Tag Archives: Montana

Happiness Homework — Week 3: University of Montana

Stone Smirk

This week we’ve only got one active learning assignment (see below). That’s probably because there’s a Moodle quiz later in the week and, of course, there are things for students to watch and listen to, like these:

  1. Listen: Science vs. Podcast – All Aboard the Snooze Cruise https://gimletmedia.com/shows/science-vs/o2hx57
  2. WATCH: Hacking your brain for happiness by James Doty: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q4TJEA_ZRys
  3. Listen: The Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast, Episode: Teens and Depression — https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/teens-depression/id1170841304?i=1000383659996

And here’s the active learning homework for the week!

Active Learning Assignment 5 – Your Favorite Relaxation Method

As you likely recall from the Thursday, January 23 lecture, in 1975, Herbert Benson of Harvard University published a book titled, The Relaxation Response. Benson wrote that for humans to achieve the relaxation response, they needed four components:

  1. A quiet place.
  2. A comfortable position.
  3. A mental device.
  4. A passive attitude.

For this assignment, your job is to identify and practice your favorite relaxation method. The good news is that you don’t really need a quiet place and a comfortable position (although they help, they’re not essential). But you do need a mental device and a passive attitude.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, for some people, the act of trying to relax creates anxiety. This is a puzzling paradox. Why would trying to relax trigger anxiety?

The intent to relax can trigger anxiety in several different ways. For some, if you try to relax, you can also trigger worries about not being able to relax. This is a relatively natural byproduct of self-consciousness. If this is the case for you, take it slowly. Self-awareness can trigger self-consciousness and self-consciousness can trigger anxiety . . . but time and practice can overcome these obstacles.

For others, a history of trauma or physical discomfort can be activated. This is similar to self-consciousness because the turning of your attention to your body inevitably makes you more aware of your body and this awareness can draw you into old, emotionally or physically painful memories. If this is the case for you, again, take it slowly. Also, manage your expectations, and get support as needed. Support could come in the form of specific comforting and soothing cues (even physical cues), an outside support person, or a professional counselor or psychotherapist.

Trauma and anxiety are common human challenges. Although trauma and anxiety can be terribly emotionally disturbing and disruptive, the core treatment for these problems usually involves one or more forms of exposure and can be traced back to Mary Cover Jones. You can read more about Mary Cover Jones and her amazing work on my blog: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2018/06/04/the-secret-self-regulation-cure-seriously-this-time/

Okay, that’s enough of my jibber-jabbering. Here’s your assignment:

  1. Try integrating your favorite relaxation method (no drugs please) into your daily life. You can do it for a minute here and there, or 20 minutes all at once.
  2. Write me a paragraph or two about how it went. Include reflections on (a) what helped you relax more? and (b) what got into the way of you relaxing (obstacles)?
  3. Write me a paragraph about how you might try to do more relaxing in the future—including how you will deal with those pesky obstacles.

Thanks for reading and have a fantastic Sunday.

 

 

 

Happiness Homework: Week 2 — University of Montana

Peg and John Singing at Pat's Wedding

Yesterday the happiness class focused on the context of happiness and happiness habits. On my powerpoint slides, I managed to reverse the numerator and denominator of Bono’s happiness equation, resulting in my abject humiliation in front of the class. This led to my personally disclosing my most humiliating experience ever, thereby demonstrating how contextual experiences in the here-and-now can trigger memories that can then either magnify or minimize an experience of happiness or unhappiness in the moment. I’ll spare you the details of my historical humiliations, and instead, direct you toward this week’s happiness homework assignments.

By now, students have read chapters one and two in Tim Bono’s book, “When Likes Aren’t Enough: A crash course in the science of happiness.” Additionally, they listened to a Hidden Brain podcast on Creatures of Habit: https://www.npr.org/transcripts/787160734, and watched a short Forest Bathing video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W0MEFNyLPag

The two take-home assignments of the week are described below:

Active Learning Assignment 3 – Three Happy Places

More often than we might think, our environment, setting, or context directly influences our mood and sense of well-being. This is most obvious when we’re in settings or environments that we find aversive.

To start this assignment, reflect briefly on environments, settings, or contexts that you find aversive. For example, some people find cloudy days, rain, smoky skies (or rooms), or particular temperatures aversive or uncomfortable. Other people might find churches, gyms, or libraries aversive.

Now, consider the opposite: What environments, settings, or contexts do you find pleasurable, comforting, or energizing? As you may have noticed in the short “Forest bathing” video, there’s evidence that, in general, more time in the outdoors is linked to increased feelings of well-being. For this assignment, don’t worry about what “should” be your happy place. . . but if the outdoors is a happy place for you, be sure to include it.

