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

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!"

1 comment:

  1. A few years ago, one of my 11th graders studied the science of happiness for her independent study in my English lit and comp class. For her project she kept a happiness journal. I learned a lot through her responses during the six week unit and the timing was as ironic as the need to teach happiness: I was going through a period of depression.

    That summer, knowing I had to do something I started a happiness journal of my own. I don't write anything, but for the two years I was climbing out of the pit, I clipped, collected, and saved anything that made me smile or laugh: notes from my students, stuff from my mother, photographs, cartoons, jokes, pictures, poetry...the act of making the journal helped me tremendously as did going through the journal on dark days. I haven't touched it in four months now, but I know where it sits should I need a little light.

    I'm glad you found your light. Wish I were near enough to audit the course.