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, December 13, 2011

You've Got the Gift List, but now it's Time for the Gratitude List!!!!

I am sitting here in my study where the rocking chair is right beside the window with the lighted candles. I just walked outdoors and the winter air was exhilerating. I looked up into the night sky at the brilliant stars and then at the old farmhouse where I live, with all the lighted candles glowing in the windows and it was so thrilling that I felt momentarily awed.

It hit me then. I am so very lucky to have a house. I don't want to take this blessing for granted. Especially now when there are so many people suffering without homes.

And then something else hit me. If I'm feeling so grateful, and if I'm going to make my students keep a GRATITUDE LIST next semester, then it seems only fair that I make one too. So I came inside and sat down here in the study. And now, here it goes. I have NO idea how long this list will go on so it will be kind of cool to see what emerges.

1) I am grateful for the sky, which is so often a beautiful blue.
2) I am grateful when the blue sky has clouds that are lit up by the sun and always changing.
3) I am grateful for my eyes that enable me to see the sky and the clouds and the stars and everything else that I see.
4) I am grateful for the fact I have a warm house.
5) I am grateful for the fact that I have dinner cooking on the stove.
6) I am grateful for the fact I have a loving partner.
7) I am grateful that I have three amazing children who make me smile every time they phone or email or visit.
8) I am grateful that I have two terrific and loving parents who are still alive at 85 years old. And they still occupy their own home.
9) I am grateful that I have two in-laws who are wonderful and also, independent (and headed out to explore the world shortly.)
10) I am grateful for two sisters and a brother, and two brothers-in-law, and a sister-in-law, and their spouses, all of whom I value very deeply.
11) I am grateful that I can sit here and compose a GRATITUDE list, as I'm sure there are millions of people around the world who for one reason or another are not in that privileged a position.'
12) I am grateful for clean water that flows magically out of my kitchen sink (it's well water and delicious to drink.)
13) I am grateful for my wood stove and grateful for the wood I can burn in it all winter.
14) I am grateful that I survived cancer ten years ago.
15) I am grateful that I have legs and arms.
16) I am grateful that I have toes and fingers.
17) I am grateful that I can read and write.
18) I am grateful for stars at night.
19) I am grateful for the sun and the moon.
20) I am grateful for the wind in the trees.
21) I am grateful for all the trees, especially the ones growing in my yard.
22) I am grateful for flowers in the spring.
23) I am grateful for my houseplants, two of which (the violets) are flowering right now, right here, on this desk.
24) I am grateful for the camera I have to take the photos I love to take.
25) I am grateful for this laptop on which I can write.

I think it's time to take a break. But that's not a bad list. I think it took me about half an hour to make that list. And the thing I realize...I think I could go on forever. I am reminded now of the Thanksgiving Prayer that I witnessed one day on the Akwesasne Mohawk Indian reservation in northern New York state. I sat and listened while a tribal leader thanked every single thing imaginable in the Universe. The Thanksgiving Prayer is a tradition, and now I understand why it is recited. When you start thanking every little thing around you, you start feeling the power of the world. You start feeling connected, and I think you cannot help but start feeling happier and more content.

To be continued...

Students Grumble, But Then Find Siddhartha's Journey Inspiring

By Claudia Ricci

NOTE: This post appeared in the Books section of the Huffington Post.

If you're on a spiritual quest to find your SELF, or even if you're not, you might enjoy reading Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha. I assigned it to my freshmen this past semester and at the start, many of them grumbled. They were just not impressed. They were bored. They kept complaining and whining and asking me, what happened? You've assigned all these great books, and now you assign us this? WHYYYYYYYY?

I smiled and gave them a short list of reasons. The novel forces them outside of their comfort zone. It raises some profound ideas and questions about how to live our lives. It's a short novel and reads easily. And, it was recommended by a former student who took the same class and later served as my teaching assistant.

And lastly, I told them this:

"I promise you that this book will NOT be the worst book you ever read in college."

A spiritual quest novel and a novel of ideas, the book follows a young Indian man who is on a path to finding peace and enlightenment.

As one might expect, it's not an action book. It doesn't offer fireworks. It's rather quiet and rather contemplative. It demands that you think about what's going on. It asks you to ask yourself questions about what the heck Siddhartha (or Sid, as one student nicknamed him in his journal) is up to.

