How to Write and Think and Meditate Yourself Into Being Happier: The HAPPINESS CLASS!

ERDG 491Z -- University at Albany, SUNY

Professor Claudia Ricci, Ph.D.


Reading and writing transform the way we think, and how we see ourselves in the world. Neurological research now shows that changing the way we think can produce positive physiological changes in the brain. At a time when an epidemic of mental health issues plagues our nation, and threatens to paralyze students in the academy, this class presents a set of cognitive tools and practical skills that will help students refine and enhance their educational goals while examining a broad range of life issues. Beginning with philosophical ideas set forth by Aristotle, the class will rely on texts from psychology, neuroscience, literature and narrative theory, to open up discussions about the patterns of human behavior and thinking that tend to produce lasting fulfillment and deep reward. In keeping with research by psychologist James Pennebaker and others who have demonstrated the value of expressive writing, students will engage in extensive journaling and other self-reflective writing assignments as they seek to define what it means, and what it takes, to find happiness. Part of the work in the classroom will be to help students identify their individual “signature strengths” that can produce what positive psychologist Martin Seligman defines as “authentic happiness and abundant gratification.” In addition to classroom work, a special two-hour laboratory session, with attendant readings and writing exercises, will be required each week; students will work with experts in mindfulness, meditation, yoga, spirituality and stress reduction, and will document how these techniques can help the student better cope with the inherently stressful nature of University life.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Chapter 18: To Get Happy, Just Make This Simple Switch

By Claudia Ricci

How do we stop being scared by life, and by death, and by everything in between? How do we find happiness, living with whatever life deals us? How do we learn to wake up every morning and smile into the day, embracing the hours and tasks that we face as opportunities for discovery rather than as a series of boring or mundane chores to be endured?

Basic questions, difficult to be sure. But if I may, as we end this year, I’d like to share my insights, because I feel as though, after decades of living scared, and depressed, I have finally figured out how to replace the anxiety with a feeling of peace. And joy.

The last year or so has been pivotal. I am not altogether certain how it happened, but I feel as though I have turned a corner. As in, I’m not living in a narrow grey tunnel, holding my breath, or in a dark cave, with my arms over my head. I am not buried underground anymore.

Just this morning, I was looking through the files on my laptop. In quick succession, I happened on a couple of pieces that I wrote while living in DC last year. I was astonished. Honestly, it felt as though another person had written them. (Which makes you wonder about the “self” that is in constant transformation; this is one reason why it is very wise, as I keep telling my students, to keep a regular journal!)

Anyway, I wanted to share one piece I wrote, because I think it suggests how we might all get from A to B, or in this case, from C to A.

It is a beautiful spring evening in Washington, D.C., a Friday late in April. The sky is a pale crystal blue, and I have just finished teaching for the semester. I spent a couple hours this afternoon volunteering at a local women’s health center, where I took photos of mothers and babies for the annual report. Then I went to Starbucks where I sipped iced coffee and started to grade final papers.

But now I sit here in a state of absolute fear and panic, a condition that lately is more and more common. The problem is both simple and very complex:

I have reached a kind of crisis point in my life when I feel like I have run out of dreams. None of the things I used to do seem to matter. Nothing on the horizon excites or interests me in any deep and meaningful way.

I keep praying that this will change, and I am trying to take steps to stoke up the fires, so to speak. And oh yes, I am seeking so-called professional help.

But right now, I don’t think I have ever been so frightened. I am frightened even to admit these feelings in print. I am frightened just to write them down. I am frightened not to. I pray that somehow, by writing them down, something will shift, the cloud will lift and I will find a way out of what feels like the worst crisis of my life.

Anyone who knows me will be surprised when I call this the worst crisis of my life. Because my life has not been a stranger to crisis. Seven years ago, in 2002, I suffered from a serious and life-threatening case of lymphoma. I needed some additional treatment in 2003.

I should be reveling in the fact that I am enjoying good health today. I should be, and I must say that I am often in touch with a deep sense of gratitude that I feel so healthy. But in some sense, that makes this present crisis all the worse. On top of everything else, I feel guilty that I am at such loose ends and feeling so lost and unhappy.

My husband calls it an existential crisis, brought on by the empty nest syndrome. Maybe. But my son, the last one to leave the house, is finishing his sophomore year. As a friend pointed out recently, this empty nest thing has been going on way too long. She didn’t say “way too long,” but I will. It’s been going on way way too long.

Another friend, who is a bit older than me, and retired from university teaching, says that I am not alone. Most of us when we get to this point in life, have to reinvent ourselves. She keeps herself busy with voice lessons and yoga, writing and social activities. She also says she is trying to “learn, just how to be.”

What a thought, just “BEING.” Without being busy, without being productive.

