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, April 13, 2011

What it Feels like to "Flip the Script"

Note to readers: Jamie Gibbons, a sophomore at the University at Albany, SUNY, wrote a set of very moving "Flip the Script" narratives that involve her grandfather. The first is called "Dead Flowers." The "flipped" story is "Red Roses." Here, Jamie writes about what it felt like to write those stories, and how the writing helped her to accept his passing.

By Jamie Gibbons

The "flip the script" assignment was a very difficult one for me to write. My grandfather and I were extremely close, especially during my teenage years. My grandparents were the two people that I could always count on, and get along with, all of the time. They were my favorite people to visit. My grandfather had been in and out of the hospital for a while. But when he went in during my senior year, I knew things were different, and worse, this time around. The day that I found out that he had passed away was the worst day of my life. My heart was broken into a million little pieces, and my entire life was changed forever.

I hardly talk about that day, or the months that led up to it. It becomes too difficult for me to speak about it, and it only brings back all of the horrible emotions I felt then. But when we received this assignment, something made me want to share my story. As I was writing the first draft, from my point of view, I cried at almost every paragraph. Tears of happiness, from the good memories, and tears of sadness, from the bad moments. It was hard for me to relive that bad of a time in my life.

When I finished that draft, I sent it to my grandmother. I talked to her on the phone every couple of days, and I thought she would like to read this story. After she read it, she called me immediately. She said that she had cried because of how touching the story was to her. I then proceeded to tell her that the other part of the assignment was that I could re-write the story, from my grandfather’s point of view. I told her that I did not know if I could do that. Not only would it be hard, but my grandfather was never one to share his emotions, or make it publicly known how he was feeling about something or someone. She told me that she wanted me to write it, and that I would not have to make up how he felt.

For the next hour, my grandmother told me how my grandfather had always felt about me. She explained how he felt before he went into the hospital, while he was in there, and on his final day. In a way, it was hard for me to hear, because it only made me miss him more than I already did. But, it was also good for me to hear, because it made me realize how much our relationship meant to him as well.

While I wrote down what my grandmother said, and made it into the second story, I cried again. I miss him more and more every day, and these stories made it more difficult. But they also helped me. They made me realize that what I had with him was something great, and that I was so lucky to have had this relationship. The flip the script assignment made me come to terms with my feelings about that event in my life. I realize now that although it will never be a happy memory, the moments I spent during my life with him will always be with me and remain as happy moments.

I would recommend this experience to others to try. I found that this writing helped me release built up emotions that I continued to hold in. Releasing these emotions made remembering that time, and other good memories, easier to talk about. This experience will help others come to terms with how they felt, and how they should continue to feel about the situation they have written about.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A Grandmother Comes Back as Ghost to Make Amends

Editor's note: Rebecca Jennings, a UAlbany student majoring in art, took a different approach to the "Flip the Script" assignment, and produced an amazing story.

By Rebecca Jennings

It was kind of an odd feeling, like I had never closed my eyes to begin with. I was there and then all of a sudden I wasn’t. I had just aspired into this. I had waited for my daughter, Jessica to leave to do it. It was so strange; I had waited for it to happen for so long and when it finally did, it came so easy, easier than I thought. I had been so angry and bitter, tired and depressed for so long it all came as a relief and I was surprised how all of that had gone away so quickly.

Where was I? It felt like I was in a big ball of white fog just floating. Where was my body? There was no body. I was just there, suspended. Oy vey, it was all so new. The fog cleared up a little and I could make out a small grey silhouette behind the fog - it was me. I was still on the bed and my children were surrounding me. Time and space flew through air so easily, before I knew it arrangements had already been made and I could feel connections, or better yet, souls pull toward me like magnets. I could already feel the thoughts about me, the emotions. I could feel the movement of people traveling toward me. It had started, my last hurrah, my big bang. Oddly after feeling so bitter about the end I was now somehow excited; it was a new journey to travel, something I yearned to experience once more after I got sick. Also, I had always wanted to know who would arrive in the end. I was always curious about other people’s funerals and now it was my turn.

