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, March 15, 2011

"FLIP YOUR SCRIPT" -- Using Narrative to Find Forgiveness by "Rewriting" Life's Dramas

NOTE TO READERS: For the past year and a half, I have been experimenting with writing exercises that show how narrative, or story-telling, may serve as a way of promoting forgiveness and empathy.  I'm calling the exercise "Flip Your Script."

Students in several classes have now completed the exercise and the turnaround in the attitude of many of the writers has been dramatic.

The exercise is simply. In the first part of the assignment, I ask the students to write a story -- with names and details changed -- that presents a situation or relationship with another person or persons that has caused difficulty in life. In the second part of the assignment, I invite the students to think about ways in which they might revise the story, or "flip the script." In effect I am asking the student to step into the shoes of the person who has hurt them, and tell the story from that point of view.

The resulting narratives have been astonishing, and many have led the students to report that they have forgiven the person who hurt them. In some cases, the writer reports a dramatic change in feeling even after writing part one of the exercise.

Here now is Part One of a flip. Stay tuned to see what Lauren Johnson writes next!
By Lauren Johnson
I stood in the doorway of my friend Ricky’s bedroom, completely silent and stiff. I felt as though somebody had kicked me in the stomach, and I could barely breathe. I watched as Ricky and my friend Kim continued to play the song they were working on before I arrived. They seemed completely unaware of my emotional state as they lost themselves in the music coming from their guitars, smiling and nodding at each other through each riff. They were putting together a song for us to perform at our high school’s respect day festival. But at this moment, it was the furthest thing from my mind.
Kim looked up and began to notice that something was wrong. She slowly tripped over her last few chords before stopping altogether. All of the emotion I had been bottling up in those few minutes that seemed like an eternity began pouring out. I finally started to cry, and Kim immediately ran over to me and took me down the hall to the bathroom. Poor Ricky, like most high school guys, was completely out of his element when it comes to consoling a crying girl. He waited in the bedroom as I began to open up to Kim in the bathroom about what had just happened.
It was a cold February night, and I sat bundled up in the passenger’s side of my father’s Explorer as he drove me to Ricky’s house. I was gushing to my Dad about how excited I was for Respect Day. Singing and music was such a huge part of my life growing up, and I loved having the chance to collaborate with friends. We continued to talk about it for another minute or two, when I saw him reach for the knob on the radio, turning down the volume. This moment of silence was never one that led to good news. Like most kids, I knew that cutting out background music was going to inevitably lead to trouble. I began thinking about what I did wrong or worse, what I would be getting grounded for. Nothing could prepare me for what he was about to say.
“Your mother and I decided to separate” he began, “I have an apartment at a complex across town, and I’ll be moving out this week.” I swear I thought I was dreaming. My parents had been married for over 16 years. This couldn’t be real I thought, my heart pounding out of my chest. I began to flashback to times growing up when my little sister and I would yell at them for making out at the kitchen table. This can’t be real, I thought. This isn’t supposed to happen to me. This is what happens to Jackie’s parents, or Craig’s parents. This is what happens to the 60% of families that aren’t mine.
Sticking to my character, I concealed any sign of emotional distress to my father. I was, after all, his Virgo first born. I was the strong one who acted completely rational and coolheaded even when my world felt like it was falling apart. We began discussing the details of the split, although there is only so much you can cover in a 10 minute drive. We pulled up to Ricky’s house, and I told my father I loved him while getting out of the car. Little did he know it was taking every fiber of my being to keep from screaming out loud. I began feeling a flood of emotions from sadness to anger. Everything from “how did this happen!?” to “how could he tell me like this, in a ten minute car ride?!” began to race through my head.
I took a moment to compose myself, as I walked through the front door and began to slip off my boots. My heart continued to race. “Take a deep breath!” I told myself, but my heart wouldn’t cooperate with my head. I heard the faint sounds of two guitars playing in the background. I took one last big breath, and began to head up the stairs to finally face the music.

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