Still another friend, also in her 60s, admitted to me that she faces the same kind of life crisis. And she says there are many other like her. In her words, “We’ve had our children, we’ve had our marriages, we’ve worked jobs, we’ve built houses and gardens, and now we don’t see anything on the horizon that excites us.”

Yes, so, I guess I take some comfort in knowing that I am not alone.

And yet, that knowledge doesn’t always keep the moments of absolute despair and desperation at bay. I am working with a therapist, and exploring acupuncture (and medication) as well as meditation and breathing techniques to help with the anxiety and depression. I am not really tempted to try suicide, although I have thought about it (in the same way one thinks about vacations and everything else that one could do in life.) The truth is that I really don’t want to die. I have a daughter getting married in November, and there are so many family members whose lives I would wreck that I cannot imagine letting them down.

No, I don’t want to die. What I want to do is to find a way to be happy and to feel productive again. Anyone who knows me will say, but you are already so productive. You teach, you write, you paint, you play guitar, you garden. What more do you want?

Again, I’ll say it, but feel sheepish as I do. I keep having this terrifying feeling that none of it really makes a bit of difference. As in, if I didn't do it, who would care? Not me.

And therein is the key. I think as I am writing this that I am actually for the first time beginning to understand something that my wonderful massage therapist said to me the very first time I saw her. In her soft but very reassuring voice, Lucia (who also does talk therapy) said to me, “I think the first thing I want to ask you to do, is to slow...way...down.”

Her objective: to help me figure out how to nurture myself, in big and small ways. As I lay on the table, and she very gently manipulated my arms and legs to try to reduce my anxiety, she suggested that I start developing as many nurturing activities as I could. “And that may be something as small as a favorite blanket,” she said. “What matters is that you pay attention to how your body feels, and feed it what it needs and wants.”

It’s funny, but when she said that, the words passed into my ears and I heard them and yet, it isn’t until RIGHT now, as I am writing her words down, that I am beginning to really understand what she meant. I need to find and to rediscover ways to reconnect to sensations of pleasure.

It isn’t as though I’ve never known them.

There used to be a time when writing fiction, for example, made me supremely happy. And then, maybe because it was so difficult to get published, the whole writing enterprise started to feel absolutely futile.

Lately, when I think about writing fiction, it just seems rather pointless. And painful. I didn’t want to write about the feelings that I am describing here because, well, it’s bad enough to have to feel the despair and desperation, who wants to delve into it further in fiction?

But now I am realizing that maybe there is a way out of this feeling that I am locked up in a box. And maybe writing, and art, are the key.

Last week, in my second visit with the massage therapist, Lucia said something else that stuck with me. Looking at me with those magical eyes of hers -- they are the blue crystal color of an evening sky, she told me that she thinks I am on “a sacred journey. “

“Trying to find new meaning in life after your children are gone can be challenging,” she said. But again, she came back to the notion that we start to find meaning when we pay attention to our bodies, when we encourage ourselves to find pleasure in activities big and small in all kinds of venues, activities that feel nurturing to the soul. A visit with a friend. A walk down a country road. A cup of tea with a good book. Activities that are soothing.

Meanwhile, though, something rather profound occurred to me this week. I was walking to the Metro station or maybe it was a teaching day and I was waiting for the bus to get to campus when I realized that the word SCARED is almost identical to another word.

Just make a tiny switch, reverse the position of the C and the A in one word and, well, there you go.

So maybe that is the key here, maybe that is what I am trying to do here. By writing this, maybe I can somehow switch the c and the a. Take the panic that is pressing against my heart and turn it into a different feeling: the feeling that I can build a kind of shrine inside myself, a place in which to retreat when the world feels like it makes no sense, a place in which to carve a new identity and a new sense of purpose.

I pray for this, and ever so humbly, I ask for divine help."

Like I said, I am still marveling that my prayers were answered. But I know for sure they were.

I sit here this morning, the 23rd of December, 2010, just watching the snow fall outside the window over the pond. It is a fluffy winter wonderland out there, and I could, literally, stare all day at the beauty and mystery that is snow.

What I've found is that I spend a lot more time marveling at the "small" miracles -- flowers growing, snow falling -- and that is what brings me joy. And peace. If you can stare out the window all day (and if you are LUCKY enough to have a house, and to have some time just to sit and stare) well, then you are really OK.

I try to live in this moment, and really see the mysteries and miracles that are constantly unfolding around me. A warm crackling fire in the woodstove. And then, the artful patterns of fire and light in the window of the woodstove! I could stare at those all night!

Decorating our 12-foot Christmas tree with my amazing daughter, Jocelyn, and her incredible husband of a year, Evan. Now that was fun!

My son Noah driving 12 hours from North Carolina, arriving home last Saturday night, to be here for the holidays.

