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:

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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

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