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

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.

1 comment:

  1. i love the thought of happiness, i am also experimenting on the subject, while conversing with a lot of people i have found out that life's situations are like a flowing river and people standing on one side are only appreciating the other side of it. maintaining happiness can be achieved by one thing, that you learn swimming and enjoy the flow, the transition of seasons, changes of life, and moods of God.