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.

Friday, January 21, 2011

CLASS # 2 January 21st SNOW HAPPENS!! Write a SNOW HAIKU!!

So here we are, it's time for our second Happiness class of the spring semester and guess what HAPPENS?

As writer John Lanchester suggests in one of the readings we had for today (from The New Yorker, Feb. 27, 2006):

"...the oldest and most deeply rooted philosophical idea in the world and in our natures is

"SNOW happens."

Actually Lanchester used the other S word but I am going to stick with snow!

Lanchester quotes Darrin McMahon, a historian at Florida State University -- where I presume snow DOES NOT HAPPEN :) -- who has written a "heavyweight" study called "Happiness: A History." In that book, McMahon instructs us on the ORIGIN OF THE WORD HAPPINESS, which on this, the second day of class it seems to me to make sense to start.

McMahon: "Happ was the Middle English word for 'chance, fortune, what happens in the world, giving us such words as 'happenstance,' 'haphazard,' 'hapless,' and 'perhaps.'"

Lanchester's article argues that we are hard-wired to be scared and nervous. He presents us with two characters from 100,000 B.C. -- Ig and Og. Ig is the courageous hunter-gatherer who takes all kinds of chances, and Og is the scared one who freezes at the first sign of danger.

Which one, Ig or Og, is likely to survive? Which kind of behavior is likely to be passed on, the courageous free-wheeling IG behavior or the scared, anxious OG behavior?

Well, so back to HAPP and HAPPINESS and what HAPPENS. Happiness comes from accepting whatEVER happens in life and adjusting accordingly. It's a snowy day, the roads are horrific, and so, as much as I don't want to, and didn't anticipate this, I must do what I must do. So I cancel class. And we adjust by doing something right here on-line.

Which brings me to the assignment for Monday, Jan. 24th which you can now do from the comfort of your couch. :)

1) Please watch the YOU TUBE video (I think it's 45 minutes or an hour) in which U. of Wisconsin researcher Dr. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, explores 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. This is also the subject of Sharon Begley's book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, so if you are inclined, pick up that book and start reading the first two chapters. (We will get to it a bit later in the semester.) Begley is a very gifted science writer for Newsweek and has explained the research with a storyteller's eye!
Davidson’s cutting-edge work, meanwhile, 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.”

2) Also, I am going to ask you to read please read a research article that Trevor Williams, a grad student taking this class (THANKS TREVOR!) emailed me on Wednesday. You don't have to absorb every detail of the article, just concentrate on the narrative in the beginning and at the end!) This article, from The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, is appropriate particularly today being the snowy day it is, to read this article as it discusses research that shows basically the "positive emotions" that emerge from meditation "compound over time" (i.e. they create a SNOWBALL EFFECT!)

3) Go out and play in the snow, or at least experience the snow in some direct HAPPY way :) I will leave the details of that up to your individual imaginations.

4) Write a snow poem, specifically, a SNOW HAIKU, (here is a link to the haiku form, the Japanese form of poetry very short but very powerful!) and I will publish them here!

So, in the spirit of WRITING THE HAPPIER SELF I offer you my own SNOW HAIKU:

All white all soft all
mounded and smooth, white and white
the nothing of quiet.

HAVE FUN with this Haiku, HAVE A GREAT WEEKEND and see you on Monday!

Other readings that we read for today (and will discuss Monday, Jan. 24th):

1) The short story, "Getting Closer," by Steven Millhauser, from The New Yorker, Jan. 3, 2011
2) Chapter One of Tal Ben-Shahar's book, Happier (buy yourself a copy!)
3) "Everybody Have Fun," by Elizabeth Kolbert, from The New Yorker, March 22, 2010

First writing assignment, due Monday, Jan. 24th: write a one-page typed letter to Jimmy, the boy in the story, "Getting Closer," giving him advice from the other three readings! Draw on your own experience trying to find happiness too!

Professor Ricci

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

CLASS # 1: Stress and Happiness and A Wondrous Winter Scene!

We probably broke at least 65 University rules by lighting a candle to start our first Happiness class today. We spent a few minutes writing about stress -- it was a very messy day with snow and ice trying the nerves of any and everyone attempting to get to the U for the first day of classes.

Then we switched gears and wrote about something -- however small -- that had made us happy in the past day or so.

One student said it was returning to school, seeing her roommate after a month-long holiday break -- they cranked up the music (Backstreet Boys!) and danced around their dorm room together!

