on your left foot, to your dreams for the future, and to a memory from 1st grade. You can explore all these things—at least superficially—and then move on to the meaning of existence and the possibility of life on Mars all in less than one minute. In fact, as you were reading this, I’ll bet you were able to touch on all those thoughts.
Although shifting attention can feel random, it’s a power that most of us should learn to use more intentionally.
We’re using several methods for helping students intentionally harness their attentional focus in the Art and Science of Happiness course at the University of Montana. One method involves homework. Another method involves in-class and happiness lab activities. A third method (and the one featured here), is intentional and regular use of self-reflection. To accomplish this, we ask students to answer four reflection questions every two weeks.
Here are the questions, along with a small sampling of anonymized student responses:
- Over the past two weeks, what lecture content stood out to you as most important to you in your life?
- “The sleep lecture and what you can do to sleep better, and what causes nightmares and night terrors”
- “Happiness doesn’t have to ALWAYS be present in order to be happy.”
- “I really enjoyed the lecture about the three steps to cure nightmares.”
- Over the past two weeks, what classroom or lab activities do you recall as most important to you in your life?
- “All of them have been influential . . . and hope to continue these assignments into the future.”
- “Having a happy song playing at the beginning of class is such a great way to start class.”
- “The hand-pushing activity about how we should go into a situation with a plan.”
- Over the past two weeks, what positive changes have you noticed in yourself or in your life?
- “After doing the 3 good things activity at night I felt relaxed and in a better mood.”
- “I’m working on my sleep schedule which has felt good.”
- “I found the sleeping tips to be really helpful in my own life and help me to improve my sleep.”
- Over the past two weeks, what activities, interactions, or thoughts have you experienced (outside of class) that were especially meaningful to you?
- “Finding something inspirational.”
- “More positive outlook on life.”
- “I experienced being able to change my thoughts on a negative day by looking at three good things and able to remember that even on bad days there are still good things to remember.”
As I look over the students’ responses to these questions and the homework assignments, I feel like I’m catching some positive psychology contagion. I’m grateful to be able to teach this course and inspired by the students’ efforts to apply positive psychology principles to their lives.