Happiness and resiliency: New class
explores our most fundamental skill © Nov. 16, 2012, Norwich University Office of Communications

A class of Norwich psychology students is learning that community is a vital part of being happy. Here, a group of Norwich students celebrate on Junior Ring Weekend in April.

photo by Jordan Silverman, staffA class of Norwich psychology students is learning that community is an essential part of being happy. Here, a group of Norwich students celebrate on Junior Ring Weekend in April.

Norwich University psychology Prof. Peter Burmeister started his class with a video of the 1970’s developmental psychology experiments of Mary Ainsworth. It showed a toddler playing on the floor of a waiting room with his mother and a pile of toys. At one point, a strange woman enters the room and begins to interact with the child. Abruptly, the mother stands and slips out of the room with a brief promise she will be back.

The video skips forward a few minutes to the mother’s return and reunion with the child, who looked up and continued playing, seemingly unaffected. Other children in the same situation cried helplessly or grabbed their mothers and clung to them. The scenario, designed to gather information about infant attachment, was clinical and carefully controlled but disquieting to watch.

“I was watching your faces, and a lot of you were distressed,” said Burmeister to the class of undergraduates, mostly psychology majors.

It’s very moving for me as a teacher—to get this level of buy-in.

Prof. Peter Burmeister,
Psychology Department

This class is not studying infant psychology. Burmeister selected the video to illustrate one of the most fundamental human needs. People who do not feel connected with other people, he said, have a very hard time feeling happy. Far more than wealth, status or even health, connectedness helps us cope.

People also can draw a line to their early childhood experiences to understand how they develop and maintain relationships. Adults, he said, feel the same sense of isolation and trauma as children.

Burmeister’s class, the Psychology of Happiness, Resiliency and Empowerment, is new to Norwich. It covers ground that is just beginning to be addressed throughout the country, even though it is based around a fundamental question: How am I to be happy? Through it, Burmeister hopes to do more than simply impart an understanding of *the nature of contentment to students.

“I’m trying to give them some tools so they can enhance their own lives,” he said.

Students eagerly contested their professor’s assertions along the way. Alyssa Menard raised her hand and said the experiment and its conclusions suggested a short separation from a mother caused irreparable trauma to a child. This, she said, was simply not realistic.

“Mom has to leave the room sometimes,” said Menard, a criminal justice and psychology major from Waterbury, Vt.

Later, Menard explained she was thinking about the gulf between real life and the theoretical concepts taught in psychology classes. The interesting thing about this course, she said, was how much the two worlds interact. There are fewer test cases—more often they are asked to explore their own feelings and experiences.

“This class in particular is a more introspective experience,” she said. “The exercises we’ve been doing are mostly concerned with ourselves as individuals.”

For example, every week they’re asked to record their own feelings on a message board available to all class members. Burmeister said he was taken aback by how courageously students are willing to share with their peers, and how deeply connected they have become with the subject.

“Each week we seem to go to new levels of depth,” he said. “It’s very moving for me as a teacher—to get this level of buy-in.”

The subject of resiliency, he added, is particularly interesting to study in an environment like Norwich, where the majority of students lead a military lifestyle and leadership training has been a hallmark since the school’s establishment in 1819. The community is uniquely cohesive, he said, and issues that affect the military really resonate.

Suicide rates in the military have surpassed combat deaths, said Burmeister. Military methods for teaching soldiers to cope aren’t working and they need to try something new. Students want to be involved.

“There are tactics out there that really haven’t been implemented yet,” said Christopher Legge, a third-year psychology student from Essex Junction, Vt.

Legge, who hopes to build a career as an Army psychologist, appreciates the practical nature of the class. Not only is he learning to be happier and more resilient himself; he’s learning how to teach others. This may prove particularly valuable in a military environment where culture dictates you keep problems close and quiet.

“Soldiers are built to be tough and don’t show their weaknesses,” he said.

You can’t force anyone to share, Legge added. The key to helping a soldier explore his or her deeper feelings is to develop a relationship of trust and friendship; to let soldiers “talk it out” and figure out their own solutions. This, he said, touches on the most fundamental needs of individuals.

“The best way to be happy is to build friendships,” said Legge.

The idea for the class began to form about two years ago among faculty, said Burmeister, and the Psychology Department hopes to build on the concept of resiliency, perhaps through courses for Norwich’s online College of Graduate and Continuing Studies. This is important work, he told the class, because there is a generation of soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan who are going to need their help.

“You’re going to have to investigate harder and dig deeper,” said Burmeister to students. “That’s your charge.”