After reading and reflecting on the above, write a few words (short answers) in response to the following prompts:

  1. List three settings that usually trigger negativity or discomfort in you.
  2. List three settings that usually trigger happiness and wellbeing in you (and be specific). These are your happy places
  3. What can you do to prepare for or cope with challenging settings that usually cause you discomfort? (Other than avoiding them)
  4. What can you do to increase the frequency of time you spend in environments that contribute to your feelings of wellness?
  5. What can you do to create places or spaces in your mind that you can use (anywhere and anytime) to increase your sense of comfort and wellness in the moment?

Active Learning Assignment 4 – Three Good Things

Perhaps the most basic and well-known evidence-based happiness assignment is Martin Seligman’s Three Good Things activity.

Here’s Seligman’s description: Write down, for one week, before you go to sleep, three things that went well for you during the day, and then reflect on why they went well.

Just in case you want to hear it from the horse’s mouth, here’s a one-minute video of Seligman describing the activity: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZOGAp9dw8Ac

For this assignment, you should do the Three Good Things activity for a week, as prescribed by Seligman. Dan and I don’t need to see all 21 good things from your whole week, but we would like you to share the following with us:

  1. Three ESPECIALLY good things from the week (think of these of as your Good Things Highlights). We’re very excited to hear about these.
  2. The most common (summarized) explanations for why these 21 good things happened. We’re very interested in what’s happening (or what you’re doing) to create the good things in your day-to-day lives.

 

 

Why I’m Angry about our Happiness Class at the University of Montana

JSF Creates Happiness

Last week, a friend of ours stopped to visit. She asked how our prep for the happiness class at UM was going. We said fine. She asked how we felt about the online comments that were critical of our new happiness class. Not having read any critical comments, I shrugged. She elaborated, “You know, people said that having a happiness class at UM is one of the things wrong with UM and higher education.”

Instantly, a small wave of anger rose up in my chest. I may have offered up a sarcastic retort or two. As is usually best, I’ll spare you the details of retorts. After she left, I ruminated a bit. I imagined a range of fantastic scenarios during which I experienced gratification from confronting our critics. These too, are best left to everyone’s imagination.

Eventually, I settled into a better place. I decided that the ironic conclusion is that I need to get more information about our new happiness class out there. One super-popular phenomenon right now—maybe especially in the age of the internet—has to do with people commenting on things, despite not having all the facts. I do it myself. Sometimes I critique things that I don’t know much about. Having an opinion is easy. Having an informed opinion is harder. Being partially informed generally makes critiquing others easier. I decided that, given my behavior, I shouldn’t complain too much when people disparage our happiness class, even though they don’t have all the facts.

This brought me to a calmer place. Instead of venting anger, I’m channeling my anger into the proliferation of information.

To start, for critics of our happiness course at UM, I have a few questions, some of which may still have an angry edge.

  1. What do you know about the origins of the positive psychology movement? Were you in San Francisco at the American Psychological Association conference in 1998, when Martin E. P. Seligman officially launched the strengths in psychology movement? I was. Using my best academic jargon, being in the room when Seligman changed the course of modern psychology was pretty cool stuff.
  2. Do you know why Seligman launched the positive psychology movement? Do you have any sense of what he was studying before he pivoted toward strengths and positive psychology? Ever heard of learned helplessness?
  3. Did you know there’s an academic Journal of Positive Psychology? Have you read any JPP research articles? How about the Journal of Happiness Studies? Been doing any reading there? If not, you might want to consider enrolling in a class in happiness. You’re too late to get into ours, but there’s a ton of online and in-person stuff out there from Yale, Berkeley, Harvard, and other institutions, although I prefer the University of Montana.
  4. What do you suppose Aristotle thought about happiness? Have you heard of eudaimonia? Do you understand what Aristotle meant by eudaimonia or anything pertaining to his concept of the golden mean? If not, you might want to consider a happiness class . . . or a Google search. The golden mean is very important to understanding virtue, and virtue, well, having virtue is virtuous, which is a good thing.
  5. Are you aware of the rates of depression, suicidality, anxiety, and unhappiness in college students? Are you aware that in published research studies there are at least a dozen specific experiential activities that have scientific evidence supporting their use to increase happiness? Can you name any? Have you tried any? How are you feeling? If you’re so damn grumpy that you spend your time posting negativity on social media, you should definitely consider a happiness class. One interesting tidbit of research information that I’ll share in our happiness class is the fact that the number of hateful Twitter words used in specific counties in the U.S. are significantly correlated with increased coronary heart disease events in those same counties. Does that mean offering up nasty posts or tweets will increase your risk of death from a heart attack? Maybe. Maybe not. As I’m sure you know, the basic scientific rule that correlation does not imply causation means that there may be much more to the story. You might have to take a happiness class to learn whether intentionally posting fewer nasty comments online could increase your longevity.

