The heart of happiness: Beau Weston’s “Little Platoons”
December 5, 2013 By Mariel Smith
of Woodlawn Elementary who cleaned the 'secret garden.'
Kinsey Hisle ’15 and Maddie McNabb ’16 with volunteers and
students who participated in the Halloween dress-up and
Happiness lies at the heart of Beau Weston's research, writing and teaching—specifically The Happy Society, a class now in its second year that explores how people become and remain happy. New this year is the "Little Platoons" project, an assignment designed to create and spread happiness.
The project is inspired in part by Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, in which he writes about "little platoons we belong to in society." Burke writes that attachment to these little platoons is "the germ of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed toward a love to our country, and to mankind."
Using the idea of "little platoons," Weston modified the previous year's happiness project, changing it from one the entire class completed to a group of small partner projects.
"One of the main findings of happiness research is that working with others—especially friends—on a meaningful project is one of the most reliably happy-making of actions," he explains. "Thus the 'little platoons' project was born."
Students worked with another classmate and created a platoon that would do something worthwhile.
Michaela Manley ’15 and Clark Weber ’14 paired up to bring happiness to a local retirement home, McDowell Place.
"Michaela and I both enjoy talking to our grandparents, " says Weber, "and we realized that it would be a good idea to write down their happiest memories. We thought we would record memories of other elderly individuals in the community."
The pair traveled to McDowell Place and recorded residents' happiest memories, creating transcripts that could be shared with the participants' families. The activity allowed the elderly to relive some of their favorite memories and share them with their families while also spreading the happiness of those memories with the students who recorded them.
The highlight of the project for Weber was spending time with these older members of her platoon.
"They were friendly and extremely nice," she says. "It was clear that they enjoyed us spending time with them, and that warmed my heart. It definitely made Michaela and me happier."
Class projects varied greatly, from students simply sitting with someone they did not know in Cowan (Michael Fryar ’14 and Logan Humphrey ’14) to the men's lacrosse team cooking for the women's lacrosse team (Jeremy Carlson ’15 and Charles Treis ’15).
Kinsey Hisle ’15 and Maddie McNabb ’16 collected children's books and read them to Toliver Elementary School students.
"We wanted to do something during Halloween that would be more beneficial for children than typical candy," Hisle explains. "We wanted to spend time with children and read to them as a way to make them happy by showing them we care."
Hisle's favorite element of the project was seeing how the children engaged with both her and the story she read.
"I dressed as Little Red Riding Hood and read the story that went with my costume," she says. "The children knew who I was and were really excited to hear me read my story."
Leanne Kirkpatrick ’15 and Amanda Vance ’15 cleaned the 'secret garden' at Woodlawn Elementary School with current Woodlawn students.
Vance is an education major currently completing observation hours at Woodlawn, so she approached the instructor she is currently observing to facilitate the garden cleanup.
"We thought it would be good to do something with kids to expand the 'Centre bubble' and have a lasting impact on them," Vance explains.
While coordinating and completing the cleanup were fairly straightforward, the duo was surprised by the feedback they received when they visited the school after the project was over.
"The responses we got back about how the students felt during and after the cleanup made the project worthwhile for us," Vance says. "They were proud of what they'd accomplished and glad that they got to help their school. We were a little nervous going into the project, because we feared that what we were trying to get across would be lost on these third, fourth and fifth graders.
"We were pleased when everything they said was spot-on with what we wanted to pass along," she continues. "I felt good about what we had done and knowing that the girls did, too, was rewarding. Amongst our little platoon, I would say we spread happiness and received it back tenfold."
Weston is pleased that the projects have both created happiness within the small platoons and spread happiness to the larger community. Indeed, many of the projects may well continue on long after the class has ended.
"Collecting happy memories at the nursing home was an instant hit," he notes. "The lacrosse men cooking for the lacrosse women could easily become a tradition, as could the Theta and Tri Delta seniors cooking for the after-school ESL program."
Ultimately, the project has not only helped Weston understand more about how happiness is created and spread but also given his students a valuable tool for finding happiness in their own lives.
"Aristotle says that happiness is the chief end of life, the only end that is not a means to another end," he explains. "The watchword of our entire class was 'happiness is an action of the soul in accordance with virtue.' When you go looking for it, happiness seems to underlie everything."
Centre College, founded in 1819, offers its students a world of opportunities, highlighted by one of the nation's premier study abroad programs and a faculty ranked #5 in the nation for "Best Undergraduate Teaching" at a liberal arts college by U.S. News & World Report in 2013. Centre graduates enjoy extraordinary success, with entrance to top graduate and professional schools, prestigious fellowships for further study abroad (Rhodes, Rotary, Fulbright), and rewarding jobs (on average, 97 percent are employed or in advanced study within 10 months of graduation).