Trying To Increase Happiness In A Pandemic

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W&L SENIOR Clare Essex designed postcards to encourage students to connect with loved ones and raise funds for a local food pantry.

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WLULEX used Instagram to poll students about happiness this fall as the social media team strove to increase happiness among students.

Editor’s note: The following story was written by Jeff Seymour for Washington and Lee University.

Every year, the students who run Washington and Lee University’s WLULEX social media accounts set a goal at the beginning of fall term. In the past, those goals have ranged from helping students get to know the university president to promoting local nonprof its. But the COVID-19 pandemic has drawn them into a bigger goal for fall 2020: increasing campus happiness.

“We had a retreat a couple weekends ago,” said Courtney Berry ’21, who runs the WLULEX Facebook account and covers outdoor recreation for the team. “We went to a park in Buena Vista and we had a bunch of brainstorming sessions.” Jamie Goodin ’10, W&L’s digital engagement manager and the students’ supervisor, asked them to think, “Okay, what are the most fun things about college? And then what are the things that are stressing us out right now?”

The team discovered that a lot of what they enjoyed was unavailable because of COVID-19, and that feeling isolated was the central source of their stress.

“The biggest thing we’re missing is the day-today human interaction,” Berry said. Students are still seeing close friends, like roommates and hallmates, but aren’t having the chance encounters with the wider W&L community that bring them unexpected joy. “So we were like, ‘What are small ways that we can try to bring people together?’”

WLULEX’s team meetings, held during normal years in a conference room in W&L’s Office of Communications and Public Affairs, are high energy, with students riffing on ideas and getting excited, talking over one another in a way that’s much easier face to face than over Zoom. Their outdoor retreat allowed them to work that way as they took on the campus happiness project.

In keeping with its emphasis on creativity, the team started with no-holds-barred idea generation. Some possibilities, like an outdoor carnival, were impractical, but they came up with plenty that worked.

Mary-Beth Pittman ’22 ran an October campaign to drop off “boo bags,” which were loaded with candy and directions to pass the gift on around campus. It generated word-of-mouth buzz and joyful posts on social media. Jeff Bradley ’21 organized a post-Halloween outdoor pumpkin-smashing event for some social-but-distant stress release. Other initiatives included crowdsourcing ghost stories for Halloween and a postcard fundraiser for a local nonprofit. The team submitted all their ideas to W&L’s COVID-19 committee to make sure they adhered to campus safety guidelines.

This year, working for WLULEX has felt more important than ever to the students on the team. “Our platform has never had more direction and intention,” said Clare Essex ’21, who has worked for WLULEX since her sophomore year. “It’s really cool. It’s different, and it’s challenging.”

Clare Essex ’21 designed postcards to encourage students to connect with loved ones and raise funds for a local food pantry.

“I’m a senior living through a pandemic,” pointed out Darcy Olmstead ’21, who runs the WLULEX Twitter. “It’s kind of hard. I keep thinking about all the stuff I’m missing over senior year. And putting myself into this mindset — it’s been good, honestly, just being like, ‘What would make me happier?’ and applying that to other people.”

“During the retreat we were really thinking about what kind of things have been weighing on us,” said Laurie Lee ’22, WLULEX’s Spotify specialist. “Being able to talk to each other and have that platform to freely be like, ‘This is really hard right now,’ has been great.”

The team knows that the impact they can have via social media is limited, but they do think it’s working. “Our main community right now is online,” Olmstead said. “That’s where everyone is going. It’s the only place we can turn to.”

Essex thinks the year has produced a fundamental shift and an experiment in making WLULEX a more active part of campus life. “We have always kind of talked about ourselves as sharing the student narrative,” she said. “This year, we’re really interested in how we can influence the student narrative. How can we make it better?”

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