Next week, the Montana Happiness Project and the Families First Learning Lab have a variety of educational offerings. I’ve listed them below, along with links that can provide additional information.
If you’re a STEM grad student at the University of Montana, and you want to attend a short (2.5 hour) evidence-based happiness workshop on Friday, August 26 (and get a free lunch), click on this link for more information and to register. https://umt.co1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_3yjFgwKqfmE7Qt8
As you can see below, I’m doing the same workshop for Montana Tech in Butte on Aug 25.
If you’re working with an organization that might want a speaker on happiness or strengths-based suicide assessment and treatment, you should check out the Montana Happiness Project “Speaker” page: https://montanahappinessproject.com/speakers . . . and contact us to let us know of your interest.
Okay. Here’s the list of events for Aug and Sept.
August 23, 2022 – John Sommers-Flanagan presents on “The art and science of happy teachers” to the Belgrade School staff. Belgrade, MT.
August 25, 2022 – Dylan Wright presents on “Parent Engagement” to the Youth Dynamics staff. Webinar.
August 25, 2022 – John Sommers-Flanagan presents on “Evidence-based happiness skills” to the Montana HOPES Project at Montana Tech. Butte, MT.
August 26, 2022 – John Sommers-Flanagan presents on “Evidence-based happiness skills” to the Montana HOPES Project at University of Montana. Missoula, MT.
September 1, 2022 – Dylan Wright presents on “The Art, Science, and Practice of Meaningful Happiness” for Mountain Home staff. Missoula, MT.
September 20, 2022 – John Sommers-Flanagan presents on “Suicide assessment and treatment: A strengths-based approach” for the Wallowa Valley Center for Wellness. Enterprise, OR.
I forgot how much I love teaching group counseling.
Maybe I forgot because I haven’t taught Group Counseling at the University of Montana since 2017. Whatever the reason, last week, I remembered.
I remembered because I got to provide a group-oriented counseling training to seven very cool program managers and staff of the Big Sky Youth Empowerment program in Bozeman. We started with a structured question and answer opening, followed with a self-reflective debrief, and then re-started with a different version of the same opening so we could engage in a second self-reflective debrief. I’ve used this opening several times when teaching group; it’s getting better every time.
I love the experiential part where I get to flit back and forth between process facilitator and contributor. I love the opportunity to quote Irvin Yalom about the “self-reflective loop” and “The group leader is the norm-setter and role model.” Then I love getting to quote Yalom again, “Cohesion is the attraction of the group for its members.” And again, “I have a dilemma . . .” Boom. When teaching group counseling, the Yalom quotes never stop!
Groups are about individuals and groups and individuals’ learning from the power of groups. I get to learn and re-learn about strong openings, monopolizers, closing for consolidation, and the natural temptation of everyone in the group to fix other group members’ problems—and the need for group facilitators to tightly manage the problem-solving process. We get to “go vertical” and back out through linking and then “go horizontal.”
Tomorrow I head back to Bozeman for more training with the fabulous BYEP staff. Part of the day we’ll focus on specific group facilitation techniques, which reminded me of a handout I created back in 2017. The handout lists and provides examples for 18 different group counseling techniques/strategies. For anyone interested, the group techniques handout is here:
I hope you’re all having a great Memorial Day and engaging in something that feels like just the right amount of meaningful or remembrance for you on this important holiday when we recognize individuals who made huge sacrifices for the sake of the greater and common good of the group.
Earlier this week Rita and I got to talk about love for 90 minutes with Dr. Tim Nicolls and his Honors class titled “Love” at the University of Montana. It’s a fun gig. We get to tell stories about our own romantic history, weave in Alfred Adler’s many amazing love quotations, and walk though Julie and John Gottman’s six predictors of divorce, along with six strategies for addressing and shrinking those predictors.
Back in our courting days Rita lured me up onto the underside of Orange Street bridge in Missoula. We’re so old that we were courting long before they blocked off the underside to romancing couples. Rita—being a balance-beam genius in a previous life—started walking comfortably along an 18 inch wide steel beam about 40 feet above the shallows of the Clark Fork river. Being naïve and adopting the good constructivist mindset of not knowing, I followed. She just kept on walking as if there were no particular danger. I looked down at the rocks and water. By the time she turned to peek back at me, I was on my hands and knees and crawling very slowly along the beam.