I spent most of my time exploring my new world and waiting with each family member for the “big bash”. The thought made me giggle to myself a little. I went from each of my children’s homes and then to my husbands and sometimes to my grandchildren and brother. It was depressing of course - sometimes they wept for me, sometimes they didn’t, sometimes they smiled, but mostly, they didn’t. If I chose I could hear their thoughts and feel what they feel, but I just sat with them and watched. I was curious, as I had always been a people watcher. I had watched as each of my mourners covered their mirrors and put on their black suites and outfits.

I sped through the time and space of night and arrived in the car of one of my children, Sharon with my two grandchildren also in the car. Strangely the fog around me moved into a vessel, a body-like craft. I no longer had to float around, and somehow I felt more human, a strange reminder of my former life.

I looked at my eldest grandchild in the front seat, Rebecca. She had a different aura about her. It was somber like everyone else’s, but it was also mixed with something else. It was anger and fear and panic and that’s when it hit me. Why couldn’t he have been first, She thought but it was immediately followed with guilt. It took me by surprise at first, but I understood. We had never had that talk about what happened before I passed - I regretted it now.

She was stiff in her seat, her elbow resting against the door with her head against the glass, looking out. It wasn’t until then that I could feel Rebecca’s knots in her stomach. I remained seated in my vessel next to my other grandchild, Michael as I watched the scene unfold.

She took a deep breath attempting to calm her nerves and Rebecca could smell the faint combination of her mother’s hairspray and perfume. Her attempt was in vain. Her mother, who was already easily agitated, was bickering with her brother, who was sitting in the backseat. Rebecca grew tired of listening to the argument and repressed a loud sigh.

Rebecca slipped on her earbuds, mellowing out to “One Headlight”. The song reminded her of me in a way she couldn’t understand, and she thought about the last few times she had seen me. The difference between the times she saw me on Christmas and the time she saw me two weeks ago was substantial. A single tear trickled down her cheek. She heard her mother answer the phone over the music.

“Sharon?” said a man on the phone.

“Hi Rabbi.” She answered in a sob and hearing the tears in her mother's voice made Rebecca’s eyes water once more. Rebecca hated when she cried, it always made her want to cry right along with her. They drove through the center of Monsey and the neighborhood was filled with people. There were people walking and riding their bikes, traffic nonstop. Buses flew around corners and cars were constantly beeping desperately driving to wherever they were headed. It was a Friday (Shabbat) and everyone was rushing to get last minute errands done before sundown.

Finally they had arrived at their final destination, The Gates of Zion. Sharon parked next to her sister, Esther’s van and she sighed. Rebecca decided to leave her bag and iPod in the car and opened the door, the air was brisk, but strangely she found it comforting. She felt the cool wind brush against her bare legs, her black skirt swayed to the side. The black accentuated her pale skin and she was sure she looked whiter than ever. She saw her Uncle Scott sitting in the van and he gave her a nod.

My body was in the hearse across the big turn around circle next to the graveyard. I sensed my cold body in the pine coffin and gave me the strange sensation of what would have been a chill running down my spine - if I had a spine.

My “eyes” found Rebecca again and I followed her for a bit; she worried me. She was looking around for her cousins and desperately hoped she wouldn’t come across her grandfather yet. She wanted to put that off for as long as possible, and I began to feel my guilt. As a human I was so used to suppressing feelings, so I wasn’t used to accepting the guilt. My other grandchildren walked out of the building to meet her and Michael. Stephanie, the tallest of the three stood before her red and teary. She gave her a hug and then turned to her brother Michael to do the same. Rebecca gave hugs next to her cousins Matthew and Allison. Matthew and Michael went off together to return to their strange comical relationship. They hadn’t seen them in several weeks and it was time for them to come together and catch up on each other’s lives. Watching Michael and Matthew interact was something I missed.

