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ISSUE 118 VOL 17 PUBLISHED 4/22/2005

Happy Hill

By Emmy Kegler
Contributing Writer

Friday, April 22, 2005

Spring has sprung. The sun is shining, daffodils are blooming and the campus looks like a photo shoot for college brochures. In the midst of learning the waltz for President’s Ball and not yet thinking about that final paper, students at St. Olaf appear to be having fun. But are we, the students of St. Olaf, happy? If students at St. Olaf are called to live “lives of worth and service,” this question is important. The administration at St. Olaf does not directly address student happiness. However, faculty and staff are focused on creating “the best environment we possibly can for students to live and study,” Dean of Students Greg Kneser said. According to Kneser, general levels of satisfaction at the college have been steadily increasing in the last few years, along with the student retention rate. Surveys given to graduating seniors also show an increase in satisfaction with St. Olaf over the last five years. Evidence of this is the increase in applications for admission that have come from siblings of current and former Oles. “I think our students are happier than most,” Kneser said. He even noted that neighboring Carleton college perceives the level of stress at St. Olaf to be “much lower and student ‘happiness’ to be much better.” Associate Dean of Students Kurt Stimeling said, “Overwhelmingly, our student body is healthy, happy, secure and highly functioning, and that's due in large part to our faculty, staff and student body in a community where we look out for one another.” Still, it cannot be assumed that St. Olaf ‘s students are immune to unhappiness. According to the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment survey in spring 2004, 16.9 percent of St. Olaf students indicated that they experienced depression on the Hill in the last year. Nevertheless, in a recent informal poll, most students described themselves as happy. Many talked about friendships and a feeling of belonging in a nurturing environment. The word “community” was used over and over again, not only in reference to a group of people, but to interconnected friends united for common purposes and encouraging each other in self-discovery and growth. Molly Schaus ’08 noted, “I think that the people at Olaf are more than just your classmates and friends; they become an extended family and it is amazing to be surrounded by people like that.” Other students talked about the academia at St. Olaf. Many were pleased with their professors, naming them as role models as well as caring and intelligent teachers. There was excitement about the academic challenges that St. Olaf provides and the demands of a liberal arts education that make many students feel well-rounded and prepared for the “real world.” Many were also pleased with the political scene at Olaf, either in the opportunities to connect with like-minded students or in the chance for open discussion between people of differing political ideas. The students who responded were realists as well. Many noted the ideal of the “perfect Ole,” the overachieving, well-rounded student with dozens of activities, a solid GPA and constant energy. This stereotype was described as stress-causing. The demand to constantly “appear happy” was also cited by many students, who were concerned that we often do not feel comfortable with expressing negative emotions. Other students were open about unhappiness at Olaf. They suggested that we are caught in a state of preparation – old enough to assume the responsibilities of adults, but compelled to focus primarily on mental development rather than the emotional or spiritual aspects of our lives. Academic departments at the college are also beginning to explore and study the impact of “happiness” in American society. One social science which addresses happiness is the relatively new field of positive psychology. It focuses on what makes life “well lived,” and is concerned with hope, contentment, gratitude, optimism and other positive feelings. Assistant Professor of Psychology Donna McMillan teaches a senior seminar on positive psychology at St. Olaf. Political science professor Bill Gorton is also interested in the nature and causes of happiness. His special interest is the consideration of how happiness affects political theory – for example, if happiness should be considered in issues of justice. Both professors thought that St. Olaf was a nurturing environment which provided many opportunities for fostering happiness. They named the proximity of friends and the capacity to deeply explore interests as an important part of students’ happiness at the college. What does St. Olaf hope to foster in us? In the mission statement and in brochure taglines, there is little mention of creating “happy” students. However, it is likely that the college hopes that a feeling of community, a sense of purpose and experiences of growth will help us fulfill our call to lives of worth and service.

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