Students were tasked with building a blueprint for a “multimillion smile enterprise,” in which they had to address a real-life social challenge in a way that would not only help a small group of people but also sustain and reach millions of people. “A multimillion smile enterprise prioritizes the smiles over the dollars,” Mehta said.
Broken into small groups, the students were tasked with listing five human attributes or skills that would be difficult to replace by machines. The word cloud that emerged highlighted the attributes of empathy, trust, creativity and charisma.
"Certainly right now, everyone’s got happiness on the brain and is trying to navigate through this uncertain world,” said Bill Whitney, administrative director for the Office of Creative Inquiry. “So, we really thought students could use the opportunity to take a step back from their regular classes and the usual rhythm of the semester and throw themselves into something else, and along the way, we hoped and I think succeeded, in getting a lot of them to start to develop some habits for their own personal happiness and wellbeing.”
The students had in-depth conversations with a variety of guest speakers including a Zen Buddhist monk, a jazz musician and theater director and a billionaire philanthropist. The goal, said Whitney, was to encourage the students “to think about different ways of seeing the world from different perspectives.”
'Philly Food Navigators'
Cayla Brint ’23 worked with Noah Weaver ’22, Manzona Bryant ’24 and Marina Mendez ’23 on their project, “Philly Food Navigators”. She initially signed up for the program for personal reasons and benefited academically. She said she practices self-care and aims to become a better version of herself. COVID has given her a lot of time alone this past year, she said, and the program was something she really wanted to do.
In targeting food insecurity in Philadelphia, Brint’s team used resources such as maps that highlighted food insecure locations to help them get in contact with others who were trying to solve the problem. “Doing that project made me realize how important service is to me and how important it is to make that type of impact on people who are really struggling,” Brint said.
'Happily Ever Now'
Ashley Paquin ’21 said she was drawn to the course because it sounded like no other she read on Lehigh’s course page. “ I think what almost drew me in was how I was a little confused by what it was,” she said. “I wasn't sure if it was all going to be personal development or professional growth or career readiness, and it turned out to be kind of a blend of all of it.”
Paquin, who studies behavioral neuroscience, worked with Sebastian Wick ’24, Georgia Kiriakou ’23 and Amit Khanal ’23 on the “Happily Ever Now” project, which created “gratitude journals” specifically tailored to children with chronic conditions such as cystic fibrosis, leukemia and autism.
The child’s experience was represented in an interactive journal with the goal to help improve the mental health of both the children and their parents and other caregivers who may also be experiencing mental health effects. The team spoke with mental health experts, family and friends who have first- or second-hand experience with these kinds of issues.
Zeist Rizvi ‘21 worked with Ethan Fisher-Perez ’24, Jacques Pelman ’23 and Gabriella Nori ’22 on the “Happy Habits” project, which centered around mental health early on in childhood and initially focused on schools in the United States with the aim of implementing positive, habit-building activities in schools. The team slowly realized that the programs were much more easily implemented in the United States, and shifted their focus to Lahore, Pakistan, where Rizvi is originally from.
Rizvi’s insight helped determine with whom, and where they could collaborate. Being from Pakistan, she said she was also able to help the team strategize how to introduce this project to a population that might be closed-minded about mental health.
The program targeted elementary-school-aged children and would train teachers over Zoom to build a more mental health conscious curriculum with the help of child school counselors.
Rizvi reached out to one of her former teachers in Pakistan, who provided advice and motivated the team in their work.
“She was like, ‘Oh, this is exactly what we need. There's not enough mental health talk at all. Children grow up and they don't know what they're doing and why they're feeling certain ways. And nobody can help them. Their parents don't talk to them.’ So she was very encouraging,” Rizvi said.
Rizvi and her group hope to ultimately implement “Happy Habits” into Pakistani schools.
“The results were just incredible so we are really pleased with how it all turned out,” Mehta said. “The students really enjoyed it, they grew so much from it. I just read their final reflection essays, and I teared up a few times because they were so deep and meaningful.”
Whitney felt the program was a useful way to get students connected who had spent the past two semesters relatively isolated.
“Something about doing it in the middle of a pandemic. I think that was a real advantage for the students at least,” Whitney said. “They got to connect, over Zoom, but connect pretty deeply with some of their peers.”
Brint enjoyed the experience. “This is the best group I've ever worked in... because of that trust and honesty,” she said. “We had such a good flow of communication and it taught me so much about being in a group and working in the team.”
Paquin felt that some course exercises, such as practicing vulnerability, were hard to do over Zoom but she said she was glad it allowed for guest speakers from so many different locations.
Brint, however, felt the experience of being virtual allowed students to open up more. “I almost wonder if being on Zoom, people are less afraid to be vulnerable. It was a super vulnerable class. We talked a lot about personal stuff and feelings and I have no idea if in person people wouldn't have been as open as they were virtually. So in that regard it was nice to have it on Zoom because I kind of expect people to be less vulnerable when they're in person.”
Mehta said he plans to work with a small team of faculty from each of Lehigh’s five colleges to explore how to create the Sustainable Happiness Institute experience for first-years in their second semester.
Mehta said he feels that every Lehigh student should graduate with a good understanding of how the world is changing—and how to find their place in it.
Story by Jessica Post