September is a bright time for European Universities. Thousands of international students have finally arrived filled with excitement and new hopes of what awaits them in this new life phase that they are about to begin. The parties begin, and the mood is celebratory.

I witnessed this enthusiasm first hand many times during my tenure as a psychological counselor at an international university. It was a great thing to observe and enjoy…. And yet, my colleagues and I knew that many of those young people would soon be coming to our offices sometime in late October or November, when the weather gets colder and the days are shorter. They would express feeling overwhelmed by difficult emotions. The “Honeymoon Phase” of the acculturation process would be over (a popular term for this process is “culture shock”). Students would flock to our counseling offices to discuss their anxieties, confusion, deep homesickness and fear of failure, among many other distressing emotions.

As a psychological therapist, I would help them explore these feelings a bit further, “unpacking the emotional suitcases” that they actually brought from home, oftentimes, without realizing it themselves. In the privacy of my office on campus, I had the vantage point of using this transitional experience as an entry point to discuss the gains and losses as they negotiated a new stage in their lives: adulthood.

In the case of international students, however, I recognized an additional challenge: not only they had to deal with the pains of emerging adulthood; they also had to face a new and sometimes, completely strange culture. This entailed, experiencing new social situations; language barrier and living in close proximity with people who were very different from anything they had experienced before. The security of their own culture was simply gone.

I understood then that international undergraduate students experience a double transition: they move from adolescence to adulthood, while they go through acculturative stress at the same time. It’s a time in their lives when their sense of self is destabilized as they struggle to find new sources of grounding, a new identity to hold on to, and a new kind of stability.

The Science of Happiness Comes In!

The so called “Science of Happiness” was officially launched in 1998 when Martin Seligman was elected President of the American Psychological Association, and Positive Psychology became the theme of his term. Before Seligman, Abraham Maslow (widely regarded as the father of humanistic psychology) had already coined the term in his book “Motivation and Personality” back in 1954.

Even back then, Maslow had expressed dissatisfaction at the idea that psychology mostly concerned itself with pathology, and not with aspirations, virtues or what makes life worth living. During his tenure as APA president, Seligman and many others developed a branch of psychology that has provided practitioners with sound theory based on empirical research; tools, techniques and strategies of how to design a better, more fulfilling and happier life. And yes, this is accessible to all of us! Just do an online search on “positive psychology” and you will find tons of resources.

Positive Psychology gave me tools and resources that I could not only use with students seeking counseling, but with all students who experience difficult transitions, and could benefit from developing strategies that would help them reframe in positive terms their experience abroad. With this in mind, I decided to develop, what Buddhist psychologist Jack Kornfield calls “a curriculum of the heart”.

In 2015, I created a course called “Introduction to Positive Psychology. A Course for Non-Psychologists”, aimed at first year international students coming to the University of Applied Sciences in Bremen under the Erasmus scholarship. My goal? To present them with core concepts that would be particularly helpful for those who struggle with acculturative stress and identity development. The course has four pillars, which I want to briefly describe:

  • Understanding Emotions: I teach students how to recognize and name positive and negative emotions by exploring tools such as the “Compromise Circumplex”, as well as “Character Strengths” associated with moral virtues, that they can even test in themselves though online surveys. This learning paves the way for emotional awareness, one of the necessary steps of emotional intelligence.Psychologist Jack Schafer talks about how happiness is not a stand-alone feeling, but rather a comparative emotion. We always compare happiness against sadness, and in doing so, we recognize a good moment from a bad one. My plan is to teach international students about the richness and complexity of emotions during the migration experience.
  • Resilience: this is the capacity of adapting well in the phase of adversity, stress, trauma and tragedy. An important quality of resilience is the capacity to bend away and experiencing difficulty or distress without breaking, but actually drawing from behaviors, thoughts and actions that allow the person to retain her capacity to experience and yet move on from difficulty. In my course, I teach students strategies for building resilience in everyday life that they can adapt to their own personality and cultural style.
  • Creativity and Flow: creativity is usually triggered when our brain encounters variation and novelty, and patterns of typical and repetitive thoughts are disrupted. Travelling and being in touch with a new culture are situations where our thoughts interact with a new social context and the results can lead us to creative outcomes: novel perceptions, discoveries or even “brightness” in social interactions. Using one´s own creativity while engaging in a particular action or event that can transport us to a state of “flow”, where our consciousness blends with our task, producing a highly rewarding experience. I teach international students about the emotions that make us more creative, and engage them with creativity exercises, so that they can find amazing new possibilities in the new experience that is in front of them.
  • Goal Setting and Visualisation: in the midst of difficult emotions, it is sometimes difficult to stick to what matters to us. We just want emotional refuge. Thus, I teach international students about goal setting strategies as a way to keep them engaged with what matters the most to them, using visualising goals as roadmaps to build early and new successes in their lives.

 A final Happy Note

I have been thrilled with the level of engagement that students have shown in my class. They bring questions, challenge notions and engage with the topics in ways that I had not foreseen. Some of them even express interest in studying psychology further! The course works like the opening of a door for self-discovery and actualization. I can only recommend lecturers, counselors and international offices to be in the lookout for positive psychology tools and strategies to support acculturation with international students – you will notice the (happy) difference very soon!

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