These "small" joys are the real blessings. Finally, now, I get it. I really understand that, to be happy, one need only figure out how to remain in a kind of sacred awareness, a mindfulness, of the moment. A switching of the A and the C!

Sister Mysteries, an on-line book, is part of the Albany Times Union's Writing In Motion project. Sister Mysteries is part of a two-book writing project. It is connected to a novel called Castenata -- a time-travel murder mystery featuring a nun, Sister Renata, who in 1883 was falsely accused of murdering her cousin Antonie.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

How Writing a Journal -- and a "Forgiveness" Narrative -- Helps Heal a Student!

By Allyson Pashko

Can writing about the most difficult aspects of our lives really help us? Can we face a situation, come up with a solution, and work through our problems more efficiently if we take the time to sit down and think and write about them clearly? I have pondered this thought over and over, wondering every day for the past few months if it is possible to face the most distressing and haunting situations with a positive attitude. If given the time and energy to face some of the most difficult issues in our lives, is writing the best way to deal with them?

Over the past couple of years I thought that life just couldn’t get any worse. I thought that my entire life revolved around a series of unfortunate events and I believed that I was doomed to a life full of unhappiness. At the young age of 21, I honestly believed that I couldn’t escape the future as a tired, restless, miserable human being. Why was it that I couldn’t find a happy place where I felt comfortable and secure? I felt like my life was falling apart; no one --including the doctors I saw-- around me knew what was going on, and I was desperately in search of hope for a brighter future. I didn’t think it was anywhere within my reach.

Facing the most difficult situations over the past few years has really shaped me into the strong, independent, and intelligent person that I am today. Although I have dealt with some of the most challenging and complicated situations, I have learned some of the most valuable lessons. It seems unreal that so many young people today are dealing with the same kind of terrible situations, leaving them with nowhere to turn. When friends and most importantly family has turned their backs on you, leaving you lonely and vulnerable, where do you turn and how do you put your life back together? How do you repair the broken pieces of the puzzle to your not-so-ordinary world?

I wasn’t sure that there was any definite or possible answer to this question, but through my recent experiences I have learned that it is possible to live and love the way we were meant to. It is possible to discover that happy place in your life that seemed like it was somewhere far out of reach.

I believe my first step on my journey to happiness occurred when I enrolled in the “happiness” class (an independent study) this fall semester of my senior year. (The independent study was a way of doing a "test run" of a new Happiness class, to be offered in the spring of 2011.)

Is it possible that I could take a class to potentially make me happier, I thought to myself? Why not try it? As the reading list seemed a bit intense, I debated my decision, but I figured why not try something new and see what I could learn here in this new course. As I started reading all of these new books on the paths to finding “true happiness,” I wasn’t quite sure how to interpret them. Were these books really providing me with the tools for my happier life or are they bogus material? All of these books, authors, and articles on positive psychology and happiness had to have some authenticity to them, and so I kept reading. I kept reading, learning, and writing my way into a happier lifestyle.

One of the most important things I have learned is that expressive writing has proven benefits and although we may not be happier right after we write, we will eventually feel more satisfaction a few days, weeks, or months after. We are also less likely to end up in the health center or feel sick as we can open up and express our emotions that we would normally keep inside. This has been the biggest help for me this semester. Being able to honestly and openly express some of my deepest thoughts and emotions and release them from this place inside me, allows me to make room for more positive feelings. I never realized how all of these repressed feelings held such a weight over my body and stopped me from being able to live my life to the fullest. I had never really felt true happiness over these past few years, because of all this negative weight holding me down. I can truly say that today I am a happier person than I was exactly a year ago.

Along with this class, came many writing assignments. Reading psychologist James Pennebaker's Opening Up was transformative for me and the other two students taking the independent study in happiness this semester. Each of us found that the book, and the expressive writing practices that the book endorsed, opened doors inside us. The book, which presents research showing how journaling actually improves your health and reduces visits to the doctor, allowed me to expand upon everything I am currently encountering in my life. I have learned to appreciate journal writing and I will try and continue to keep track of all of the wonderful things that will happen in the future, my happier and healthier future.

I believe the toughest assignment I faced this semester was writing a narrative from someone else’s point of view. I was supposed to try and see an issue I was facing that had nearly destroyed me inside and understand it from the point of view of the person who had hurt me. I thought this was the craziest thing I had ever heard and basically refused to do it, even though I thought about it every nday. From just about the first week of class we were given this assignment to think about and I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t face the most difficult aspect of my life and effectively write about it and understand it. I just couldn’t see how I could ever write from that point of view, speaking as the person who had hurt me so badly. Still, I knew I wanted to try it. I knew that if I could even write, for just a minute, on the topic that I had progressed throughout the course.