“I just can’t believe it. It all happened so fast. You remember how she was a few months ago.” Stephanie said to Rebecca, and she nodded giving her another hug. Rebecca didn’t know what to say, or how to respond, so she walked away to head inside where everybody else had retired while they waited. She swung the door open and immediately felt regret. An old man stood before her, waiting behind the door, Rebecca suspected that he had probably been waiting for her to walk through it.
“Hi Rebecca.” He greeted her in a way that made Rebecca shutter. I could sense all she ever wanted was for him to pretend she didn’t exist, and only then, she thought everything would be fine.

“Hi” she replied calmly and stalked past him and to where her other aunt, my daughter Jessica, and uncle stood. She could feel the fire in her throat but swallowed it back down to her core. She pleaded for it to stay there, for the sake of her mother. All she wanted was to get through the next few hours without any hysterics. It was hard to hold back some of her disgust, but she was surprised by how easily it was to let go of the panic she had grown accustom to feeling. Oh Rebecca, I’m so sorry I couldn’t understand; I’m sorry I was so unwilling to understand, so hopelessly blind of the abuse. I hoped somehow my apology had reached her ears. It didn’t seem likely; she remained seated in a corner hiding behind the protection of her brother.

Michael had grown up a lot in the past year. Michael and Rebecca were protectors of one another, though they didn’t realize it.

Michael intentionally blocked their grandfather’s view of her - he often worried to himself whether or not she was okay dealing with his presence. Rebecca was more protected than she thought, it was not only Michael who was watching over her, but her mother as well. Sharon would sometimes look over to make sure she was okay; Jessica had a thought or two about how she was feeling as well. Rebecca was right though, to some degree. Most of the time the family had forgotten about what he had done to her, and they still questioned if it had happened or not, but one thing she was wrong about was how much they loved her; how much I had loved her - how much I still loved her.

My husband tried to motion to Rebecca to come over so he could introduce a few people to her, but she decided to leave the room instead, slipping secretly behind people to walk to the graveyard. She didn’t want to deal with it. Why doesn’t he get it? Why don’t any of them get it? She thought. She wanted to visit another person buried in the cemetery, I let her have some privacy and my vessel took me to my children. Sharon and my daughter Esther were talking to old cousins while Jessica and her husband Mitch were talking with my other son Mark explaining that the funeral was going to start soon and that they should start walking.

I watched at the top of the hill as my family and friends walked the trail up to the empty grave - it was a strange sight to see. Many of the older people weren’t even wearing black, they had been to so many funerals they stopped dressing up for it. When everyone arrived at the top my coffin was carried to the grave and lowered down into the deep, cold ground. The wind whipped around everyone and gave the earth a little shiver, and I could feel it beneath me. It was strange seeing some people here that I hadn’t seen or talked to in months, some even years.

It made my vessel shake its “head” and I let out a giggle. All of my four children where lined along the grave with my husband beside them, and my grandchildren were there beside their parents to comfort them. As sad as it was, it was a beautiful sight. Sharon gave a speech and the burying began; each person lined to take a shovel and put as much dirt upon my coffin as they wished - everybody cried, Esther even had a whole tissue box with her. I assumed she was afraid she would run out.

When it was over everyone began to walk back down the big hill ready to resume to his or her lives. A light shined behind me and it brought a foggy mist with it, which rolled onto the grass of the cemetery. My mother stood in the light and I smiled inside, I knew what was next, but I couldn’t leave yet - there was something I still had to do. I watched as Rebecca walked with Sharon to the car and went inside; somehow I just knew what had to be done.

Rebecca I called to her: I love you with all my heart, I always have, and with that message I gave all my strength, my love, and my hope to her. It was all things she needed, to do what she was planning. She wanted to tell everyone how she felt: betrayed by her family for pretending the abuse never happened, like they didn’t care. I knew that when she told them, things could be different for her. I was sorry I couldn’t protect her and talk to her about it, and now it was too late, this was the last thing I could do for her.

As she looked out the window at where I was, I knew it had reached her; tears were in her eyes then and she smiled a little. She was going to be okay. I returned to the top of the hill, where my mother had waited, we smiled at each other, and I went with her into my final journey; wherever it led me I would go.