Another student said that she had been overjoyed to find a parking spot exactly where she needed one.

A third student said he had heard from a friend that he'd met in a meditation class, and was delighted to reconnect.

For me, the moment occurred as I was walking across the ice-crusted campus weighed down with four bags full of schoolbooks and other gear. It had taken a lot longer to drive the 40 miles from home to school and I'd had to take my husband's car as we had an accident in mine on Saturday night (hitting a chunk of ice -- it left us with two wrecked tires and a damaged rim). My husband's car hesitates going into first gear and let me just say, I hate driving that vehicle (not him, he loves the car, go figure.)

Anyway, there I was, arms full of school junk, laden down and stressed because I was arriving on campus late when suddenly I noticed a student peering up into the snowy pine trees. She was taking a picture of the beautiful ice-coated pine trees! I glanced at the scene that she was capturing and smiled.

It was a winter wonderland, for sure, the pine branches sparkling and icy and gorgeous.

I smiled and thought how grateful I was that this stranger had showed me a moment of pure beauty on a lovely winter day!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Join Judi England and Sharon Salzberg in a 28-day commitment!

By Judi England

We live in a culture that loves more. More money, more stuff, more stimuli, more speed, more of everything! We move so quickly from one experience to the next, that the first sits, undigested in the past as we launch headlong into the future. Never mind the present moment. It seldom seems to be enough.

Sharon Salzberg’s latest work “Real Happiness, The Power of Meditation” is a gracious, workable antidote for the illness of “more”. It offers a step-by-step introduction to a practice that can enhance the quality of life and living, regardless of what that life might look like. As she writes: “We might not be able to change the circumstances of our lives, but we can change our relationship to those circumstances.”

With 40 years of personal practice, and 36 years as a teacher of meditation, Sharon knows her subject – quite literally from the inside out. Her students have included Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, police officers, burn patients, prisoners, and front line workers in domestic violence shelters. In 1975 she became a cofounder( with Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein) of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. Her written work includes eight books, as well as countless articles.

Sharon Salzberg

In “Real Happiness” she offers us a guide for how to begin (and begin again), and a wealth of techniques to explore in discovering what works best for each individual. A CD accompanies the book for audio support. But what adds depth and heart to her work is how she addresses the reactions, experiences and questions that come up in the process of meditating. It is here that her writing reflects the deep compassion for self and others which I always notice in long-time meditators.


JE: Thank you so much for taking some time from your busy schedule to share with our readers! In your latest book” Real Happiness, The Power of Meditation” you speak about the life events which led you to explore meditation. In all your years of personal practice as well as teaching, would you say there’s some common threads in what triggers a person to try meditating?

SS: Very often, as in my case, some kind of unhappiness or discontent leads one to explore meditation. Sometimes it is an intense curiosity about life, a wish to live not just on the surface of things that brings one to that exploration. And these days, with so much research going on, often people are motivated by seeking better health, less stress, and real help with all kinds of concerns, including ADHD, addiction, and a long list of conditions people find limiting or depleting.

JE: In my early days of practicing, I remember having a particularly restful, relaxing, almost ecstatic experience. Of course, being a zealous new convert to the whole thing I ran to my teacher to share my joy. His comment: “Don’t get caught in the Bliss-Trap”. Can you relate to this?

SS: Oh yes. We say that the essence of mindfulness is relationship: how we relate to pleasure, how we relate to pain, and how we relate to everything in between. Our goal is to experience the pleasure or even bliss that comes our way fully, but without that extra thing we tend to do of clinging and holding on. We want to relate to painful experience fully, without closing down, and with an open heart of compassion. And we want to wake up and experience basically neutral times with strong presence and connection.

JE: If meditation is about simply “being with” all that we are: sensation, thought, emotion – wouldn’t it promote a sort of passive acceptance of our life, rather than an invitation to grow and change?

SS: I think that’s the common misperception, and it is easy to see why – the words we tend to use to describe meditation can well imply passivity, but it’s not what actually happens. If we learn to simply be with our experience, that’s the beginning of the process of insight. If we are struggling against our emotions, our bodies, there’s not a lot of learning that can happen. If we are overcome and defined by all of our changing states, there’s not a lot of learning that can happen. As we learn to be with all of our experience, we are creating the space we need to make choices out of clarity and wisdom.

JE: How would you respond to a prospective student who considers themselves “much too busy” to “just sit” and meditate?