To this day, Rita insists I’m afraid of heights. Of course, that’s not true. I’m not afraid of heights, but I am afraid of falling. I believe I was simply showing good judgment and trying to avoid dying during our courtship.
Our romantic bridge story links well to the classic social psychology bridge study on the misattribution of arousal. You can read the abstract here: https://doi.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fh0037031. Rita insists that she didn’t learn about how easily male college students can be manipulated into misattributing their fear-related arousal to romantic arousal until AFTER she led me onto the Orange Street bridge.
We like to call our lecture “Love Skills,” because of our mutual belief that although love usually involves passion, lasting love also includes a generous array of relationship skills. As Adler pointed out, long ago, long-term romantic relationships also require the right attitude. He wrote:
“There are too many people in our society who take, and [who] have great expectations, and too few who give. It seems that too much of human kind is caught in a love and marriage formula that states: Because I love you, you must obey me!”
In case you’re interested, here’s the link to our Love Skills powerpoints.
One of my biggest delights this semester has been reading my happiness students’ homework assignments. They’ve embraced each assignment with what Zen masters might call “Shoshin.”
Shoshin is a Japanese word referring to beginner’s mind. Beginner’s mind involves approaching experiences with an attitude of “not knowing” and maximum openness to learning. If you already know about something (say meditation), your natural inclination will be to close your mind, because you already have knowledge and lived experience about meditation and so there’s less openness to learning. Shifting from an expert (closed) mind to a beginner’s (open) mind requires intent and effort.
For many of my happiness students, some of the assignments have been old hat. Like when I ask someone with a degree in divinity and an active meditation practice to meditate for six minutes a day . . . or when I ask someone who is a faculty in counseling or a psychiatrist to try a little cognitive therapy on themselves . . . or when I ask university athletes to exercise, breathe, and consider the concept of flow . . . or when I ask a bartender to focus in on listening to others.
Despite me offering up some “old hat” assignments, my students have responded as if they were encountering everything for the first time. So. Very. Cool.
Those of you who aren’t enrolled at the University of Montana may not realize that today is the very end of spring break. Although spring is often about new beginnings, the end of a university semester is often about time management and emotional survival. Tomorrow, after a week or so of a “break” my students and I return to our studies to finish the semester. My hope is that we all return refreshed and with a renewed passion for learning, so we can Shoshin through our next six weeks.
This hope isn’t just for my happiness class students. Far too many painful events and situations are out there happening in the world. On top of that, everyone on the planet is facing unique and personal challenges that I don’t and probably can’t fully comprehend. We have these global and personal challenges AND in the Northern hemisphere, we’re experiencing spring. Even though there will be distractions and we will be imperfect, let’s do our best Shoshin and approach all of spring like a sponge, soaking up all the learning we can.
In 1970, Shunryu Suzuki wrote: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few” (from, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind).
Let’s stay watchful and open with a beginner’s mind. This is a new spring, a never before spring, with new opportunities. As James Garbarino once wrote: “Stress accumulates; opportunity ameliorates.” Amelioration. What a great word for today . . . and tomorrow.
I was just now finishing up the Moodle (not Poodle) shell for my upcoming Happiness class. While working, I noticed one more person added into the course. . . so there’s still time . . . and I know some of you have been thinking about it.
Whether you take my class or not, you should consider some form of a happiness intervention with yourself. I’m not saying that because I promote toxic positivity. Instead, although I think we should all explore our pain and deepen our understanding of ourselves, we also need tools that will help us feel better on a daily basis and more tools to help us make sure we’re pointed in a direction likely to create meaningful lives.
This leads me to some highlights from happiness class research.
In a small study of 23 undergraduates in a traditional, face-to-face psychology course format, “students reported gains in hope, self-actualization, well-being, agency, and pathway hopefulness, purpose, and mission in life” (Maybury, 2013, p. 62). Note: there was no control group in this study.
