A student perspective on “The Art and Science of Human Flourishing”

Students in "The Art and Science of Human Flourishing" colored mandalas while listening to relaxing music.

What does it mean to flourish, and what does it have to do with student life? The Student Flourishing Initiative is a multi-university collaboration between Penn State, the University of Virginia, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison that aims to assist students in cultivating their well-being and exploring what it means to live a life of flourishing. Part of this initiative is a general education course for Penn State undergraduates called “Art and Science of Human Flourishing" (HDFS 108N.) I’m Hannah Ferenci, the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center’s communications intern, and I recently sat in on a lecture to see how flourishing starts in the classroom.

As we entered the classroom, Robert Roeser, a professor in the department of Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS) and the Bennett Pierce Professor of Caring and Compassion, passed out a poem to each student. Class began with the ringing of a bell, and everyone kept quiet as the dinging filled the space. Instead of memorizing formulas or textbook definitions, the class was spent noticing what was already present in your mind. There were no wrong answers – even “I don’t know” was considered a worthwhile response as long as you were willing to consider why you didn’t know.

Professor Roeser had us close our eyes and played the jazz song “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis. Instead of scrambling to take notes, we listened to the music with our eyes shut and noticed our feelings and reaction. After the song, we reflected as a class on how the music made us feel: the consensus was that it made us feel at peace.

Then came my favorite part of the class. We each got to pick a mandala print out and colored pencils, and were encouraged to color as Professor Roeser played “Kind of Blue” again. With most lectures, the class would break into chatter at this point. But as jazz music filled the room, everyone focused on their mandala and enjoyed the peace.

I was surprised at how easily I fell into the task of coloring. Without even trying, I managed to turn off my mind from stress or distractions. I was consumed by what color I was working with and where I wanted to color. I was itching to finish coloring the entire shape, and diligent about coloring symmetrically. As we colored, Professor Roeser told us that whether we wanted to scribble outside the lines, hurry to finish the shape, or shade meticulously, what we were doing and feeling was alright. We only needed to notice it and be mindful of it.

After a few minutes of quiet coloring, Professor Roeser brought the class back to focus with a bell. He invited us to discuss with the people around us how the experience made us feel. I talked to class members about the relaxation I felt, even though it came alongside an instinctive desire to finish what I started as quickly as possible. We all felt calmed by the experience.

As Professor Roeser wrapped up the lecture he allowed us to continue coloring while we listened. He said that doodling is okay, especially if we notice what we draw and where our minds go as we draw it. Once class was over, people left quietly. Professor Roeser offered to take students’ colored pages if they didn’t want to keep them, and every page he received was met with a genuine compliment about its color or creativity.

Unlike most classes, HDFS 108N didn’t seem to be about grades or measuring up to some kind of ideal. Students came to class with their own perspectives, and as long as they were willing to explore it, any answer was welcome. Instead of testing students, HDFS 108N gives them the space to flourish.

I talked with Professor Roeser after the class’ last meeting about the role prevention and research take in the course. He said, “each week we give students a practice and then tie in some science on how that practice can help with developing malleability. How compassionate and mindful we are isn’t set by nature – we can grow. We use science to show why.”

He continued, “the course was designed because of mental health challenges in the undergrad population, with more anxiety and distraction than previous generations. We may have students who are more prone to these challenges, so we want to give them skills at the onset of their career to stop them from emerging or snowballing.”

Prevention can happen in the classroom. The lessons in HDFS 108N could help students in their other classes, since skills like mindfulness and stress management are always relevant. Taking HDFS 108N as a freshman could help new students adjust to the demands of college by promoting mindfulness instead of perfection. Prevention science doesn’t just happen in a lab: in this case, it happens in a classroom at Penn State.