SS: I find that reaction very interesting. I often say that if most of us were told, “Here’s this activity you can do 20 minutes a day and it will really help your friend.” Most of us would jump at the chance. But framed as “It will really help you,” suddenly we are too busy, it seems selfish, not worth doing. I’d say start with just 5 minutes of formal practice each day, and add a few fun things – like not answering your phone on the first ring, but letting it ring 3 times, and breathing; have one cup of tea or coffee a day without multitasking at the same time – no checking email, having a conversation, listening to the news at the same time. These things really are fun when put into practice.

JE: The program outlined in “Real Happiness” asks for a 28-day commitment to begin a regular practice. I also know that you’ve already gathered a number of people to take part in this exploration and to report their experiences via your web site. Is there some way the readers of the Holistic Health blog might join in the adventure?

SS: We welcome everyone to take part in the 28-Day meditation challenge. People can read the book and do the practice laid out in the book. The challenge will begin Feb. 1 (although you can begin at any time). There will be a comment section on the blog on my website so people can post comments on particular posts. Also people can join in the challenge on twitter. They can post their reflections and follow others who are doing the challenge by following the hashtag #realhappiness. I will be hosting 3 live tweetchats during the month of Feb and if you follow @sharonsalzberg I will post the dates and times for these. The chats are one hour long and anyone can ask questions, which I will do my best to answer in 140 characters or less. And of course there is my FB page, where I will posting excerpts from the blog and everyone can comment/share there as well. I will be posting on my site as well as tweeting to give everyone support and encouragement all month long.

JE: Again, Sharon, my thanks for talking with us about your work to bring this powerful practice into so many lives. Do you have anything else you’d like to add? A favorite quote you’d like to share?

SS: Here’s a quotation from Real Happiness: The door of possibility has been opened—the door to authentic and accessible happiness. Welcome. Come in and sit.


…..and today, like every other day, is the perfect day to do that.

Peace-Judi England, RN, LMT, Kripalu Yoga Instructor – – 1/17/2011

Up and Coming Events in the Albany Area:

1) Creating and Vision Board for Goals in 2011 and Sound Healing Demonstration: Saturday January 22, 2011-11-2:30, Key 2 Joy, 142 Vly Road, Niskayuna, NY-Presenters: Janet Tanguay, Creativity Coach at Art ‘N Soul, and Shannon Keys, Key 2Joy, Inc. – $35 in advance, $40 at the door,

2) “The Power of Quantum Transformation” a free talk by Michael Wayne, author of “The Low Density Lifestyle”, Saturday, January 22,2011, 7-9pm- Hosted by Capital Region chapter of the Institute for Noetic Sciences (IONS). Home of Maryjane Cleary, Altamont, NY. For directions and more info call 518-861-1122

Writer Judi England, a yoga teacher and massage therapist in Albany, New York, writes the Holistic Health blog for the Times Union. This piece appeared there first.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Class Begins Wednesday, January 19, 2011 -- Or Whenever You're Ready!

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 teaching beginning January 19, 2011, at the University at Albany. But perhaps you want to take the class here, free, on-line.

Even though the class is brand new, three students did a "test run" of the class last fall, in an independent study with me, and it was quite a remarkable experience. Here is a letter to prospective students written by Allyson Pashko, one of the students who took the class in the fall. (A senior, Allyson was a psych major at SUNY who graduated summa cum laude in December, 2010. Congratulations and much good luck to you, Allyson!)

Word is out now on campus that I am teaching this new class in Happiness. Students are stopping by my office saying they can't wait to take the class OR, they say they wish they could fit it into their schedules.  Grad students (former students of mine at the University) are saying they wish they had had a class like this available when they were undergrads. One grad student has enrolled and another wants to.

So, I thought maybe I should make the class available to everybody, everywhere, 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.

Speaking of writing assignments, there is one in particular that you ought to try! It's called "Flipping the Script," and it promises to help you find peace in a not-so-peaceful relationship.

When that student Allyson Pashko tried it, the exercise proved remarkably helpful. Try it, what do you have to lose but an hour or two of time and a few sheets of paper?

And one other thing about this class, you grade yourself. :) Or you don't. You feel better, almost certainly.

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.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

How I Got Happy Developing a Class in Happiness

Great is the irony of designing a brand new class in happiness. Because as you will see if you read the computer diary that I kept when I first started developing the class back in May of 2010, I WAS DECIDEDLY NOT VERY HAPPY when I began developing the class.

