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 29, 2011


By Trevor Williams

Inside our values we find our pain, and inside our pain we find our values.

This is a central element in the philosophy behind Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Living our life, following our deepest longings, we open ourselves up to true disappointment; we face many 'little deaths' of our self, our ego, each step of the way.

I sat down to write and explore my reactions to receiving the news that I wasn't accepted to the Mind and Life Retreat, and the phrase that came was, "These Moments Define a Person."

How do we act when something we've fully invested ourselves in falls through? What do we do when something we've openly identified with fails? These moments define us, because they show us ourselves. They test us, they call our bluff. They ask, "Are you ready to die? Have you held anything back?" In reality, all moments are like this, but it often takes those intense disappointments and losses to shake us to our senses.

I'm going to relate my experience here through the lens of Buddhism as I understand it; what the practices mean to me, and how they've brought me to this moment here and now.

It begins with mindfulness, with attention to and awareness of our moment to moment experiencing. This is vital; its importance cannot be overestimated. In Island, mynah birds have been trained to fly around the island uttering constant reminders of this essential truth.

“But why did they teach him those things? Why ‘Attention’? Why ‘Here and now’?”
“Well…” She searched for the right words in which to explain the self-evident to this strange imbecile. “That’s what you always forget, isn’t it? I mean, you forget to pay attention to what’s happening. And that’s the same as not being here and now.” (p12, Island)

This is important enough to me that I intend to dedicate my final paper solely to the exploration of mindfulness, awareness, and attention. For now, I will consider it as the gateway through which the rest of these concepts can be explored.

Mindfulness allows me to take a moment and reflect upon my inner state. It gives me that first inch of space in which I can dive in to myself and see how things really are. In this instance, I find: disappointment, confusion, disbelief, and a brief moment of denial (I caught myself re-reading the email, 'Just in case'!). These come as: "This is rather upsetting, I was really looking forward to this retreat!"; "How could this be, anyway? Wasn't I a perfect candidate, open to experience and full of potential?"; "Maybe I misread the email..."; " but maybe they sent me the wrong one! If I just wait a few moments, I'll surely receive the correct one, along with a sincere apology for their mistake."

Fortunately--thanks to my practice--I was prepared: all of that occurred in the span of a few seconds before shifting to acceptance. Acceptance means two distinct but related things here; literal acceptance of the event as reality, and acceptance of the various thoughts, emotions, and sensations that it evokes. The first half of this is what I meant above by the myriad 'little deaths' of our Self. In the instant I chose to accept the letter of rejection, it could be said that an entire universe of possible selves was put to death. All of those hypotheticals no longer existed; they moved from 'real possibilities' to the realm of fiction, and I had to let them go. We have this habit of holding on to things, clinging desperately out of fears that if we let them die, we too will vanish. But the moment we become entangled like this is the moment we stop living the Reality that IS.

We become stuck because we struggle with the second half of acceptance; acceptance of painful thoughts and emotions. These parts of experience are by definition aversive, but it's important to realize that they're parts of our experience all the same. To reject them is to reject part of ourselves, part of our life. We must learn to allow ourselves to feel deeply both our triumphs and our failures, else we risk losing everything.

This is where the importance of self-compassion can be seen. It acts as a doorway to this acceptance; self-compassion allows us to step back and accept the fact that we're struggling to accept parts of ourselves. It's a meta-cognition, a sort of trick of the mind to allow more space if we find ourselves becoming enmeshed with our experience. "Ugh, this grief is just too much to bear! I can't handle it, there's no way I can accept that" - "Oh wow, there's a part of me that's really struggling here; I can't make the struggle disappear, but I can be compassionate towards that part of myself that's really in pain."

That self-compassion acts like a wedge, a foot in the door. It allows me to see that there was something really difficult about this experience of having my application declined. With just a little push, I then move into compassion (Karuṇā) for others; specifically, the other applicants that also won't be able to participate in the retreat. "If this is difficult for me, then it's probably difficult for the others too. Some elements of it will be unique to each person, but there's also something universal about the experience of having an application denied, or the feeling of rejection in general."

The next step follows naturally through the practice of insight (Vipassanā): "It's not just the people who didn't get in I'm connected too.. everyone that applied had similar aspirations, and although I wasn't selected, that means that there was another applicant who was. I might feel some disappointment that I won't get to be there personally, but in the bigger picture, the experience isn't lost." This is the heart of interdependence, the truth of the causal chains that bind all of reality. It gives me space to feel empathetic joy (Mudita) for the participants who were accepted, and loving-kindness (Metta) towards all involved.

Reflection upon all of this brings hints of equanimity (Upekkhā). Some were accepted, some were denied. Ultimately, nothing here can be judged as either 'good' or 'bad', it's all manifestation of an ever-changing interconnected universe. To hold on to preferences only generates suffering, and it furthers the illusion that we are each a distinct 'Self' disconnected from the rest. There is paradox inherent in using language to communicate this.. even the title of this essay contradicts the idea of 'No Self'. The goal of non-attachment is not detachment, but rather complete, spontaneous engagement with life as it unfolds; true existential freedom.

"Therefore everything that is appears good to me. Death appears to me like life, sin like holiness, cleverness like folly; everything must be just as it is, everything requires only my assent, only my willingness, my loving approval, and for me it is good and can never harm me." (p120, Siddhartha)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Students Flipping Life Scripts: VERY POWERFUL WRITING EXERCISE!!

Students are writing up a storm in response to the Flip the Script assignment. Freshman Taina Wagnac handed in this incredibly powerful story the other day. Two days later, she flipped it around.