Inspired by critiques of the existence of our happiness class (thank you, thank you so much!), I’ve decided to increase the frequency of my happiness posts and updates. Look for much more here on specific happiness assignments from our University of Montana Happiness Class. You can follow along. Unfortunately, the class is pretty much full-up now, but there will be more opportunities to take University of Montana happiness classes this summer and during the next academic year.

Below, I’ve included the description of the course from the syllabus:

COURSE CONTENT AND DESCRIPTION: Over the past 20 years, research on happiness has flourished. Due to the natural interest that most Americans have for happiness, research findings (and unfounded rumors) have been widely distributed worldwide. Every day, happiness is promoted via online blogs, newspaper and magazine articles, Twitter posts, Instagram videos, TikTok, and through many other media and social media venues. Ironically, instead of increases in national happiness, most epidemiological research indicates that all across the U.S., children, adolescents, adults, and seniors are experiencing less happiness, more depression, and higher suicide rates. To help sort out scientific reality from unsubstantiated rumors, in this course, we will describe, discuss, and experience the art and science of happiness. What this means is that we will define happiness, read a popular happiness book, examine scientific research studies, try out research experiments in class, engage in extended happiness lab assignments, and use published instruments to measure our own happiness and well-being. Overall, we will focus on how happiness and well-being are manifest in the physical, cognitive, emotional, interpersonal, spiritual, behavioral, and contextual/cultural dimensions of our lives.

Have a happy weekend . . . and watch for upcoming happiness assignments.

Happiness is Coming . . .

From M 2019 Spring

There’s hardly any place more beautiful than Missoula in the spring. . . which, despite the looming winter, will come to the University of Montana in January (we call Jan-May “Spring” semester). In the past, UM has been rated as the most “Gorgeous” campus in the U.S. Just saying.

Although I love UM, UM also sometimes gives me frustration. That’s natural. Last month, I submitted an op-ed piece to the campus newspaper, “The Kaimin.” I never heard back. Hmm. Oh well. I’m not TOO frustrated, because I know an alternative and exciting venue where I can get it published for sure. . . right here!

Just so I reach my audience, please share this with all the Kaimin readers you know, or other college/university students.

*********************************

For many students, college life is a blissful state of intellectual growth, social relationships, and recreation. My memories as a graduate student at the University of Montana are some of the best of my life. But, to be honest, I also recall going to the campus health center (way before it was called Curry Health) with heart palpitations; I also went to individual counseling and participated in a therapeutic group. Life was good, but it wasn’t all roses and chocolate.

The truth is, the college years are times of great stress and strain for most students. Earlier this year, based on data from over 67,000 undergraduates, researchers reported: “College students face unprecedented levels of distress that affect their mental health” (Liu, Stevens, Wong, Yasui, & Chen, 2019). They detailed the stresses, noting that depression, anxiety, suicide, and other mental health problems are on the rise among college students. These data happened to coincide with an area of professional interest for me: I’ve often wondered, what makes people less depressed and less anxious? Or, put in more positive terms, what creates happiness or fulfillment? What factors contribute to a sense of well-being? What makes for a well-lived life?

As many of you already know, my explorations in this area have led to Rita and I developing a course I’ll be teaching this spring titled, “The Art and Science of Happiness.” In this course, we’ll explore the scientific research on happiness and psychological well-being. We’ll debunk some happiness myths. The class will also include an applied “Happiness Lab,” and all the students will be assigned personal happiness consultants. How cool is that?

In the happiness lab, students will meet in small study groups (about 10 students) to experiment with research-based techniques designed to promote emotional well-being. Examples include mindfulness (we’ve got a great egg-balancing activity all ready), savoring (did you know there are specific techniques people can use to extend and elaborate on their positive experiences?), and methods for cultivating gratitude (we’ll explore how to do this live and in-person, and through social media).

Courses on this happiness and well-being have sprung up across the country and across disciplines. From Harvard and Yale to small community colleges, the classes have not only proven popular, but are also shown to have positive effects on self-reported happiness and well-being. I’m looking forward to offering this class at UM, hopefully adding our own Griz flavor to the existing materials.

