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

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