Building durable happiness through relationships

Course teaches students that connections are the fruit of hard work

| Author: Eric Baerren | Media Contact: Aaron Mills

Four groups of young people, three sitting on the floor, are gathered in a classroom.
Students in Kirsten Weber's Communication, Happiness and Well-being course break into small groups during an exercise to help them understand the role communication plays in long-lasting, durable happiness.

Aspiring music education student Johannah Chatman has a full plate. When she isn't in class, she’s practicing saxophone. There isn't much time to work on relationships with other people.

Investing that time has the potential for a big payoff.

Building connection is critical to living a happier life, said  Kirsten Weber, a faculty member of Central Michigan University’s  School of Communication, Journalism & Media.

“It’s not just knowing, it’s doing,” Weber said.

Weber made knowing and doing the centerpiece of a course called Communication, Happiness and Well-being. The general education course provides students with research on how communication fuels happiness. The hands-on experience then employs the concepts.

The hands-on work is the vital part.

“You can’t just say, ‘Oh, I need to make connections,’” she said.

Relationships require intentional effort

That was one of the big things Chatman learned when she took the course during the spring semester. Building relationships that are key to happiness requires intentional work.

Exercises built into the curriculum helped translate what they learned in the classroom into valuable results, Chatman said. Journaling about gratitude and savoring important moments were two exercises that stood out for her.

Some exercises require students to break out of their comfort zone. One involves striking up five conversations with strangers – something that is difficult for people.

There’s a belief that strangers will think that you’re weird if you try to have a conversation with them, Weber said. The research shows the opposite: when strangers chat, both parties walk away feeling more fulfilled and a little happier.

Other exercises students can choose from include meditation, random acts of kindness and a social media detox, she said. The detox helps students be more present in their lives to develop more meaningful connections to the people they’re with at that moment.

An idea sparked by the pandemic

The idea for the course came when people’s connections were at their most tenuous, the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic. The isolation caused people to lose some of those critical small connections critical to create happiness.

Weber, who describes herself as an optimist, wanted to bring light into a dark situation. A podcast called The Happiness Lab gave her the idea to build a course around the intersection of communication and happiness.

Chatman said the work she did for the course worked. She developed a much better balance between her academic pursuits and her personal life. The course itself felt like a break during hectic days.

The course also provided rewards beyond satisfying general education requirements. After Chatman finished the class, the things that she said she learned helped make her personal life much more rewarding. That, in turn, has made her a happier person.
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