The Art and Science of Happiness will meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11am to 12:20pm. You can register for it on Cyberbear (Google Cyberbear). If you have questions you want answered before you to take the plunge into a happier life, email me at john.sf@mso.umt.edu.

On the Road to Billings . . . and Well-Being . . . and Happiness

Baby Laugh

Tonight I have the honor of offering a public lecture in Billings. Situated as a part of a series of community suicide-related talks, my title is “Psychological Well-Being and the Pursuit of Happiness.” I suspect somewhere between 3 and 30 people will be in attendance. Although I’m hoping for 30, I’m realistically assuming that Rita and the program’s host will show. Counting me, that makes three!

To help get attendance over 3, someone suggested I edit this post to include the time and location. I’m on at 7pm till 8:30pm on the second floor of the MSU-B library, room 231. Hope to see you there.

Below, I’m pasting the handout for tonight. Being in the green lane, I’m trying to save paper and make these products available online. Here you go!

Psychological Well-Being and the Pursuit of Happiness

John Sommers-Flanagan, Ph.D.

Following is a summary of key points for John Sommers-Flanagan’s presentation for the Big Sky Youth Empowerment Program and Montana Social Scientists, LLC, Billings, MT – November 7, 2019

Introduction: Happiness can run very fast. So, let’s chase well-being instead

  1. The Many Roads to Well-Being. You can find well-being on emotional, mental, social, physical, spiritual/cultural, behavioral, and environmental roadways.
  2. It’s Natural, but not Helpful, to do the Opposite of What Creates Well-Being. If we want to catch well-being, we need to actively plan and pursue it.
  3. The Pennebaker Studies. Writing or talking about deeper emotions and thoughts will make you healthier (better immune functioning) and happier. Choking off our emotions is inadvisable.
  4. The Cherries Story. It’s not what happens to us . . . but what we think about what happens to us . . . that increases or decreases our misery. Focusing on your good qualities can be difficult, but doing so helps build a strong foundation.
  5. Savoring. Use the power of your mind to extend and expand positive experiences.
  6. Why Children (and Adults) Misbehave. When people feel a deep sense of belonging and socially useful, the need to misbehave and feelings of suicide diminish.
  7. Exercise is the Solution (No matter the question). Exercise reduces depression in youth and offsets the genetic predisposition toward depression in adults. You can stretch or lift or do cardio, but get moving!
  8. Holding Hands and Hugging is a Chemical Gift (or not). Consent, timing, and desirable companionship are foundational to whether touch contributes to health.
  9. If You Can’t Catch Happiness or Well-Being, Start Chasing Meaning. Regular involvement in spiritual, cultural, religious, or social justice groups will feel so good that you might experience happiness and well-being along the way.
  10. Remember gratitude. All too often we forget to notice and express gratitude. Put it on your planner; both you and the person who receives your gratitude will thank you for it.

 ****************************************************

John Sommers-Flanagan is a Professor of Counseling at the University of Montana. For more information, go to his blog at johnsommersflanagan.com. John is solely responsible for the content of this handout. Good luck in your pursuit of wellness.

Happiness and Well-Being (in Livingston, Montana)

Cow

Yesterday, at the fabulous West Creek Ranch retreat center just North of Yellowstone Park, I introduced community leaders from Livingston, Montana to a man named James Pennebaker. It was a brief meeting. In fact, I’m not sure anyone remembers the formal introduction.

I should probably mention that James Pennebaker wasn’t in the room. The meeting consisted of me putting a short and inadequate description of one of his research studies up on a screen. The study went something like this:

Back in 1986, Pennebaker randomly assigned college students to one of two groups. The first group was instructed to write about personally traumatic life events. The second group was instructed to write about trivial topics. Both groups wrote on four consecutive days. Then, Pennebaker obtained health center records, self-reported mood ratings, physical symptoms, and physiological measures.

Pennebaker reported that, in the short-term, participants who wrote about trauma had higher blood pressure and more negative moods that the college students who wrote about trivia. But the longer term results were, IMHO, amazing. Generally, the students who wrote about trauma had fewer health center visits, better immune functioning, and overall improved physical health.

Pennebaker’s theory was that choking back important emotions takes a physical toll on the body and creates poorer health.