In a small study of 18 undergraduates (and 20 control participants who took a social psychology course) in traditional, face-to-face psychology course formats, “the positive psychology students reported higher overall happiness, life satisfaction, routes to happiness, and lower depressive symptoms and stress compared to students in the control course” (Goodmon et al., 2016, p. 232)
In a series of three studies conducted during a COVID-19 lockdown in the U.K., the researchers reported (a) undergraduates in a happiness course had higher mental well-being than a waiting list control; (b) during lockdown, the happiness course did not have significantly positive effects, but participants seemed somewhat buffered from negative effects because they had higher subjective well-being than a control group; (c) a short (4 week), online version of the course used with “university staff and students produced significant benefits across a range of mental and personal well-being measures” (Hood et al., 2021, p. 11). Note: there was no control group in the third study.
In a series of three large studies (n = 500+ for each) of massive open online courses (MOOCs), adult students reported significantly higher subjective well-being than students in an alternative introductory psychology MOOC (Yaden et al., 2021).
We’ve now—at the University of Montana—have collected data on three of our own happiness interventions (one 2.5-hour workshop and two full-semester courses). We have, or will soon, submit these for publication. Our outcomes included:
Study 1 (a 2.5-hour happiness workshop): We had an immediate statistically significant effect on depression symptoms in our workshop group (n = 28) as compared to the waiting list control group (n = 17). At six-months follow-up, over 60% of the workshop participants reported they were still feeling the benefits from the workshop.
Study 2 (Spring 2020 class; half face-to-face and half online, due to COVID-19): We had several positive outcomes for our happiness class members (n = 38) as compared to an alternative course control group (n = 41). Positive outcomes included: (a) greater perceived friendship support, (b) greater hope, (c) fewer/less intense negative emotions, (d) better total health, including better sleep and fewer headaches, and (e) slightly improved mindfulness.
Study 3 (Spring 2021 class; all online): Again, we had several positive outcomes for our happiness class members (n = 36) as compared to an alternative course control group (n = 34). This time, the positive outcomes included: (a) fewer/less intense negative emotions, (b) higher positive emotions, (c) increased hope on both agency and pathways subscales, as well as total hope, and (d) slight increases in perceived friendship support. Unfortunately, we forgot to include the physical health questionnaire.
*In closing, I should mention that I used anthropomorphizing language in this blog’s title. Rest assured, I realize that “research” as a non-sentient activity, is unable to speak, and so if I were to be perfectly honest, I’d say something like “Research says nothing about happiness classes, because research cannot speak.” The reason for my wanton anthropomorphizing is that I’ve noticed this sort of linguistic error in many popular articles that get lots of attention. . . and obviously, I’m trying to attract attention here.
Last year, for the first time, we offered the Art & Science of Happiness simultaneously as a 3 credit COUN 195 course through the University of Montana and as a non-credit course open to community members through UMOnline. The course was fully online. Many students took the course “live” and synchronously; others enrolled and completed the course at their convenience.
We had 50 students sign up for the course: 30 UM students took the course for credit; 20 were “community” members (hailing from Missoula, Browning, Billings, Pennsylvania, and Canada). Many of the UM students were 19 to 22 years-old. Many of the community members were 60 to 87 years-old. The inter-generational synergy was fabulous.
What You Get in the Art & Science of Happiness
25+ instructional hours with John Sommers-Flanagan, and occasionally Rita Sommers-Flanagan. You can experience these lectures synchronously through Zoom, or asynchronously at times that work into your personal schedule.
10+ hours of small group counseling designed to facilitate reflection, discussion, and experiencing of evidence-based happiness activities (these “lab” groups can be face-to-face or via Zoom)
8 hours of individual supportive wellness counseling with a Master’s student from the Counseling Department at the University of Montana (these services are face-to-face or via Zoom and on a first-come, first served basis, because we have a limited number of available counselors-in-training)
The cost for community UMOnline participants is $250. If that sounds expensive, think of it this way. You get 40+ total hours of a combination of large group instruction, small group counseling, and individual counseling, which translates to $6.25 an hour.
Research from the two previous semesters indicate that some (not all) participants experience:
Reduced depression symptoms (in some cases, depressive symptoms were substantially reduced)
Increased hope and optimism
An increased rate of positive emotions
A reduction in headaches
Greater feelings of social connection
Comments from Previous Community Participants
“Words are inadequate to express my gratitude for the Happiness Class and your amazing expertise. Literally transforming my life after a very difficult and sad nine months; plus, it’s a heckuva lot of fun. Again, thank you.”