Four months later, I had done it. I sat down, thought about how I would write a narrative, and lost myself in the moment. I became immersed in the story as the other character, and I was really doing it. I was really so lost in my writing and just wrote whatever came to mind, revealing to me some of the most difficult things that I had never even thought about before. I didn’t think about what I was going to write beforehand, it just came to me as it did, and allowed me to face the unthinkable. I can’t believe I was able to write a narrative from the view of that one person, that person I had so much anger and hatred for. I did it. No, I did not feel great after writing my narrative, but I felt great knowing that I had done it.

When I look back and read it, I can’t believe that I did it. Looking back I do feel a lot better and although I get very emotional reading over my story, I know it has helped me grow. It is allowing me to move on from the thing that was holding me back all of these years. I didn’t think that I would ever be able to face the situation so constructively, but writing has proven a great outlet for releasing the thoughts I never wish to face again. I even discovered through writing my piece that I can sit and write for hours and hours, lost in the zone, where I feel safe and secure not caring about a thing in the world. So even through the difficulties I had faced and the tough decision I made to write my piece, I have only benefited and suggest writing to others. I suggest opening up, accepting the past, and moving forward to change it in a productive and positive manner. Writing can do this for you.

Believe it or not, I am a stronger, happier, and healthier individual despite all of the negative that has come my way. I have learned to live and love without holding back, enjoy the present moment, and never think that anything is impossible. We are never destined to a life full of unhappiness and there is always a brighter future ahead of each and every one of us. We can never forget that it takes work though. Leading ourselves into a promising future will never come without any effort. As long as we can accept what life hands us and actively work to make a change, we will always be assured a brighter day ahead. I have come really far this semester and through all of this progress I have found a more optimistic way of thinking. I even believe that I smile bigger and brighter with each waking moment. I will continue to lead this life I adore and never look back into the past that once haunted me. I am changing every day, and although I will never forget where I’ve been, I will never resort back to old ways.

Allyson Pashko, a psychology major, graduated summa cum laude from the University at Albany, SUNY, on December 5, 2010.

Saturday, December 4, 2010


THIS JUST IN FROM PUB.MED, a leading catalogue of recent articles on medical issues:

Display Settings:AbstractSend to:
J Med Ethics. 1992 Jun;18(2):94-8.
A proposal to classify happiness as a psychiatric disorder.
Bentall RP.

Department of Clinical Psychology, Liverpool University.
It is proposed that happiness be classified as a psychiatric disorder and be included in future editions of the major diagnostic manuals under the new name: major affective disorder, pleasant type. In a review of the relevant literature it is shown that happiness is statistically abnormal, consists of a discrete cluster of symptoms, is associated with a range of cognitive abnormalities, and probably reflects the abnormal functioning of the central nervous system. One possible objection to this proposal remains--that happiness is not negatively valued. However, this objection is dismissed as scientifically irrelevant.

PMID: 1619629 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]PMCID: PMC1376114Free PMC Article

MeSH Terms
LinkOut - more resources

Friday, November 26, 2010

Comments on the Happiness Syllabus

Camilyn said...


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11:46 PM

Mano said...


You've an extremely great weblog. To turn out to be a effective man or woman the essential thing would be to have positive thinking.
12:08 AM

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Allyson Pashko's amazing letter

November 10, 2010

Dear Prospective Student,

Have you ever had a bad day? Have you ever felt like your life was meaningless and your unhappiness would last a lifetime? What if I told you that you could read and write your way into a happier life? How would you feel about gaining the inside knowledge to obtaining a more peaceful, stress-free, and most importantly happier life? Sound’s amazing doesn’t it?!

I would like to inform you about a new and exciting class that will be taught here at UAlbany during the spring semester of 2011, which will allow you to re-examine your life. You will be able to maneuver through your toughest issues, learn better stress-coping strategies, change the way you think and act in many daily situations, and also become a better writer while doing so. Inspired by a popular class at Harvard University, this course will take an interdisciplinary approach to the subject of happiness, while reviewing many different works of literature. If you happen to be interested in psychology, like I am, you will be reading many texts in that area, as well as neuroscience, biology, philosophy, and other creative works. Through these readings you will become familiar with the upcoming field of positive psychology and all of the research that is being done with mindfulness and studies of happiness.

Considering that I have gone through some of the toughest years of my life here at the University, I am finding this class this fall to be extremely beneficial. Before learning the appropriate cognitive tools and mindfulness meditation practices, I really thought I was doomed to be unhappy for a long time. I felt the issues in my life would haunt me forever and I would never be able to move on to a happier place.

