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.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

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

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