I told my husband the other night that developing this class (at the University at Albany, SUNY) has been one of the best things I have ever done in my life.


I would like to thank my husband, Richard Kirsch, for suggesting that I keep a journal as I started to do the reading and thinking that I needed to do for this class, which begins two weeks from tomorrow on January, 19, 2011.

My husband, one of the most optimistic people I know, was a principal player in the long and difficult fight for health care last year. Last May, as I started thinking in earnest about a happiness class, Richard was just starting to think about how he was going to write a book about the role that he (and the progressive organization that he ran, Health Care for America Now or HCAN) played in getting health care passed. (Now, he's fighting to keep it!)

So there were BOOKS IN THE AIR.

It took months and months, first to do all the reading that I needed to do, and then, to assemble the syllabus. And then, it took an equal number of months to get the class through various comittees and subcomittees and Dean's and departmental offices etc. You have no idea what a bureaucracy a university can be.

Then I had the equally trying task of getting all the paperwork completed to post the class in the course catalogue on the University's People Soft registration system.

It wasn't until last week that we finally crossed all the t's and dotted all the i's and got the class ready for registration.

As I have started to reread the journal -- it is 43 pages, single-spaced, on the computer -- I am reminded of a couple things: a) when I started developing the class I was really quite depressed, and b) I kept praying for happiness.

So you could say that my prayers for happiness were answered by starting a happiness class.

I want to thank my supervisor, Maritza Martinez, in the Office of Academic Support Services at the University at Albany, SUNY, for her continued support during this long and often torturous process.

It was very difficult at times to continue believing that this was the right thing to do.

But Maritza just kept reassuring me that everything would be fine, and that I was doing the exactly the right thing, developing a new interdisciplinary class that could, through cognitive skills, help students to understand what would make them happier.

At one point last June, as I was describing to her some of my fears and my hesitations about the class (including the fact that the class could turn into a giant therapy session which I did NOT want!) she very calmly listened to me. She acknowledged my fears and then she calmly slid a book across her desk to me.

The book is called Feel the Fear And Do it Anyway, by Susan Jeffers, which Maritza was using for the summer program that we offer to our students as part of the Educational Opportunities Program at the University.

That book's title was precisely the message I needed to hear. I needed to feel the fear but do it anyway.


The first entry in the diary originally ran as an essay on the Huffington Post. But it is the second diary entry that really captures the irony of this endeavor. Here it is, called, "Who Me? Teach Happiness? But I'm Depressed!"

Diary Entry # 2: How Can I Teach Happiness, I"m Too Depressed!

June 12, 2010

I am in downward facing dog when I decide that I have to write this about the class on happiness. 

In the four weeks since I wrote the first post, I have been in a downward spiral. I have descended into a funk the likes of which I haven’t seen for a few months.

I’ve started the Zoloft, which always means I’m scared and feel like there is no hope that I’ll emerge from the depression.

I don’t want to be depressed. I want to be happy. I want so much to be happy so I guess that I will just say a prayer right here, please God, show me the way.

My husband reminds me that this crash seems to happen at the end of every semester. After the madness of grading is all done, I feel like there is no purpose to life. I have nothing pressing on me, and thus, life becomes so boring that I can barely face the next day.

No matter that we went to Italy for two weeks. When I am in this horrible state of mind, it doesn’t seem to matter what I do. My husband suggested that I start a kind of “HAPPINESS” journal about creating the “happiness” class. It might help to motivate me. Oddly enough, I am starting the happiness journal depressed.

I phoned my friend Karen Jahn and confided in her.

She told me that I’m like all those men who stop working and just die, because they can’t find any purpose to life without work. “You go through this every summer,” she offered. Yuck. She’s right and I wish she weren’t.

She told me that she is reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Bright-Sided, which deals with what she considers American's rather silly and unreasonable reliance on positivity. She suggests that the American obsession with happiness is a source of our weakness (witness the book's subtitle: "How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.”

In particular, she suggests that the idea that we can fight cancer with an endlessly positive attitude is misguided, short-sighted and perhaps, even dangerous.

I do not agree with her, perhaps because I was a poster child for positivity when I was sick with lymphoma. Oddly enough, when I was sick with cancer in 2002 and 2003, I didn’t feel the least bit depressed (scared sometimes maybe but not depressed.)

In those days, ironically, I didn’t need anti-depressants!

I had a purpose: fighting cancer. Staying positive.

Staying alive. Getting better.