Luckily, as a part of this class, you will be taking a mindfulness-based stress reduction workshop which will provide you with the tools to re-evaluate life struggles and everyday circumstances. I am currently learning how to change the way I think and approach situations, while being more aware and attentive to the present moment. I am also learning to stop worrying about the past and dwelling on it, because there is absolutely nothing I can do to change it. This has been a HUGE help for me. Through this course you will also learn other great practices and be introduced to different types of meditation. I know it may sound like something totally bizarre at first, but I tried it and I have come to appreciate these Eastern practices very much. I will definitely continue to practice these for the rest of my life.

You may take a look at the reading list and papers that are required and feel overwhelmed, but I think you will come to find that everything you read will only work to benefit you better in the long run. How many classes have you taken and remember nothing from? I can probably name about ten or more. The more work and time you put into the course, the happier you can potentially become. I have really come to enjoy many of the readings and I tend to quote things in my journal, which is another requirement of the course. The journal provides a place for free-expression with no judgment and will let you keep track of how you are progressing throughout the course.

My journal, which is something very new to me and probably you as well, has really served as a great place to let my inhibitions go. It allows me to say what I feel I cannot express out loud to others, in fear that they will judge me. You really need to try it out!

I really hope you will give this class a try and hopefully gain the necessary skills to lead a more fulfilling and happier life. Your next semester here could potentially turn out to be your key to unlocking the door to happiness for the rest of your life.

Allyson Pashko

Allyson Pashko is a senior at the University at Albany, State University of New York, majoring in psychology. She is one of three students in an independent study this semester who are doing a "test run" of the new happiness class. Allyson is graduating next month. Congratulations Allyson! Meanwhile, a million thanks to Lenore Flynn, who has been instructing the mindfulness portion of the new "happiness" class. Lenore  has been presenting stress management classes in hospitals and wellness centers since 1993. She has a Masters Degree in Complementary Therapies. She completed an internship at the Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in 1994 under the direction of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. Lenore is a Registered Nurse with over 30 years of nursing experience. Check out her website, Solid Ground!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Here is a Syllabus for You

Maybe you found this blog by "accident." Well, so, some people say that there are no accidents in this Universe.

In any case, here is a class I am planning to teach in the Spring of 2011, at the University at Albany. But maybe you want to take the class here, on-line.

Even though the class is brand new, students who've heard about it are already coming up to me and saying a) they can't wait to take the class or b) they wished they'd had a class like this available when they were undergrads.

So, I thought maybe I should make the class available to everybody, on line. Or at least, I could let the Universe carry the syllabus wherever it will go.

If the reading list looks daunting, don't sweat it. This class isn't your typical class. You have all time in the world to complete the reading :). And you get as much time as you need, i.e., years if necessary, to complete the writing assignments.

And you grade yourself. :) Or you don't.

So, here you go. Here is the syllabus for"Reading & Writing the 'Happier Self.'"

Class begins here on the blog, as soon as you're ready.

ERDG 491-Z            (Class # 9903/9904)                                                University at Albany, SUNY
Spring 2011              M,W, F 1:40-2:35 p.m. SS 131 & Wednesdays, 4:30-6 p.m. HU112

Professor Claudia Ricci, Ph.D. 442-5189                       EMAIL:

Office Hours: M, W, F 10:30 – Noon; 2:45-3:15 p.m. and by appointment

"Reading and Writing the ‘Happier’ Self"
This upper level seminar, based loosely on a very successful class at Harvard University, will use theoretical, literary and practical readings from a variety of disciplines to help students focus their critical thinking skills on the concept of happiness, and how to use cognitive skills to help achieve a more peaceful and fulfilling life. Reading and writing transform the way we think, and how we see ourselves in the world. Neurological research now shows that changing the way we think can produce positive physiological changes in the brain. At a time when an epidemic of mental health issues plagues our nation, and threatens to paralyze students in the academy, this class presents a set of cognitive tools and practical skills that will help students refine and enhance their educational goals while examining a broad range of life issues. Beginning with philosophical ideas set forth by Aristotle, the class will rely on texts from psychology, neuroscience, literature and narrative theory, to open up discussions about the patterns of human behavior and thinking that tend to produce lasting fulfillment and deep reward. In keeping with research by psychologist James Pennebaker and others who have demonstrated the value of expressive writing, students will engage in extensive journaling and other self-reflective writing assignments as they seek to define what it means, and what it takes, to find happiness.
STUDENTS WILL WRITE SHORT WEEKLY PAPERS EXPLORING  TOPICS RELATED TO THE READING; I will offer feedback that can be used in revising the writing. ALL ESSAYS AND CREATIVE ASSIGNMENTS will be revised. Part of the work in the classroom will be to help students identify their individual “signature strengths” that can produce what positive psychologist Martin Seligman defines as “authentic happiness and abundant gratification.” In addition to classroom work, a special weekly laboratory session, with attendant readings and writing exercises, will be required each week. Students will work on exercises in mindfulness, meditation, yoga, spirituality and stress reduction, and will document how these techniques can help the student better cope with the inherently stressful nature of University life. PLEASE NOTE: This class is a disciplined academic exploration of a newly-emerging field of study that will require extensive reading and writing; it is not an opportunity for group or individual therapy in the classroom or in my office. INSTRUCTOR APPROVAL IS NEEDED TO ENROLL.


