In response to the stress, anxiety and uncertainty of the world today, Dr. Laura Simon created a course that centers around joy. 

The Mercer University assistant professor of sociology teaches Integrative Curriculum (INT) 201: Building Community every other spring, but the last theme she chose — the community’s response to drug epidemics — seemed a little too heavy to revisit this semester. So, she decided on the theme of “finding happiness” instead. 

“I really wanted to teach something that felt good to teach and give the students space to have critical but positive conversations,” Dr. Simon said.

The centerpiece of the class is The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Douglas Abrams. Students have been reading sections of the book throughout the semester, as well as articles about creating a healthy community environment and embracing shared humanity. 

“I think we get wrapped up in our day-to-day and forget we’re all just trying to do the same thing. We’re all just trying to live the best life we can,” Dr. Simon said. “How can we take that notion, and what can we do at the community level to give everyone the best shot?”

Dr. Laura Simon
Dr. Laura Simon

The readings and accompanying class conversations get students thinking about the differences between joy and happiness, finding joy from within, how to create spaces that allow people to practice joy, and how to expand our their well-being by looking out for others.

“Really the aim of the class is to link that back to the community and think about what we can do in our lives and our society to help others reach that goal,” she said. “I really want students to think critically. We often think of happiness and joy as an individual pursuit with individual significance. It is individualistic in many senses. But I want them to see how we can also frame that as a community pursuit.”

Sophomore Yazeed Alwawi, a chemical commerce major, said the course has been eye-opening for him. It has changed his perspective on joy and shown him how it connects to the love and support of community. 

Students will complete three major papers for the course: a narrative essay about a moment of joy in their lives; a policy paper in which they research and propose an initiative that could help the community; and an op-ed piece in which they take the same idea and convince readers why it’s important and needed. 

“In high school, the English courses I took were very formulaic, so I began to not like writing and literature,” said freshman Anna Ruff, a biology major. “Dr. Simon is doing a good job of having a class where even people who don’t like writing will gain something from it. She is helping me to enjoy writing. I’ve decided to read again for pleasure.”

For his policy and op-ed pieces, Alwawi is proposing that high schools add a required course to the curriculum that teaches students real-world skills, like how to pay taxes, they will need after graduation. Ruff has chosen to focus her writing assignments on food deserts and local residents’ access to fresh produce. 

As a service-learning component, Dr. Simon’s students will also record videos of themselves reading children’s books aloud. They have been asked to select books that connect back to joy, such as a book that they loved as a child or one that’s themed around joy. The videos will be used in local schools as part of the United Way’s Read United tutoring program.


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