“I found the course interesting and rewarding far beyond my expectations.”
“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.”
[In response to the group counseling component] “I appreciate the interactions that I have with everyone in my group. We are all very different, yet willing to be open and share our thoughts. I wasn’t sure what this would be like and I am already liking it a lot.”
[In response to a homework assignment] “I am applying a very simple formula to myself…When I become aware of how grumpy and scared and negative I feel about an issue in our family, I consciously think of two things for which I feel grateful. It fills the basket of my emotions with more positivity and opens up a new way of approaching my worries.”
The course is offered “live” on Tuesdays/Thursdays from 1pm to 2:20pm, beginning on January 18, 2022, ending the week of May 9, 2022. However, because the course is fully online via Zoom, you can also take the course asynchronously.
I believe this course content is very helpful, and so I’d like to make this course available as widely as possible. Please help me by sharing this information with others. Also, because I’m paid by the University of Montana to teach this course, all proceeds are returned to the University of Montana in general, and the Department of Counseling, in particular.
After facing an overwhelming number of choices on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, now we’re faced with another litany of excellent choices for Giving Tuesday. There are so many wonderful charities to support. You can’t go wrong with supporting food banks, shelters, and other organizations that push back against poverty. You also can’t go wrong supporting children, minorities, education, and the environment . . . these are all huge needs.
Along with the preceding charity types, this year Rita and I are wholeheartedly supporting college student mental health. We’ve seen the struggles firsthand and we believe college students can benefit from greater access to mental health services. Specifically, we’re supporting a University of Montana Foundation project called “The University of Montana Mental Health and Happiness Fund.” We see the University of Montana Mental Health and Happiness Fund as a win-win-win. Here’s why.
The first win is that the funds will go to provide more hours of mental health counseling for college students. Unfortunately, more than ever before, college students are stressed and experiencing mental health struggles. These struggles can include suicidal thoughts and behaviors. As far as age groups vulnerable to death by suicide, the college student age group is among the highest (along with older males). Supporting college student mental health can literally save lives and help college students graduate and become significant contributors to their communities. Currently, Counseling Services at the University of Montana needs more counselors to meet increased needs.
The second win is about “workforce development.” In Montana, and around the nation, we need a continuous flow of competent and capable mental health professionals. That’s why the first priority of the University of Montana Mental Health and Happiness Fund is to support a ½ time Counseling Intern for UM’s Counseling Services department. Funding an intern means that the intern gains valuable experience and supervision and can then go out and contribute to mental health in the community. If we receive more funds than expected, we will either fund a second ½ time counseling intern or we will fund happiness promotion projects at UM and within the Western Montana area.
The third win is basic economics. College students contribute to local economies. When they graduate, college students also create capital. College students become entrepreneurs, scientists, grant writers, community leaders, parents, and grandparents. In all these roles, college graduates will do better and be better if they have better mental health.
Our 2021 fundraising goal is $45,000. We’ve already raised over $22,000. Please help us reach our goal so we can contribute to positive mental health and happiness at the University of Montana.
If you’re interested in joining Rita and me in supporting the University of Montana Mental Health and Happiness fund here are the instructions.
I’ve got a friend who writes to me in acronyms. TBH is “To be honest.” LMK is “Let me know.” IMHO is “In my humble opinion.” FYI is “For your information.” YSKAT is “You should know about this.”
When I read my friend’s emails, there are always more letters than words, if YKWIM (you know what I mean).
This leads me to my PP (promotional point).
TBH signing up for a two-day SBSASTW (strengths-based suicide assessment and treatment workshop) isn’t everyone’s COT (cup of tea). TAI (think about it). That’s like 13 hours of suicide-related content. If you TAI, it CBYD (could bring you down).
That’s why, we will weave some PDC (pretty damn cool) EBHIs (evidence-based happiness interventions) into our 13 hours. This will be the MFE (most fun ever) two days of suicide training on November 19 and 20. YCBOI (you can bet on it).
But IMHO, woohoo. Really YSKAT. IMHO signing up for a two-day strengths-based suicide assessment and treatment workshop is TRTTD (the right thing to do).
