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Northwestern's Happiness Club brings dogs, joy during stressful times

(Skylar Zhang, Daily Northwestern )
March 21, 2013|By Erin Vogel @eringejuice | For RedEye

Finals week at Northwestern University got a little less stressful this past weekend thanks to the school's Happiness Club, which brought dogs to the student center Saturday to give students a much-needed break from studying.

Bringing dogs to campus is something the club has wanted to do for years, according to sophomore and Happiness Club co-chair Megan McPherson. After a Northwestern residence hall brought in dogs from Rainbow Animal Assisted Therapy last month to help students de-stress before midterms, 20-year-old McPherson enlisted the local nonprofit's help to make the therapy dogs available for the entire campus community.

Despite what McPherson called the "last-minute craziness" of organizing the dog visit--the university didn't give her an official go-ahead for it until the Thursday night before--and the fact that some students were upset the dogs were not puppies, McPherson said overall response to the event was positive.

"Some kids were like, 'Oh my gosh, he looks just like my dog at home,' and they were really excited about that. I think everyone was just really happy to be able to pet a dog for a few minutes," McPherson said. "It was the best excuse for a study break."

The two-hour event, which was co-organized by Associated Student Government and the school's Counseling and Psychological Services, went so well that it looks as if the club will be able to continue bringing dogs to campus on a regular basis.

Student Ben Larrison started the Happiness Club in 2008 with the mission to "foster a community of happiness at Northwestern through fun events and simple acts of kindness," according to the club's website.

And simplicity is one of the club's trademarks. McPherson said most of the club's limited budget (about $100 a quarter) from the university's student government goes toward purchasing things such as Play-Doh, chalk, stickers, balloons and kites. The kites are used for their bi-annual kite-flying and s'mores event, and they've used the chalk to write positive messages and quotes on nearby campus sidewalks at night to surprise the Northwestern community in the morning.

"You don't realize how far the money will go," McPherson said. "We'll get twenty bucks for stickers, and think, 'That's not a lot of money!' but then we end up getting hundreds and hundreds of stickers for that amount. The club asked for chalk funding just once, and now we have enough chalk for probably five years.

"It sounds very childish when you explain it, because we pretty much just do things that you did when you were a kid because that stuff still makes you happy."

Club co-founder Alex Wilson, who graduated from Northwestern in June but is now a grad student pursuing a master's in computer science, said he always gets a smile whenever he tells someone about the club at his job in the university's Admissions Office. The 22-year-old said he's also received e-mails from seniors at local high schools who have heard about it and want advice about starting their own.

"That's been the coolest thing for me," Wilson said. "I don't care personally about the brand, I just like the idea of people wanting to do similar things to spread happiness and make people smile."

This past weekend the club also held one of its oldest and most popular campus traditions, Hugs and Hot Chocolate, which is exactly what it sounds like. Club members hand out free hot chocolate and hugs the Sunday night before finals week.

 "We offer hot chocolate to everyone and free hugs for whoever wants them. We try not to be creepy about it," McPherson said. "Actually, it's usually surprising how many people want the hugs and not the hot chocolate. Some people will be like, 'Oh, I just got Starbucks, but I would love a hug!'"

Happiness Club executive board member and sophomore Sara Cohen said the club works at Northwestern because its student body is busy and stressed all the time.

"We sometimes lose sight of all the great things that the school and the people here have to offer and the little things that matter," Cohen said. "Happiness Club provides a lot of these little things that really bright Northwestern students' days, and it's the moments that can sometimes make a huge difference."

However, while the reaction to the club's regular events such as their sandcastle-building competition, Candy and Compliments or High Five Friday has been generally supportive, McPherson said she is still struggling to get more students involved in not just the activities, but the club itself.

She said the club usually becomes an afterthought for students who are involved in more academic or philanthropy-based clubs. But that attitude might be shifting since Saturday's dog study break.

 "Even the Associated Student Government, who gave us the funding and helped plan the event, and other places like the student center are more interested in us after hearing about that," McPherson said. "Now we hope in the future they'll be like, 'Hey, Happiness Club wants to do this? Well sure, they brought the dogs to campus.'"

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