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Cultivating Happiness by Making Time to Be Together for Casual Interactions and at Events

Posted on February 29, 2024

By Interim Dean Gina Lovasi, PhD, MPH

Gina Lovasi headshot

One of the plans I made in advance of starting my time as interim dean was to commit in advance to holding space for inspiration and connection. I have been attending Philadelphia Speaker Series events and the Ensemble Arts Philadelphia Broadway Series, inviting others in school leadership to join me. In times where we are facing challenging conversations and choices, I find these evenings are bringing me needed joy and perspective. They show up on my calendar as a treat, often lifting me up at a moment when I feel weighed down or overextended. And, being near the Academy of Music reminds me of our upcoming celebration of graduates which will be held there on June 13th, and handing out scrolls to our students on that day is the honor of leading our school I am most looking forward to this year.

"The new insight about happiness I gained is this: We overestimate how happy we think we will be in solitude, and underestimate the happiness we will gain through conversation." - Gina Lovasi

This week, I had an opportunity to attend one of the speaker series events as part of a group from Dornsife, and I found this one to be particularly beneficial. Dr. Laurie Santos provided us with 10 science-based insights into happiness and shared about the scope of the mental health crisis among college students that had inspired her to take up this topic.

Later, I was asked whether I learned through this anything new. The new insight about happiness I gained is that we overestimate how happy we think we will be in solitude, and underestimate the happiness we will gain through conversation.

This was illustrated by an experimental study: Epley, N., & Schroeder, J. (2014). Mistakenly seeking solitude. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(5), 1980–1999.

The takeaway was that people thought being randomized into a condition of social interaction such as talking with another transit commuter would be worse for their happiness than solitude. Yet, being social, even this contrived situation, resulted in higher levels of happiness.

As the week went on, I realized that this might be relevant to an ongoing challenge that affects our school, though is certainly not unique to Dornsife or to Drexel.

What is the connection to a challenge we and others face? The challenge is about how to leverage presence and engagement with each other to make our days studying and working in public health more meaningful and, well, happy. I hear from student organizations and others planning events that low attendance is a risk to manage; a scarce turnout can lead to wasted food or even undermine the vibrancy experienced by those who do join. I also hear from colleagues who regularly come to campus that they feel the absence of in-person conversations and shared experiences with those who now often opt to work from home.

I suspect that many of us see in the flexibility to work and study remotely a situation we think will make us happier. And surely, there are a range of benefits. But, as a community interested in evidence and observation, my challenge is to seek out connection in a virtual or in person format, and notice how it feels versus what you anticipated. Maybe, like the transit commuters in the experiment, we will be happier than we expected on the occasions when we make time to be with others.