Much of Siddhartha's quest is very much tied up with a search for the self, or more precisely, for the erasure of self! What a concept! Get rid of our egos? Those egos that we can never really escape? Why ever would we want to do such a thing?

"Siddhartha had one single goal -- to become empty, to become empty of thirst, desire, dreams, pleasure and sorrow -- to let the Self die. No longer to be Self, to experience the peace of an emptied heart, to experience pure thought -- that was his goal. When all the Self was conquered and dead, when all passions and desires were silent, then the last must awaken, the innermost of Being that is no longer Self-- the great secret!"

But it's tricky business trying to do away with the Self. No matter how hard you try to rid yourself of your SELF, it has a way of sneaking up on you, meeting you around every corner. As a Samana, an ascetic, Siddhartha fasted and meditated and prayed and engaged in self-denial and suffered pain -- "He lost his Self a thousand times and for days on end he dwelt in non-being. But although the paths took him away from Self, in the end they always led back to it."

Later, Siddhartha recognizes that perhaps it isn't the self at all that should occupy his attention; rather he realizes that he would be better served to listen for an authentic inner voice:

"He had known for a long time that his Self was Atman [the overriding reality of Oneness] of the same eternal nature as Brahman, but he had never really found his Self, because he had wanted to trap it in a net of thoughts.The body was certainly not the Self, nor the play of senses, nor thought, nor understanding, nor acquired wisdom or art with which to draw conclusions...He would only strive after whatever the inward voice commanded him not tarry anywhere but where the voice advised him. Why did Gotama once sit down beneath the bo tree in his greatest hour when he received enlightenment? He had heard a voice in his own heart which commanded him to seek rest under this tree...he had listened to this voice. To obey no other external command, only the voice, to be prepared -- that was good, that was necessary. Nothing else was necessary."

Later, after Siddhartha immerses himself in the pleasures of the flesh -- women, fine food, good clothing, gambling, money-making -- and then despairs and tires of that lifestyle, he comes to see again that he must listen to an inner voice to lead him out of despair.

"Onwards, onwards, this is your path. He had heard this voice when he had left his home and chosen the life of the Samanas; and again when he had left the Samanas and gone to the Perfect One, and also when he had left him for the unknown. How long was it now that he had heard this voice, since he had soared to any heights?"

Siddhartha's epiphany -- or one of them -- occurs shortly after he abandons the sensual life he's been leading. Disgusted with himself, he approaches the river, where he sits beside a tree and gazes into the water. He spits at his rotting image. Nauseated and repulsed by himself and the way of the flesh he's been living, he wants to die: "Might the fishes and crocodiles devour him, might the demons tear him to little pieces." He is drawn toward death but in that moment he hears a special sound, the one word, the one sound, the "ancient beginning and ending of all Brahmin prayers."

He speaks THE HOLY OM and it is profoundly transformative. "At that moment, when the sound of Om reached Siddhartha's ears, his slumbering soul suddenly awakened and he recognized the folly of his action." He is horrified by the fact that he is so lost he wants to die.

Overwhelmed and inspired by the sound of OM, he falls asleep and when he wakes, he feels revived, refreshed, renewed, reborn. He meets Govinda his friend again, realizes that he is going in circles or spirals, but feels happy and liberated.

Once again, the saving grace for Siddhartha is rooted in voice, which he refers to as a bird..."you have again had a good idea, have accomplished have heard the bird in your breast sing and followed it." Indeed, he realizes that the source of his joy is the bird: "the clear spring and voice within him was still alive -- that was why he rejoiced, that was why he laughed, that was why his face was radiant under his gray hair."

Finally, Siddhartha recognizes that the bird of voice, "singing happily" inside him, has led him toward his long-time goal, that is, to destroy the Self:

"No something else in him had died, something that he had long desired should perish. Was it not what he had once wished to destroy during his ardent years of asceticism? Was it not his Self, his small, fearful and proud Self, with which he had wrestled for so many years, but which had always conquered him again, which appeared each time again and again, which robbed him of happiness and filled him with fear? Was it not this which had finally died today in the wood by this delightful river? Was it not because of its death that he was now like a child, so full of trust and happiness, without fear?"

If you think about it, the "self" is really the source of so much of our pain. Fear of death is rooted in the self's awareness of its own mortality. Pride, greed, jealousy, all of them center on egoical drives set up in the self seeking to materialize its desires.