YAMBWing (You also may be wondering), when John writes “we” is he going with the singular “we” or is he indicating there will be other presenters. TBH, John doesn’t know, but he’s hoping to recruit some of the amazing participants from this summer MHP (Montana Happiness Project) retreat to join in on the FUN (fricken unbelievably nice).
Dan Salois is teaching an abbreviated version of the Montana Happiness Class this summer. The course starts in ONE WEEK!
Dan is a doctoral student in the Department of Counseling and a great instructor. The course is noncredit, offered through our campus continuing education unit, and all online . . . so you can get a boost of happiness from the convenience of home.
Here’s the course 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 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. We will define happiness, do some short readings, try out research experiments in class, engage in happiness lab assignments, and 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/cultural, behavioral, and contextual dimensions of our lives.
The course meets online July 12 – 30, Tuesday and Thursday, 11:00 a.m. – 12:20 p.m. Course fee is $90, which translates to about $10 per instructional hour. . . and a pretty good deal for a dose of happiness.
As many of you know, the class generated a pretty cool song playlist. Typically, I select a song from the playlist, download it into my powerpoint, and start the music at 12:55pm. I say typically in that optimistic—see the glass half-full—sort of way, because, in reality, sometimes I struggle to get the music video to play, other times I start it a bit late (and begin to hear my Zooming students query, “What’s happening? Where’s the music?”), and still other times I go rogue and pick an off-list song that I happen to think fits the topic perfectly.
Last week, before we explored spirituality and forgiveness, I couldn’t resist playing “Heart of the Matter” by Don Henley . . . and now I can’t stop the tune and lyrics in my head . . . “Forgiveness, forgiveness, even if, even if, you don’t love me anymore.” For your immediate listening pleasure, here’s the Henley music link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rxni_Icyjj8&list=RDRxni_Icyjj8&start_radio=1&t=213
Usually I consider it best practice to keep my camera and microphone off during the opening music. You can imagine why. Holding on to the small shreds of respect that I’ve not yet squandered seems like good judgment, because if I let go, things might look like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W0Nju66rif4&feature=youtu.be
After the opening music I burst into the Zoom scene with energetic and pithy commentary designed to get everyone focused in on our topic of the day. Then, after a few orienting announcements, I send students into Zoom break-out rooms where they ask and answer the questions: “What do you remember from our last class” and “What about our last class seemed important to you and your life?”
My sense—based on our immediate debriefing after the break-out rooms—is that some students are finding joy in their five-minute one-on-one Q & A time. However, recently I heard from a few students that they particularly dislike the Zoom break-out experience. This leads me to a conundrum (why are there so many conundrums?). Should I continue with the opening class break-out rooms, or should I find another pedagogical strategy? Please enlighten me on whether you think I should continue with the break-out rooms or find a suitable alternative.
Following the break-out rooms and debriefing, I (sometimes accompanied by Rita), launch into lecture content. We talked about spirituality for three class meetings, and have also hit gratitude, kindness, cognitive methods for dealing with pesky negative thoughts, and much more. In order to not completely bore anyone, I shift in and out of the powerpoint slides, inserting side commentaries, forcing students to imagine their part of research studies, and facilitating experiential activities. My favorite two activities (so far) were having students engage in an on-camera Gestalt two-chair with themselves (the visuals were hilarious) . . . and having everyone shout out the word “fail” over and over again for 60 seconds. The “fail” activity is based on research on deconstructing particular words so they lose their power over us, and begin just sounding like funny sounds. The best part of that activity was having students report back that when they yelled “fail” repeatedly into their computers, their roommates thought they were having serious existential meltdowns.
Class usually closes with a large group discussion, during which I’m humbled by the depth and breadth of student commentary. On occasion, I’ve pushed quieter students to comment, and in every case, they’ve delivered. I’d share some examples, but the student comments are theirs to share. Let me just say, on their behalf, it’s good to listen to students.
Class ends with a flurry of good-byes, as well as expressions of gratitude and affection.
Although I’m not completely certain students are feeling the joy, I can say with confidence that I am. I’m loving the experience and deeply appreciating how often my students are making the Zoom version of happiness class . . . magical.
The place to click if you want to learn about psychotherapy, counseling, or whatever John SF is thinking about.