**Aristotle, excerpts from Nichomachean Ethics
Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman
Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach, Sonja Lyubomirsky
Opening Up, James Pennebaker
Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, Sharon Begley
**Happier, Tal Ben Shahar
**This I Believe, NPR essays, “Tomorrow Will Be a Better Day”

Magazine articles:

**“Pursuing Happiness,” by John Lanchester (handout)
**“Everybody Have Fun," by Elizabeth Kolbert (handout)

Literary works:

The Stranger, Albert Camus
Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse
Island, Aldous Huxley (optional?)
The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus, on line at
Wherever You Go There You Are, Jon Kabat-Zinn
**Walden, excerpt, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” Henry David Thoreau
**Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman (excerpts)
**“The Metamorphosis,” Franz Kafka

Short Fiction:

** “Getting Closer,” Steven Millhauser
** “The Fix,” Percival Everett
** “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” Sherman Alexie
** “There’s A Man in the Habit of Hitting Me on the Head with an Umbrella,”
 Fernando Sorrentino
** “The Magic Chalk,” Kobo Abe

The Happiness Class Blog:
VOX POP “ATTAINING HAPPINESS,” Clinical psychologist Michael Lipson, Great Barrington, MA
YOU TUBE VIDEO: Dr. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, is a proponent of the emerging field of “Contemplative Neuroscience.” Davidson is one of those suggesting that our mental activity, including mindfulness and meditation, can induce physical changes in the brain. Davidson’s cutting-edge work is influenced by the emerging fields of neuroplasticity and epigenetics: the first is that the brain is a flexible organism. The second idea, epigenetics, suggests that genes are regulated by the environment in which they reside; Davidson says the notion that our genetic structures are inalterable blueprints is “antiquated and Newtonian.”
Davidson’s research center:
Mind & Life Institute: organization promoting research linking modern neuroscience and the world’s contemplative traditions.
Erica Goode, New York Times writer, discussing suicide on NPR (her father committed suicide Oct. 30, 1960, when she was seven years old):
Treatment for Depression among Latinos: stigma keeps people from getting help – Huffington Post, December 20, 2010
Jan. 19 (W) INTRODUCTION. Expectations and outline for this class. In class, write yourself a letter, talking very specifically about something (or things) that make(s) you happy.  Talk about your goals for this class and for your life. Save a copy, as we will do a letter on the last day of class and compare them. Ground rules for discussions in class.
Jan. 21 (F) Read “Getting Closer,” by Steven Millhauser and handouts: Chapter One from Happier by Tal Ben Shahar, New Yorker articles by Lanchester and Kolbert;Write a journal entry reacting to the topic(s) that MOST interest you in the reading! Type up a one-page letter to Jimmy giving him advice from Happier or one of the other handouts! Make sure to include quotes and specifics! BRING TWO COPIES TO CLASS!
Jan. 24 (M) Read “The Fix” by Percival Everett AND excerpts from Aristotle’s “Nichomachean Ethics” -- Book One, Chapters 1, 7, 9, 12; Book Three, Chapter 5, and Book Nine, Chapters 9 and 10.
1/24 RESPONSE PAPER #1: “Fixing Ourselves,” or “Getting Closer,” or “Getting Happy,” (or whatever other title YOU choose!) Write two typed and thoughtful pages about what you want “fixed” OR your experience of “getting closer” or trying to get happy. Start with a short anecdote?  Due in class on Jan. 24th.
Jan. 26th (W) Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness, pages 1-61 AND the first chapter of Camus’ The Stranger; write two pages in your journal in the style of Seligman’s Chapter Two.  Are you convinced that you can increase your positive emotions? How do YOU define happiness?
****4:30 – 6 p.m. class: Read Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go There You Are
Jan. 28th (F) Read pages 62-121 in Seligman AND more of Camus’ The Stranger. In your journal, discuss how Seligman might describe Meursault? What is lacking in Meursault’s life? Does he have any advantages? Be prepared to discuss in class.
Jan. 31st (M) Finish The Stranger and read handout from NPR’s essay collection, This I Believe: “Tomorrow Will Be A Better Day.” Write two pages in your journal about what Meursault OR the NPR essayist can teach us.
1/31 RESPONSE PAPER #2: “What Can Meursault (OR ANOTHER WRITER) Teach us?” Find a focus that suits you, reflect in detail on one of the readings. Write 2-3 typed pages using SPECIFICS. Due in class on Jan. 31st. NO LATE PAPERS ACCEPTED.
Feb. 2nd (W) Read Seligman, 133-161, define your “highest personal strengths,” p. 140, at
****4:30 class: Read Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go There You Are
Feb. 4th (F) Read “The Myth of Sisyphus,” on-line at Make sure to focus carefully on the ending. How is it that Sisyphus finds happiness? Also read the short story “There’s A Man in the Habit of Hitting Me on the Head with an Umbrella,” by Fernando Sorrentino (hand-out). Do you see a connection?
NOTE Please take time EACH DAY DURING THIS NEXT WEEK to follow the Pennebaker model, writing in your journal about both troublesome events, and the emotions associated with those events.
2/7 (M): Happier, pages 83-110 and Pennebaker, pages 1-42. JOURNALING!! Write about your feelings toward family, and your education. Are you enjoying the process? What gets in the way? Is your family situation helping or hurting? HOW?
2/7 RESPONSE PAPER #3: How do you fight the notion of futility (or depression) in daily life? Are you encouraged by what is suggested by “The Myth of Sisyphus” as well as by Seligman and Tal Ben Shahar?? Why or why not? What gives your life meaning/purpose? Due in class on Feb. 7th -- NO LATE PAPERS ACCEPTED.