Since 1986, Pennebaker and others have conducted much more research on this phenomenon. The results have been similar. As a consequence, over time, Pennebaker has “penned” several books on this topic, including:

  • Opening Up: The healing power of expressing emotions
  • Writing to Heal: A guided journal for recovering from trauma & emotional upheaval
  • Expressive Writing: Words that heal
  • The Secret Life of Pronouns: What our words say about us
  • Opening Up by Writing It Down

As most of you know, after a couple decades presenting on suicide assessment and treatment, Rita and I have pivoted toward happiness and well-being. The coolest thing about talking about happiness and well-being is that doing so is WAY MORE FUN, and it results in meeting and laughing with very cool people, like the Livingston professionals.

Speaking of Livingston professionals, just in case you forgot that you met James Pennebaker, here’s a link to my powerpoints from yesterday: Livingston 2019 Final

I hope you had as much fun listening as I did talking.

The Dialectics of Diagnosis at MFPE in Belgrade

Waving

Today I’m in Bozeman on my way to present to the Montana School Counselors in Belgrade, MT. As my friends at the Big Sky Youth Empowerment Program like to say, “I’m stoked!” I’m stoked because there’s hardly anything much better than spending a day with Montana School Counselors. Woohoo!

My topic tomorrow is “Strategies for Supporting Students with Common Mental Health Conditions.” That means I’ll be reviewing some DSM/ICD diagnostic criteria and that brings me to reflect on the following. . . .

Not long ago (July, 2019), Allsopp, Read, Corcoran, & Kinderman published an article in Psychiatry Research, not so boldly titled, “Heterogeneity in psychiatric diagnostic classification.” Hmm, sounds fascinating (not!).

A few days later, a summary of the article appeared in the less academically and more media oriented, ScienceDaily. The ScienceDaily’s contrasting and much bolder title was, “Psychiatric diagnosis ‘scientifically meaningless.” Wow!

The ScienceDaily summary took the issue even further. They wrote: “A new study, published in Psychiatry Research, has concluded that psychiatric diagnoses are scientifically worthless as tools to identify discrete mental health disorders.”

Did you catch that? Scientifically worthless!

In an interview with ScienceDaily, Allsopp, Read, and Kinderman stoked the passion, and avoided any word-mincing.

Dr. Kate Allsopp said, “Although diagnostic labels create the illusion of an explanation they are scientifically meaningless and can create stigma and prejudice. I hope these findings will encourage mental health professionals to think beyond diagnoses and consider other explanations of mental distress, such as trauma and other adverse life experiences.”

Professor Peter Kinderman, University of Liverpool, said: “This study provides yet more evidence that the biomedical diagnostic approach in psychiatry is not fit for purpose. Diagnoses frequently and uncritically reported as ‘real illnesses’ are in fact made on the basis of internally inconsistent, confused and contradictory patterns of largely arbitrary criteria. The diagnostic system wrongly assumes that all distress results from disorder, and relies heavily on subjective judgments about what is normal.”

Professor John Read, University of East London, said: “Perhaps it is time we stopped pretending that medical-sounding labels contribute anything to our understanding of the complex causes of human distress or of what kind of help we need when distressed.”

In contrast to the authors’ conclusions, nearly every conventional psychiatrist believes the opposite–and emphasizes that psychiatric diagnosis is of great scientific and medical importance. For example, the Midtown Psychiatry and TMS Center website says, “A correct diagnosis helps the psychiatrist formulate the most effective treatment that will result in remission.”

No doubt there.

In addition, although I literally love that Allsopp, Read, and Kinderman are so outspoken about the potential deleterious effects of diagnosis, I think maybe they take it too far. For example, “Shall we pretend that we should provide the same intervention for panic attacks as we provide for conduct disorder, autism spectrum disorder, and gender dysphoria?”

That’s me talking now . . . and as I discussed this with Rita, she amplified that, of course, if you have a student who’s intentionally engaging in violent acts that harm others, we’re not treating them the same as a student who’s suffering panic attacks. Obviously.

Psychiatric diagnosis is a great example of a dialectic. Yes, in some ways it’s meaningless and overblown. And yes, in some ways it provides crucial information that informs our treatment approaches.

This leads me to my final point, and to my handouts.

What’s our School Counseling take-away message?

Let’s keep the baby and throw out with the bathwater.

Let’s de-emphasize labels – because labelling, whether accurate or inaccurate and whether self-inflicted or other inflicted, are possibly pathology-inducing.

Instead, let’s focus on specific behavior patterns, as well as abilities, impairments, stressors, and trauma experiences that interfere with academic achievement, personal and social functioning, and career potential.

In case you’re interested in more on this. My handouts for the workshop are below.

The Powerpoints: MFPE 2019 Belgrade Final

Managing fear and anxiety:Childhood Fears Rev

Student de-escalation tips: De-escalation Handout REV

Why Kids Lie and What to Do About It