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.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"My Journal Saved Me My Freshman Year of College!"

By Carrie Holmes

James Pennebaker, psychologist and author of Opening Up, poses a series of questions in the opening chapter of his book.

He asks, “Why do people throughout the world seek to tell their stories? Is there some kind of urge to confess? Is it healthy for us to divulge our deepest thoughts and feelings? Or, conversely, is it unhealthy not to disclose the private sides of our lives?”

While I must admit, most, if not all of these questions never crossed my mind prior to reading them, I was intrigued.

I immediately thought back to the first time I told my story (well part of it, as I do not believe I have told my entire story.)

I tried to recover my feelings and thoughts as I went through that process. What made me tell my story? How did it feel? How did I feel? It became apparent to me that the only way to answer these questions would be to first answer to opposite; what made me not tell my story?

For a long time I carried the secrets of my past, and at some points in my life, secrets of the present. I was yoked to those secrets. They were agents of oppression, and I was in bondage to them. There was this one particular incident: it occurred freshman year of college, during the summer before freshman year, to be exact. I had just met this guy who, at first, seemed very nice to me.

We began seeing each other.

Being young and naïve, I thought this relationship was going to be "it." I thought that I had found the love of my life and I was looking forward to the next four years with him in college.

Then one evening we were in his car and he was driving and suddenly I did not recognize where we were going. He pulled into some abandoned lot and to make a long story short, I was violated sexually.

When I got back to campus, I acted as if nothing had happened. The way I saw it, I was lucky to be alive. I tried my best to forget about it and focus on the remainder of the summer program that was the reason for me being in Albany in the first place.

Many people may think that I was crazy for not telling anyone what happened to me that summer. I can imagine now what some of my friends would have said to me: “You have to go to the cops," and "Don’t you want him arrested?" and "Don't you want revenge?"

To have talked about the issue would have meant that I would actually have had to confront the issue, and as Pennebaker suggests, “Confrontation forces a rethinking of events.” (pg. 10)

Unfortunately I just wanted it all to go away! I was confused, I was hurt, and I was scared by this traumatic experience.

“People are less likely to talk about parental divorce, sexual trauma, and violence than the death of a family member. Death appears to be socially acceptable…” (pg.19). Date rape was something that I had only heard about until that experience, and even so, it was not something “socially acceptable.”

The only accounts I had heard were statistics, or from TV shows. It was not something that was discussed. Even if I wanted to talk about it, I did not know how. Talking about being raped was not something I'd been taught in school. I was still processing it all. I was coping with it the best way I knew how and that was to keep it to myself.

I remember how guilty I felt. It seemed like people always had something negative to say about women who are raped. I also remembered the loud words of a fellow high school student, who had said, “If a girl gets raped it’s her fault for putting herself in that situation.” I couldn’t tell anyone]because I felt that it was my fault, at least that’s what I thought at the time.

I beat myself up every day for being so “stupid.” As every day passed, it became easier and easier to keep it all bottled inside.

No one can deny that talking about what happened to me would have been in my favor, but there were too many things riding on keeping it secret. Back then my friends always saw me as strong, primarily because I had gone through so many other traumas growing up. That was another reason I could not bring myself to talk about what had happened. I did not want my friends to view me as weak or defenseless. I did not want to be exposed. I wanted to remain the strong Carrie that every relied on; I wanted to be the one to help them through their issues.

Pennebaker explores the “healing power” of expressing emotions and writing about traumatic situations. He says that “writing about emotional upheavals has been found to improve the physical and mental health of…rape victims” (pg. 40). When I read this quote I must say that I had to agree. Not only did I agree with this statement but also the statement “writing about emotional topics has been found to reduce anxiety and depression.” (pg. 40)

These two quotes really highlight my freshman-year experience. After my assault, I took an English class with one of the most inspiring professors of my college career (she is also helping me now to maintain my sanity senior year.) It was in this professor's class that I began writing about my traumatic experience. She required us to keep journals.

While there were some assignments given, most of what we wrote in our journals was about how we felt and what was going on in our lives. One evening I chose to write about the rape for the first time. I had a lot of feelings. I felt nervous, I wondered what she would think, I felt relived, I felt liberated, I felt sad, I felt angry, and I felt all kinds of ways. I can say today that that was one of the best choices that I have made in my life.

As Pennebaker suggests, writing about my experience allowed me to understand how I felt. Journaling also allowed me to get some closure about the situation; I was no longer hostabe to the secret. I could move on. I was no longer depressed about the situation.

Although there were still things going on in my life that caused stress and depression, I had discovered writing and realized what a very good coping mechanism it could be for me. And so I wrote my way through freshman year. With every opportunity that I got, I wrote about an experience, whether in a journal entry, or a class assignment, I wrote.

If there was anything that I could add to Pennebaker’s work, it would be the fact that writing about a situation that is traumatic gives you power over it. Through my writing I was able to recreate a lot of situations that felt like they were out of my control; that proved to be very helpful in my healing process.

I have come to understand that although my reasons for not telling my story may have been valid, and even “normal,” expressing myself has had many benefits. Through writing, a different feeling came over me; something shifted in my life.

Truly, Pennebaker is right: “a change does come over people when they write about traumatic experiences for the first time.” (pg. 43)

I know one thing: I'm glad I wrote, and I will continue writing!

Carrie Holmes is a senior at the University at Albany, State University of New York.

1 comment:

  1. At an exponential distance from Claudia in terms of my own life (I'm over 80) I can attest to the value and verity of her experience with writing. Without consciously deciding to record my traumas, I often did it anyway, and decades later understood that it had saved not only what sanity I could claim, but probably did the same for the others close enough to me to know what had happened. What they might still never know is how I managed to go on because it's only in the rereading that I can sometimes figure it out for myself. Widowhood brought me back to that wonderful outlet of poetry. Maybe this is how writers get to what they are?