Feb. 9 (W) Read Happier, pages 111-133 and Pennebaker,  pages 43-72. Do two journal entries, one on the kind of work that you think will make you happy, and the second on love and relationships. Be specific, use details!
****4:30 class: Read Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go There You Are
Feb. 11 (F) Read Pennebaker, pages 73-103; Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God
As you read Hurston’s novel, please write in your journal about Janie’s search for happiness, and how each of her husbands meets or fails to meet her needs.  Write about your own search for love and affection too!
Feb. 14 (M) Their Eyes Were Watching God
2/14 RESPONSE PAPER #4: Reread the section of Their Eyes where Janie Starks sits under the pear tree in Hurston’s novel. Discuss Starks’ thoughts about moment-by-moment joy, about relationships. How does her thinking compare to YOURS? Be specific! Start with an anecdote story? Due in class on Feb. 14th.
Feb. 16 (W) Their Eyes Were Watching God
****4:30 class: Read Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go There You Are
 Feb. 18 (F) Their Eyes Were Watching God
MARCH 2nd: RESPONSE PAPER # 5: In a paper of approximately pages, discuss how your thinking and/or behavior are changing as a result of this class. Select a focus, and FIVE readings that have affected you and discuss IN DETAIL what aspects of the readings (use quotes!) are changing you. USE PERSONAL ANECDOTES FROM YOUR LIFE TO ENRICH YOUR DISCUSSION. This paper will be due on Wednesday, March 2nd.
WEEK SIX  -- Winter Break – Read more of Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go There You Are and also, Sharon Salzberg’s Lovingkindness;
Feb. 28 (M) Read Begley, pages 3-72, and write about this rather new and radical idea that “we can teach old brains new tricks!” ALSO: Please watch You Tube video lecture by Dr. Richard Davidson, U. of Wisconsin, as he discusses his work on mind over brain.
March 2 (W) Begley, pages 73-130 RESPONSE PAPER # 5 DUE TODAY!
****4:30 class: Read Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living, pages 199 - 218.
March 4 (F) Begley, pages 131 – 182
3/11 RESPONSE PAPER # 6: Focus your discussion paper on Begley’s book AND how the practice of mindfulness has affected you.
DUE IN CLASS Friday, MARCH 11th.
WEEK EIGHT            It is now OFFICIALLY MID-TERM !!
March 7 (M) Begley, 183 - 254
March 9 (W) Flow, 1-42.
March 11 (F) Flow, 165-207 and handout, “The Magic Chalk”
3/11 RESPONSE PAPER # 7: At this point in the semester, we are going to experiment with the idea of “Flipping the Scripts” in our lives. Writing will focus on incorporating material that emerges from journaling into narratives that can then be transformed in some way, helping us (perhaps) to move through emotional deadlocks and crises.
March 14 (M) Read short fiction: “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” Sherman Alexie, and Louise Erdrich’s “The Years of My Birth.” (Both are handouts.)
3/14 FICTION (RESPONSE PAPER #8) For Wednesday, 3/16, please write a 3-5 page narrative that reflects a situation or condition discussed in your journal. AT NO POINT IN THIS PROCESS WILL YOU BE ASKED TO REVEAL THE FACTS. We will assume everything that is written is FICTION. Further instructions to be supplied. PLEASE BRING TWO COPIES TO CLASS ON WEDNESDAY, March 16th.
March 16 (W) Small group workshops of narratives.
March 18 (F) “First Person Plural,” Atlantic magazine, Yale University’s Paul Bloom discusses his notion of a “plurality of selves” as the concept relates to the pursuit of happiness, on-line at PLEASE JOURNAL ON THESE QUESTIONS: Can we change our “selves” through narrative?? Can we make ourselves happier via our stories? Consider how you might transform your narrative – the point of view, for example, or the ending, or by adding another character or two. How can you make the story more redemptive?
THIS WEEK, WE WILL TRY THREE SEPARATE REVISIONS OF OUR NARRATIVES, changing some aspect of the story. Please do one due each day and bring them in.
March 21 (M) “The Metamorphosis” Kafka – revision one of your narrative
March 23 (W) “The Metamorphosis” Kafka – revision two of your narrative
March 25 (F) Revision three, please hand in your FINAL script today
3/25 RESPONSE PAPER #9: - HAND IN YOUR FINAL, revised narrative today or with Reponse Paper # 10 on Mon., 3/28.
3/28 RESPONSE PAPER # 10: Please write 2-3 pages REFLECTING ON the exercises we did to transform/revise our personal stories. IF it was useful, say HOW? (be very specific!) Did it change your thoughts or feelings; if so, HOW? Is it satisfying to forgive someone, or to write a new more redemptive ending to a “true” life story? Why or why not? Due Monday, 3/28 with your final script.
March 28 (M) Leaves of Grass, and the literature of personality and the self
March 30 (W) Leaves of Grass, and the literature of personality and the self
April 1st (F) Critics scoffed at Whitman, saying that he was consumed with himself; his poetry was faulted for being obscure and formless. The poet countered that he was supplying material for others to write poems.  Experiment with your own version of Whitman’s poetry, striving for words that inspire you. RESPONSE PAPER 9 DUE!
4/4 RESPONSE PAPER #9: Your 2-3 page response paper this week will be a prelude to YOUR CLASS PRESENTATION. The next two-three weeks of class will be devoted to small group (no more than 3 students) presentations on subjects of the students’ choosing (directly related to the course topic AND YOUR PARTICULAR INTERESTS) Find some aspect of the class that you want to delve into. You must bring in at least two texts (literary or discursive) that we haven’t already read in class. Please consult me on these texts. DUE no later than April 8th (before that if you are going next week!)
April 4th (M) Class presentations
April 6th (W) Class presentations
April 8th (F) Class presentations
April 11th (M) Class presentations
April 13th (W) Class presentations
April 15th (F) Class presentations
April 25th (M) NO CLASS
April 27th (W) Short Fiction
April 29th (F) Short Fiction
May 2nd (M) Last day of class

