Happiness Is Hear to Listen
Marie Cooke, PhD; Steve Kelly, PhD; Mark Setton, DPhil., Anthony Arciero, PhD; Paul Desan, MD, PhD.
LAUNCH OF THE LISTENERS
Multiple surveys conducted in 2021-2, in both the UK and the US, have revealed that a staggering 50% of secondary school and college students are experiencing disabling depression or anxiety. About 30% have depression and 35% have anxiety, with 50% experiencing at least one condition. This is not only due to the impact of COVID-19. The pandemic has only served to exacerbate a rapid increase in psychological distress, which in the UK, and many industrialized nations, had more than doubled from 2015 to 2020.
In response to the crisis, an innovative student-powered project at Strathclyde University in Glasgow aimed at student mental health and wellbeing called “Hear to Listen” was launched. The intervention aimed at boosting student mental health and happiness through a hybrid approach, combining a brief online training with an onsite peer support program.
Beyond expectation, more than 150 Strathclyde students from 36 countries volunteered to be “Listeners.” Sporting logos on their clothing, which indicated that the wearer was “Hear to Listen” (yes, that’s exactly how it was spelt) the students were trained to “actively listen” to fellow students experiencing emotional turmoil or who simply needed to talk to someone. They also provided “signposting” to campus support services as well as some fun “Happy Hour” activities, such as board games, arts and crafts etc. As it turned out, the simple act of lending an empathic ear, responding supportively, and providing students with a range of options, often worked wonders.
Marie Cooke, Coordinator of the pilot “Hear to Listen” Program at Strathclyde’s Student Union, used a cost-effective online, self-paced course on the science of wellbeing to train the student volunteers, as well as training on “active listening,” and conducted ongoing coordination of activities.
The online course minimized expenses and provided science-based insights into 7 correlates of psychological wellbeing including relationships, meaning and purpose, flow, strengths and virtues, kindness, positive mindset, as well as physiological aspects of wellbeing (diet, exercise, sleep, and sunlight).
Throughout the year, Listeners received email reminders – one for each module in the course – that included a short video from the course and a “challenge” that students could use to apply the principles of psychological wellbeing in their daily lives.
The Listeners met regularly and scheduled their own shifts during which they would meet with students around campus, at the student union, or online in Zoom drop-in sessions. Marie met individually with the one hundred and fifty Listeners who volunteered over the course of the academic year, getting to know each one.
“As the semester has progressed, I’ve felt more motivated to be a Listener, since I’m aware of the positive impact that the project has had on students that have used it. Current events have also led to more distress in the general student population, so I’m motivated to do my best to help the people who need someone to talk to.”
– Student Listener.
“HAPPY HOUR” REINVENTED
The volunteers developed a strong sense of camaraderie and decided that they didn’t simply want to wait for students in need to approach, instead they decided to be more proactive, by regularly offering “Happy Hours.” This involved a whole range of activities led by the Listener volunteers, including board games, leisurely walks around campus, yoga, origami, embroidery and various crafts. These activities reportedly reinforced relationships between the volunteers as well as with fellow students. By developing meaningful relationships, getting involved in “Flow” activities, and reaching out to other people at critical times in their lives, the Listeners were enacting many of the principles of psychological wellbeing described in the course.
“Volunteering and helping people with their wellbeing brings me joy and improves my own wellbeing.”
– Student Listener.
A key aspect of the program was Dr. Marie Cooke. It was her initiative that began the partnership with Pursuit of Happiness (POH). She recruited the students, supported and encouraged them, and managed the day-to-day affairs of the Hear to Listen program. Although only employed part-time, she volunteered the extra hours needed to attend regular support sessions, onsite and online, to encourage the Listeners’ team.
MEASURING STUDENT WELLBEING
Through the acts of peer supporting and applying the 7 Habits of Happy People, the volunteers gained statistically significant improvements in the self-efficacy, and, specifically, confidence in their ability to affect their own psychological well-being. We also saw significant decreases in their levels of depression.
At the end of the study, the intervention group (The “Listeners”) scored higher on all positive measures (positive affect, hope, self-efficacy, and psychological well-being), and lower on all negative measures (negative affect and depression) than the control group. The figure below shows the percent change in the Listeners’ scores from the beginning of the study to the end.
On each measure, the Listeners improved. Their positive measure scores were higher, and their negative measure scores lower. An underlying theme of the course, and the science behind it, is that we each have the ability to exercise some control over our own well-being through daily lifestyle choices. We saw an increase in the Listeners’ self-efficacy to affect their own well-being immediately after they took the online course. As shown in the figure above, that increased self-efficacy was still evident at the end of the academic year. We are hopeful that the “Hear to Listen” program extended those benefits over the long-term.
“After deepening my understanding about active listening and constructive responding I feel that I understand key principles of happiness and how I can apply these to my own life and to others – especially in my role as a listener.” – Student Listener.
In follow-up measurements completed at the end of the academic year, the intervention group registered significant improvements, compared to baseline, in hope, self-efficacy, psychological well-being, and depression.
These are exciting results! The online course appears to have had an immediate effect (pre-test to post-test) on students’ self-efficacy. The Hear to Listen program appears to have improved a number of measures of psychological well-being over the course of the academic year. The combination of a science-based course and a prolonged involvement in a volunteer program that provided support to others allowed those impacts (and others) to be sustained.
LEGACY OF INTERVENTION
Another important result was that the change lasted the entire academic year. Intervention studies often find an impact, but those effects may fade over time. We attribute the lasting change in this case to the “Hear to Listen” program, which kept the intervention group students engaged in their communities, and allowed them multiple opportunities to implement the specific life skills prescribed by the course in an authentic setting. We cannot overstate the importance of the act of volunteering and the experience of contributing to the well-being of others. Additionally, the camaraderie that emerged among the volunteers could have been another key factor extending the positive impact of the experience. Several students provided feedback, both personally to Dr. Cooke, and through the open-ended items on the final survey, that the experience of being able to support fellow students in need was life-changing. In their comments, many respondents drew attention to the importance of the relationships they had established through the program.
A short, asynchronous online course was able to affect various components of college students’ psychological well-being. To make that impact “stick” required an ongoing series of experiences that allowed the students to develop meaningful relationships, care for others, and apply those scientific principles in daily practice. These aspects of the Hear to Listen program (volunteering, helping others, and developing relationships) are also key elements of the Pursuit of Happiness course.
We believe the Pursuit of Happiness Proficiency Course has real value in supporting psychological well-being, and the data appear to support that contention. We also believe that such a course is still more effective if integrated into a companion onsite program. This sort of hybrid intervention could provide a template for efforts to mitigate the psychological and academic impact of the “inner pandemic” on secondary and college students.
“Being engaged in the project and building relationships within it and understanding it more has increased my motivation to be part of such an incredible project. I feel that I’ve discovered my passion for helping others and this project has been a great way to develop this.” – Student Listener.
At the end of the year, Dr. Cooke organized an awards ceremony for the Listeners and invited Kaukab Stewart, Member of Scottish Parliament (MSB), to convene the meeting. Kaukab, who is Deputy Head of the Committee on Education, Children and Young People, handed out awards to each of the listeners as well as (reportedly) delicious cakes produced by the students in the shape of Gaelic Caim circles, which symbolize safety and protection.
Kaukab Stewart, MSP (Member of Scottish Parliament) sharing “Caim cakes” at the Listeners’ award ceremon
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