Don’t Worry, Be Happy

How to be happy: New PCOM program aims to teach positivity

The course trains people to approach happiness as a learned skill rather than a fleeting emotion.

Editor’s note: This story was updated with new information on Sept. 26, 2018.

Over the past year, Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine has piloted the program “A Happier You” within its community health centers, with the aim of teaching people to approach happiness as a learned skill rather than a fleeting emotion. Now the seven-week course has expanded to be available to all PCOM employees and the general public.

The program is rooted in positive psychology—a practice that helps people focus on their strengths rather than deficiencies and problems—and is designed to improve health outcomes in its participants. It is also inherently osteopathic, operating on the understanding that cognition, emotion and behavior are interconnected drivers of health.

“Happy people make healthier choices,” explains Scott Glassman, PsyD, associate director of PCOM’s Master of Science in Mental Health Counseling program and creator of “A Happier You.” “When people feel better about themselves, they’re more willing to invest the time and effort to live better.”

What patients have to say

PCOM physicians have seen the program make a difference in patients. Family physician Peter Bidey, DO, had several patients participate in “A Happier You”—some with multiple chronic conditions.

“My patients raved. They really enjoyed going,” Dr. Bidey says. “Some were feeling pretty down about their health issues, but they came out feeling motivated and optimistic. Ultimately, I think it made them more invested in their treatment plans, which is everything when trying to get healthy.”

Dr. Glassman offers a disclaimer at the beginning of each course, reminding them that “A Happier You” is not group therapy; it is not intended to address mental health issues. Instead, it is more of a workshop to help people hone their ability to feel happy, like any other skill.

“Our brains evolved to pay more attention to negative information as a means of survival. But, in our modern lives, that has become counterproductive,” says Dr. Glassman. “It takes a concentrated effort and group support to override that negativity bias—and that’s exactly what our program provides.”

How the program works

Each week participants meet to focus on a new aspect of happiness. The core themes are Positive Events, Successes and Personal Strengths, Gratitude, Humor, Enjoyable and Meaningful Activities, Acts of Kindness, and Love. The group learns about and reflects on the new theme and then is assigned related “happy work” to complete over the next week.

Before and after each assignment, the group rates their feelings of happiness and optimism and their level of belief in their ability to control those feelings. Those who regularly complete their assignments and attend meetings report an increase in the intensity and mix of positive emotions as well as a decrease in the intensity and mix of negative emotions.

The exercises are important to helping the brain refocus on positive thoughts and feelings. Over time, with practice, taking a more positive perspective becomes reflexive and automatic. Once that is established, people start actively planning to improve their lives in myriad ways, creating a virtuous cycle of positive feedback.

Dr. Glassman notes that he and program facilitators do not insist people always feel happy. Negative events are part of life, and feeling bad at appropriate times is OK. What they do encourage is for people to try sitting with a sad or upset feeling, with the peace of knowing it will pass.

“We coach people to take a distanced view of their problems, as if seeing them from a balcony,” says Dr. Glassman. “This helps the pain to feel a little less personal but also allows for some perspective that may reveal a silver lining.”

Finding happiness in everyday life

After a few sessions, Dr. Glassman notices participants are increasingly ready and able to find something positive in their everyday lives—even amidst real turmoil. The group becomes more energized, seeing the best in themselves and each other.

This phenomenon is expected. Research in psychology has shown that happy people are drawn together and buoyed by one another. Dr. Glassman hopes the program will trigger the social spread of positive thinking and happiness, in which people who complete the program regularly spark positive feelings in others at work, school, and home.

“We are very encouraged by how popular the program has proven to be,” says Dr. Glassman. “And we are really excited to offer it more broadly because I think it’s going to have a positive impact on our community.”