1)    Attendance and Participation: Students are required to participate actively in this class. No more than three absences are allowed. At five absences, a warning will be given and automatic failure may result after that. STUDENTS ARE REQUIRED TO ATTEND A WEEKLY LAB, from 4:30 – 6 p.m. on Wednesdays, during which time they will be instructed in mindfulness exercises. Attendance and participation will count for 15 percent of the final grade.  
2)    All students will be required to keep a journal to document the evolution and of their thinking as the class proceeds. Periodically, journal entries will be assigned and collected for grading. Journals will count for 10 percent of the class.
3)    WEEKLY RESPONSE papers of 2-3 typed pages each will be submitted for grading on a check, check plus, check minus basis. Topics will be assigned, however, students are free to come up with their own ideas for the papers, with prior instructor approval. A total of 10 papers will be submitted and subject to revision. These papers will count for 50 percent of the grade. A mid-term grade will be supplied after Response Paper # 5, which will be graded A-E.
4)    Class presentations (see April 4th Response Paper #9.) These presentations will count for 10 percent of the grade.
5)    A FINAL PROJECT will compile and expand on lessons that the student identifies as important during the semester. This paper will be an amalgam of personal writing, reflection and research into a topic of the student’s choosing in philosophy, psychology, neuroscience or narrative theory. The final project will count for 15 percent of the grade.
1)    In your journal, record all of the negative thoughts that you have over a two-day period. Number each one of them. Then, address each one of the thoughts, writing in the voice of a close friend or loving family member who can tell you why those negative thoughts don’t make sense, or, why they are counterproductive.
2)    Make a list of activities that give you pleasure on a day-to-day basis, and rate them 1-5, five being the thing that gives you the most pleasure.
3)    Make a list of the material things that you think would make you happy.  Under each item, list something SIMILAR that you ALREADY own or have access to. Talk about both items; why will the NEW ITEM make you happier than the one you already own? How much happier? Is it really worth spending the money?
 Example: I’d really like a SONY AM/FM Clock Radio with iPod/iPhone Speaker Dock - SONICFCS10IPBLK for my kitchen.
BUT, I already have a radio that works, and I have an iPod and a stereo system in the den. I can live without the kitchen radio for now and still listen to my music.
4)    Make a list of goals that you would like to achieve in your life over the next few months. Then carefully review the list and think about