I think it’s because I had such a clear purpose: cure and heal myself.

I wrote a ton of poetry to get through cancer. I collected all the poetry later on into a book I named, “Riding My Kite Through Lightning.”

I certainly don't think that every person will be cured of their cancer simply because they smile all day. But in my case, I didn't see any other way to endure the treatment.  I found it essential that I willed myself into positivity each and every day.

Now I just need to figure out how to be happy without having the cancer. I just want to be happy.


And maybe that is why I am starting this class.

I will say it again, as if it is a prayer: I JUST WANT TO BE HAPPY, and then, I just want to show others how to do the same thing.

I am quite certain that my meditation will carry me, and show me the way through this BLUE PERIOD.

In meditation we often set intentions or objectives. So I will give it a try, here is my first objective as I start developing this class:


To find a way to stay positive, and enjoy life, and feel purposeful WITHOUT having cancer, for heaven’s sake. Please make this possible, I pray.

I told my friend Karen that I think the first thing I have to rethink is the title of this class (she agreed.)

It’s a mistake to call it a class in happiness, for a host of reasons, not the least of which the students will think, ah, easy class, quick fix. BE HAPPY. Easy A.


It isn’t a quick fix, this search for happiness. The last few days, it’s felt like slogging through a ton of sand or snow.

It feels like incredibly hard work to be authentically happy. And what exactly does that mean, AUTHENTIC HAPPINESS (that is the title of the book by Martin Seligman, one of the fathers of the Positive Psychology movement and someone apparently that Barbara Ehrenreich does not feel very positively about.)

Do I know what I’m talking about here? Does he?

I have a lot to learn before I can teach this class. I stare at the list of books I have on the counter, including a tome by Aristotle, “The Nichomachean Ethics," in which he says that the pursuit of happiness is the most basic human pursuit, one that underlies all other activities.

I sit here thinking sad thoughts. I think, I am so unhappy how can I possibly teach this class?

Today I think that there is a great big IF in my teaching this class.

One thing I know, though,

The class will have to include a consideration of mindfulness

and consciousness and the self, and how we might try to use writing and thinking and meditation and mindfulness and maybe yoga to change the way we think and feel.

OK, so with that, I want to go back to downward facing dog and get on with my morning yoga. Enough yakking. J

The Happiness Diary, Entry One: May 14, 2010

Lately I've been doing a lot of thinking, and reading, about happiness. And the more I read, the more I think how happy other people might be if they were reading along side me.

I'm thinking about happiness because I want to teach a class on the subject next year. I am following in the footsteps of an amazing teacher at Harvard, whose course on happiness (he started it in 2002) was at one point the most popular course at Harvard University.

So I could do worse than try to teach a class like that at my university.

The reason I want to teach this class is very simple: I've been teaching literature, journalism and creative writing at the college level for almost a dozen years and the number of depressed and completely dysfunctional students seems to be on the rise.

I was told by students this semester that the mental health clinic at the University is so swamped and overwhelmed by desperate kids that the clinic is starting to turn students away if they have other counseling resources available to them at home.

Maybe it's the economy.

Maybe it's this increasingly crazy pace at which we live -- all wired up and hooked to screens and Ipods and always on the run.

One thing is definitely clear: it's getting harder to get students to show up in class. And when they show up, it's hard to ignore the pain and anguish on so many of their faces.

Last night, I finished grading for the semester, and I gave out a D minus and an F, unusual for me. I would have had another D except that I chased that particular student (a senior) down to get his final paper.

I know I know, no teacher should have to go chasing a senior in college down for his final paper, but in this case, there were extenuating circumstances.

Another student in the class -- one who got a C plus -- spent part of her final paper (also late) writing very eloquently about why she has had such an abysmal 2010.

It started on New Year's Eve, with a horrifying tale that now explains to me why she was absent a miserable 13 or 14 times. Again, there would be good justification for failing that student on absences alone, but this person really tried, and really suffered all semester.

I'm not sure what we can do as a society to address these deep emotional chasms amongst our young people, but I think at the University level, we had better begin to address this issue.

Interestingly enough, at the same time our desperation levels are growing, so too are our insights into how we might become happier. One area in particular that is a gold mine: the field of mindfulness.

Just try doing a google search and see what comes up. (JUST READ SOME OF THE POSTS ON THE HUFF PO "Living" site!) It's everywhere, this idea of mindfulness!

