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Class Invites Students to Make Themselves Uncomfortable

By Cathy Cruise, MFA '93 on January 28, 2016


The thumping bass and growling vocals of a gothic rock band greeted students filing into the PSYC 417 Science of Well-Being class on a fall day last semester. This is Heresy by Christian Death was the day’s musical choice from George Mason University psychology professor Todd Kashdan, who says he often cranks up tunes as a way of giving students a mind-expanding experience of the senses before he switches over to cerebral mode.

“Also,” says Kashdan, “it charges my batteries before teaching.”

Professor Todd Kashdan (far right) teaches about the positive aspects of feeling uncomfortable. Photo by Evan Cantwell

Professor Todd Kashdan (at right side of classroom screen) teaches about the benefits of stepping out of your comfort zone. Photo by Evan Cantwell

Kashdan created this popular, first-of-its-kind course more than a decade ago. It requires students to do more than study the latest research in psychology and neuroscience. They also meditate, practice yoga, and engage in memorable exercises in and out of class.

For the “Happiness Intervention,” for instance, students enhance something in their lives, such as boosting an underutilized strength or spurring more intimacy in relationships. The “Self-control Drill” urges them to use their nondominant hand for everything—opening doors, brushing teeth, eating—for several weeks. “It’s so difficult and counterintuitive, you build the capacity to handle difficult situations,” Kashdan explains.

Other exercises take place in class. For one, Kashdan asked students to touch the forearm of the person next to them for a certain amount of time. About 20 percent found it too uncomfortable to finish. For another, pairs of students slowly walked toward one other until they reached their “comfort zone edge.” Most ended up about an arm’s-length away, just enough to easily push back, Kashdan noted, as he discussed the science of comfort in relation to the enactment.

“Staying in your comfort zone is safe,” he said, “but you’re losing the ability to be comfortable being uncomfortable. Discomfort is bad when it causes pain and suffering. It’s good when it spurs growth and adventure.”

Although Kashdan doesn’t give tests or assign much work, he admits students are often surprised by how difficult the course is.

“They have these challenges to think about who they are. What’s their identity, what’s their future self, how do they get their present selves to this ideal version of themselves?” he says.

Barbara Clark graduated from Mason in 1989 with a BA in government and politics and is now director of financial analysis and budget operations for Mason’s Office of Budget and Planning. In 2012, she took Kashdan’s course as a non-degree student.

“Fantastic. Challenging. Gut-wrenching,” is how she described it. “It made me feel squeamish. The course taught me things about myself that had never been uncovered.”

Psychology major Christopher Allen says the class caused him to “change the approach I have to thoughts and feelings I previously would have labeled as ‘bad’ or ‘negative,’ and then tried to banish from my mind as an almost knee-jerk reaction.”

Communications major Ashley Wimpey pronounces it “one of those courses that flip your world in some ways and bring it into focus in others.” The experience has empowered her and brought her a new sense of awareness, she says. “I keep opening all these layers over my eyes. Every time I think my eyes have peeled off as much as they can, another layer comes off and it’s a whole new spectrum of colors and insight.”


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