Siddhartha isn't the first man on a spiritual path, determined to find and lose the self.

In the end, many of my students found themselves liking Siddhartha a lot. I'm reading their final papers, and many chose to write about the many lessons that Sid taught them. Lessons like how to stand up to parents. How it is to follow a journey, and keep changing one's mind about the goals and the direction. How to think about what one wants in life. Where to look for teachers, and how much to rely on one's own experience and inner wisdom.

And how to sit by a river and see all of creation passing by.

I'm not sure how many of the students loved the book. But many of them learned something.

Funny thing about works of literature. The "classics" so often have a way of speaking to us, over and over again, through the years.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Journal Exercises to Increase Your Happiness

By Claudia Ricci

This year's Happiness class doesn't start until January 18th, but ideas for the class are starting to roll around in my head like sparkling marbles, in part because students interested in the class keep coming to my office to ask me what it's all about. So here is a preview of some of the journal assignments that I will present to the students. I can't decide yet which ones will be mandatory. The Gratitude List certainly will be, maybe others too. I invite you to make comments and suggestions for other assignments.

1) Start a GRATITUDE LIST being very specific about the things in life for which you are grateful: "I am grateful that I have eyes to see the sky. I am grateful that I have teeth to chew my food. I am grateful that I have food." See how long you can make this list. Can you make it a daily practice to write down three or four or five things for which you are grateful?

2) Identity the "small" moments in which you become keenly aware of something that makes you joyful. Be specific: e.g., “I saw a tree this morning covered in ice and the sun hitting it was so pretty, I just stood there in awe.” Turn these into Haiku? Longer poems?

3) Describe specific SENSATIONS associated when you are really paying attention to what you are doing: "I enjoyed the smell of my morning coffee. I enjoyed the way the warm cup felt in my hand. I enjoyed the smell of the night air when I stepped outdoors."

4) The next time you find yourself feeling calm, take a moment and "draw" the feeling associated with it. Find a color for it. A visual. Collect images that make you feel calm.

5) Identify one small thing you can do to help another person.

6) Stop what you are doing and close your eyes. Take one or two cleansing breaths. Then start to breathe naturally and label your breathing in the following way: Take a breath in, then let it go and label it SKY. Take a second breath in, let it go and think WATER. Breathe in a third time, breathe out and label it MOUNTAIN. Label the fourth breath SUN. Then repeat this cycle a few times. Can you work up to ten cycles? Write about what it feels like to label your breathing in this way. Can you find a few minutes to do this every day?

7) Make a list of ways in which you can show others what it means to be happy.

8) Have a conversation about mindfulness with someone, in which you try to explain what it means. Then write about that conversation and what it taught you.

8) Forgive someone for something small. Write about that. Forgive someone for something "bigger." Write about the idea that we should "Forgive everyone, for everything.”

9) The next time you get angry at someone, write about it. Write about why you are angry and how exactly it feels in your body. Be specific. Put the writing away and later come back and write these words at the top of the page: "What will this matter in 100 years?" See if you can “enlighten” yourself as to why that anger is/was there and why being angry doesn't really get you anywhere, except for more angry.

10) Do something nice for yourself and write about how that feels. Then, do something nice for someone else and write about how that feels.

11) Write about whether or not you are impatient. What does it feel like to be impatient? What prompts you to feel impatient?

12) Find a living object (flower? Tree? A baby? ☺) and see if you can stare at it for five whole minutes without stopping. Then write about what that felt like.

13) See if the next time you eat, you can wait one whole minute before you dig in. Later, write about what went on in your head during that minute. What did you notice? Did you feel more gratitude for the food? Did you think about any of the people (farmer, factory worker, trucker, grocery store shelver, grocery store check out person, cook) who had to devote their time to making it possible to have this food?

14) Write a couple of paragraphs about the sky. Then wait a few hours and write about the sky again. Has it changed? How? Write about how you feel about a blue sky. A white sky. Clouds. A sunset. A rainbow. Write about the prettiest sky you've ever seen.

15) TRY LAUGHING. (If you can't find anything to laugh about, watch this video of a baby laughing as his father rips up a rejection letter.) SEE IF YOU CAN LAUGH FOR ONE MINUTE 44 SECONDS, just like this baby did! Then write about laughing and why you think research shows that laughter can help you be physically healthier.