There are a growing number of research projects demonstrating that mindfulness -- which involves a kind of moment-by-moment awareness of life, and its many riches --has great potential for reducing stress and anxiety,and giving people of all ages the tools to manage life's "issues."

Of course, we love to think that we invent things. But the field of mindfulness -- meditation -- is ancient, a long Eastern practice from many spiritual traditions.
But in recent years, western societies have been re-discovering the Eastern practices. Curiously, at the university where I teach, an enterprising graduate student in psychology --named Nicholas Van Dam --is conducting research on mindfulness and stress reduction and his funding comes from ...

the Dalai Lama (actually it's the Mind and Life Institute but that organization is funded by the Dalai Lama.)

Over the next months, I will be sharing some of what I've been reading. But I won't wait to tell what I read this morning in the book, Happier, by that Harvard professor, Tal Ben-Shahar.

As a society, we Americans are far less happy than other far poorer nations like Afghanistan or Nigeria.

Why, in the midst of our riches, are we so unhappy?

Because happiness doesn't come from riches. Nor does it come from stacking up achievements; in fact, Ben-Shahar suggests that those "rat-racers" (many of whom go to Harvard!) who endlessly chase success inevitably end up in a kind of "now what?" situation where it makes no sense to keep chasing success.

Happiness doesn't come from having things. And true happiness isn't conditional, either. Even though most of us think "I WILL BE HAPPY WHEN...then fill in the blank:

when I get the perfect job...

when I get a new and more beautiful house...

when I get a BMW (one of my students once told me that a particular car was definitely the KEY to his happiness!)

But that is not how happiness works. Of course A NEW HOUSE OR A NEW CAR OR A NEW DRESS OR A NEW GIRLFRIEND will contribute to satisfaction. But they aren't going to give you the kind of lasting happiness that carries over from one day to the next (well, maybe the girlfriend will :).

True happiness, according to Tal Ben Shahar (and others), is a quiet inside job. It's really a matter of learning to appreciate whatever you have at your fingertips. It's the ability to see the positive in every situation (even so-called disasters.) It's the knack for enjoying what seem to be very little things: things like looking out the window, as I am now, and gazing at tree. Or it's sitting with a friend, enjoying a cup of tea or a delicious cup of coffee.

Or it's the gentle touch my husband just laid on my head as he headed to his study to make a phone call.

It's a moment-by-moment process that most of us generally dismiss as we rush around the office or our homes or the mall trying to "get somewhere" or do something or buy something.

The point about happiness is that we are already there, if we just stop, and open our eyes and realize it.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Can "Flipping the Script" on Life Stories Make us Happier? Try It!

Most of us will say that we want to be more happy and peaceful. But how we do that?

One thing we can do is to try to take the sting out of our most trying relationships. Addressing the "dramas" in our lives, and finding new ways to re-see, re-think and rewrite these dramas may help.

OK. First a little background.

Think about the human mind as a kind of word or story machine. The mind -- the intricate workings of which we hardly understand -- encodes all experience in words and stories, pictures and images and sensory impressions.

Every single thought we have is a word creation. A projection. Every thought we have is a kind of story. A made-up story about how things are, or even more accurately, how we perceive things to be.

This fascinates me in part because I am a fiction writer and I just love stories and write them all the time. But it also fascinates me because it has everything to do with whether or not we are happy.

This spring, at my University, I am teaching a brand new interdisciplinary class in Happiness. The class includes readings in philosophy, psychology, narrative theory, neuroscience, as well as a few novels, some poetry and short fiction. We are also taking an eight-week mindfulness class, meeting once a week on Wednesday afternoons.

One important thing we are considering this spring: the notion that the stories we tell ourselves are critically important to how we feel about ourselves, and how healthy we are.

It stands to reason that If we tell ourselves depressing stories, and if we look at the world in a negative light, then chances are that the world around us will be depressing.

But if we flip the script and tell ourselves upbeat and positive stories (within reason of course), then we are likely to be happier and have more positive outcomes in our lives. If you doubt this, try reading some of the emerging literature on mindfulness and positive psychology.

In particular, pick up a copy of Martin Seligman's book, Authentic Happiness, or try reading ex-Harvard professor Tal Ben Shahar's book, Happier (a very quick read, with exercises to boot.) Definitely find a copy of Sharon Begley's Train the Mind, Change the Brain, which is chock full of evidence that demonstrates that we can change our physical brains by thinking in new ways.
Begley lays out a huge array of research findings, including an exciting collaboration between neuroscientists and Buddhist monks -- including the Dalai Lama. This research supports the notion that the brain is infinitely mutable or plastic, and that what if we train ourselves to think in new ways we can find more peace and happiness.

Meanwhile, you might want to try this little experiment; it might make you happier, or at least it is likely to give you some important perspective and crucial insight into one or more of the dramas that plague your life.

OK, so start by thinking about somebody you would like to kill.

Or at least, try thinking about somebody who makes you very very angry. Or very very resentful. Or very very sad and unhappy.

Think perhaps about a recent argument that you've had with this person. One of those screaming matches. Or, maybe one of those cold shoulder experiences, that bitter feeling when you would rather slit your throat than talk to the person who makes you angry.

Recall a situation, something that happened with this person that made you as angry as you could possibly be. Maybe you will even want to write down this story that lit your fury.

Now try this, if you can. Try to flip the story.

Try, just for a moment, to step into the shoes of THE OTHER PERSON, and try to tell the story from your opponent's point of view. Try to, if you can, BE that other person who made you so murderously angry. Or be the person you resent. Or the mother or father who makes or made you or sad or whatever.

The important thing is to feel the situation, from the other point of view. Again, if you can do it, try writing it down.

Go over every moment of that last argument, but force yourself to do it in the eyes and ears and shoes and hat of that other person. Make sure to feel every bit of emotion that your antagonist feels. And especially, try to feel WHY that person feels what he or she feels.

If you do it, I promise you that you will not hate the person you hate quite as much as you did. Or at least, you will have a much better perspective. This exercise may give you insight into why they behave or feel toward you the way they do.

This is one of the exercises that we are going to do this upcoming semester in the Happiness class. We are going to "Flip the Script." We are going to take some of our journal writing, writing in which we detail emotional pain, and we are going to fold it into fiction.

The idea is to get people out of telling the same old stories. The idea is to stop the endless rumination that traps us by creating new stories. The idea is to write fiction that transforms the energy of the pain and makes us moves forward. Ultimately the goal is to move somewhere more peaceful with some personal drama, a drama that holds us back from feelings of happiness.

So, how exactly will we write these fictions that flip the script?

I supervised three students in an independent study this past fall, a kind of test run for the Happiness class. The students started the semester by doing extensive journal exercises. Relying on James Pennebaker's wonderful text, Opening Up, the students wrote regularly (at least three or four times a week) about situations in their lives that were emotionally troubling. (Pennebaker's research documents extraordinary improvements in health when students keep journals in this fashion.)

We never discussed the details of these journal entries, as I was careful to keep the independent study from becoming a therapy session. At no point in the semester did the students ever discuss exactly what they were writing.

After a few weeks writing regularly in their journals, the students were asked (and I helped to guide them) to transform one particularly prominent emotional conflict (one that recurred repeatedly) from the journal into a short piece of fiction.

One way to create fiction out of a journal entry is simply to take an emotional conflict and simply turn it into a back and forth dialogue between "characters." Then you place the dialogue into two characters and set the characters in an important "setting."

Voila. A story!

The next step is to "Flip the Script," that is, to take this piece of fiction and change it in some way or another. Sometimes that means bringing in another character, often an older wiser character (one student this semester found herself with a fairy godmother!) Sometimes that means writing from a different point of view, i.e., the point of view of your "persecutor." Sometimes that means having one of the characters do something that seems completely impossible or outrageously difficult or impossible to do. Something, say, like forgiving somebody something they have done.

The results of these exercises were rather remarkable. My students this fall found themselves exploring very painful life stories but transforming them, re-telling their life tales from another point of view. In one case, a student wrote from her mother's point of view, and for the first time in her life, she was able to see why her mother had had such a hard time being a "good" mother.

All three of the students found themselves with important insights into their lives. All three students -- all of them were upper division psychology majors at the university -- reported in their final papers at the end of the semester -- that they had found the exercises very helpful in gaining perspective on their most difficult and challenging life issues.

So, now I have all of my students trying this exercise. Stay tuned, I'll let you know how it works out for them.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

How did her finger teach her the meaning of life?

By Kellie Meisl

I decided I just had to write a story about my finger.

Honestly, what happened to it a few weeks ago was such a rare and instructive event, it really warrants a story. And it kind of points us all forward for the New Year.

So it all began on December 8th, when I was teaching an art class at my home. We were finishing up a paper maché project and doing some painting.

So things are finishing up and I am bustling around the kitchen washing paintbrushes and dabbing paper maché paste off the floor. My son has just come in from school. I offer him a Danish from a plate of airy, seemingly angel-spun delights, when a class member suggests that we warm it up for him -- make the sugar “melty.”

A few moments later, I hear my son say, “Mom, it’s so hot I can’t get it out of the toaster oven.” In my classic routine fashion, I whirl from the sink to the oven and grab it in one fell swoop, like it is a warm muffin. (My sister and I call this move where we go from cabinet, to appliance, to oven, and back to sink, in a single pivot-like movement, often while balancing on one foot, kitchen Thai-chi.)

What I did not realize in that moment is the nice “melty” sugar was now at about 250°. Later, of course, my mother’s words from the day long ago when we made candied apples, about how hot sugar could potentially cause a burn to the bone, did come back to me. I was 10, and my siblings 8, and 6 at the time, but she really made an impression with the bone part. The next day, my math-whiz friend would give me the numbers: boiling water 212°, boiling sugar, “probably at least 250°.” And it was boiling; my son witnessed the sugary bubbles.

What followed was a scene with horror-movie qualities. I rushed to the sink feeling the searing pain and ran my hand under the cold water for a very long time; in fact I would have stayed there through the night if I could have. Thankfully, the burn was confined to a single finger, because the skin looked as melted as the sugar on the Danish.

Almost immediately, it began to hang in a white flaccid pouch that I can only describe as wet cheese cloth -- there was like, about an inch of it. I was thinking, wow, this isn't too bad, (since the pain had diminished by 50%). But then, I saw the look on my son’s face and heard him say "ER." There are some details you don’t need, so let me segue to a few hours later. I will say this: I did not bother with the ER.

After about an hour and a half of ice water and pampering, I slathered on the triple antibiotic cream and a huge Band-aid and called my mother -- who is an RN -- with a report.

Without any visual assessment, my mother was naturally cautious in her response. But she was not alarmed. That was good. Then I Googled the keywords from the incident: sugar, burn. I was surprised to find that I had done precisely the right things, cold water, not ice, triple antibiotic cream, ibuprofen for inflammation, because the finger had been practically in flames, I reasoned.

In the wee hours of the next morning I awoke with a funny feeling in the finger and cut off the Band-aid to see if what I was imagining was accurate, and it was, my finger had doubled in size, the burned area, the bottom two thirds of the back of my right ring finger, was now one BIG as in GIGANTIC watery blister.

And the blister grew.

And it grew.

On the third and fourth days, I sent a series of photographs to friends via email to document the growth of this finger blister which resembled a fetal sac. (I still have those photos of course but I will spare you.)

Let’s just say that after I emailed these photos, some friends were aghast and horrified! One suggested that I rush right over to the ER to see a doctor! I assured this friend that my mom was a nurse and had assessed the situation and that my finger didn't demand a hospital visit.

Then, another dear friend reminded me that I had been very frenzied as of late and that my finger injury, while a bit grotesque, had provided me a very good reason not to “do” but instead just to “be.”

And in a way, I have just been just “being” ever since then, kind of observing more, reflecting some, resting a lot and listening. Sometimes what I hear are echoes of a voice in my very own head telling me things that I had not considered.

Maybe I need to hear these things. (I think that’s what my dreams are, echoes from the day.)

If it hadn't been for my finger injury, I wouldn’t have recognized the echoes. Had I not been burned I would not have slowed wayyyyyyyyy down.

SO there you go, a great lesson for all of us for the New Year. Let's all try, without burning our fingers or doing anything else damaging, to slow down just a bit, and appreciate the very little things. The moment by moment miracles and joys of life.

HAPPY NEW YEAR! And may all your sweetest dreams come true in 2011!

Artist Kellie Meisl, who lives in Pittsfield, Massachusetts with her husband and son, Ben,

relies on dreams as a springboard for her work. She uses paint, reclaimed wood, found objects and collage, and has created most of her pieces over the past decade for community causes. Her intricate wire sculpture, a mermaid called "Awareness," pictured here, was purchased this past fall by Pittisfield Mayor James Ruberto during the Think Pink Breast Cancer Awareness Exhibit in October. In 2009, she published her first book, Dream Stories: Recovering the Inner Mystic. Kellie can be reached through her, where "How My Finger Taught Me the Meaning of Life" appears in its entirety. Kellie Meisl's image, "Shattered Cups," provided the cover image for the novel, "Seeing Red."