Here, first, is her original story, the tale of how she finally was reunited with the father she had never met before:

"A long-awaited reunion"

By Taina Wagnac

I was ten years old when I first met my father. I found him sitting in the living room when I rushed home from school that day, my report cart clutched tightly in my hands. My mother had promised me a brand-new bicycle as a reward for my good grades. He was wearing a silk black shirt with blue jeans. He had an air of power and strength about him. I had no idea who he was until my mother, who sat on a chair across from him, said “well, aren’t you going to hug your father?” I was shocked. I didn’t know I had a father.

The only thing I knew about him was his name, Jean-Mary Wagnac. My mother didn’t keep any pictures of him so I didn’t know what he looked like. No word could have described the many emotions I felt that day. It was a mixture of anger, joy, and sadness. I wanted to run toward him and hug him like I have never hugged anyone before. I wanted him to take me out for a sundae or to the park. But I was rooted to my spot; I could not move.

My father slowly got up from the couch and walked toward me. His eyes glanced down at the white crumpled paper in my hands.

“What you got there kiddo?” he asked in a rusty voice. My father reached for the report card and I felt it slip from my grasp. He began to pace around the living room, looking over my grades and making comments here and there, “a 90 in French…not bad, could be better….need to improve in math…”

As he paced around the room, a wave of anger washed over me. Who was this guy? Who did he think he was, coming back after years of abandonment and immediately assuming the role of my father? I didn’t even know if he was really my father or if this was a joke. I looked over at my mother. She had her elbows on her knees and her hands covered her face. She looked so weak and fragile. My mother dropped her hands from her face and looked at me. She tried to smile but to no avail.

For years, I dreamed of meeting my father. I was the only one of my friends who never had a father waiting in front of the school gates. Every night, I would dream of my reunion with my father. He would bring me tons of gifts and beg me to forgive him. He then would weave these stories of how he was stranded in a forest and had no access to a phone and had no way to communicate with my mother. That, in fact, he did not abandon me and that my mother and I were the only ones that kept him alive.

My so-called father stopped pacing around the living room and looked up from my report card. He looked at me and noticed that my fists were tightly clenched.

“Taina, are you alright?” he asked me quietly, concern showing in his eyes.

Something inside me snapped when he said my name and I let out a bloodcurdling scream. My mother jumped up from the chair, her eyes wide open, and my father dropped the report card and backed away from me. I wanted to scream at him to leave and never come back. My mother and I were fine without him. She was working hard to provide a life for herself and me.

Couldn’t he see that he was no longer needed? I wanted to know why he had left when I was merely a newborn and if he even thought of us and how we were doing. I wanted to know all these things. But when I opened my mouth again, no words came out, only a small whimper. I was afraid of the answers. I didn’t want to know the reasons why he’d left for fear that I was one of them. I was afraid of the truth. In all of my life, I had never felt so small and defenseless.

My world was falling apart and there was nothing I could do about it. Without a word, I escaped to my small room. I lay down on my bed, placed my pillow over my face and let my salt tears flow down my face. Till this day, I barely speak to my father only on birthdays and Christmas. I have yet to forgive him for leaving my mother and me.

NOW READ the FLIPPED SCRIPT, where writer Taina Wagnac gets in touch with her anger. There is of course more than one way to "flip the script," on a story, and ultimately, the idea is to work toward writing a version of the story in which the narrator is able to embrace acceptance and/or forgiveness.

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.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

This Is Happiness, says the Scottish photographer Who Took the Photo!


Paul Brett, of Edinburgh, Scotland, is a photographer and member of the photo-a-day blog journal called Blipfoto.

A few days ago, he published the photo below under the title "Things That Make Me Happy."

The photo brought tears to my eyes as it made me think back to my own babies, who are now 26, 24 and 21!

The baby pictured here is Daisy Joy Ann Coughlin, named after three generations of grandmothers!

Born on January 25, 2011, at 9 pounds, 5 ounces, Daisy Joy has a grandma named Carole Ann, a great grandma named Joy, and a great great grandma named Daisy.

Congratulations to the whole family. And to Paul, best of luck with your wonderful photography!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

With Mental Training, We Can Change the Physical Form of Our Brains

By Claudia Ricci

If I could recommend only one book from the Happiness class this semester, it would be science writer Sharon Begley's text, TRAIN YOUR MIND CHANGE YOUR BRAIN. (Students are reading Begley's book this week for the class.) If you only had time for one chapter, you could read the opening and take away some incredibly important information.

The premise of the book is very simple: MENTAL ACTIVITY CAN PHYSICALLY CHANGE THE HUMAN BRAIN FOR THE BETTER. It is a revolutionary concept, and it is no New Age pie-in-the-sky promise.

The research laid out in the book is cutting-edge, and it's coming out of some of the most prestigious neuroscience labs around the country. What is perhaps most astonishing about the research is that it is being conducted by researchers IN COLLABORATION with the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist monks who are long-time practitioners of meditation. Much of the collaborative research is generated by dialogues between scientists and Buddhist monks who belong to a professional research organization called the Mind and Life Institute, based in Colorado.

What the scientists are finding in the labs as they "wire up" and study the brain activity of the Buddhist monks through functional MRIs (a way of picturing the activity of the brain), is that the long-term practice of meditation and mindfulness dramatically changes the brain for the better. In one set of experiments, researchers found sharp increases in gamma waves in the brains of seasoned meditators, suggesting "the power of mental training to produce a heightened brain state associated with perception, program solving and consciousness."

This heightened gamma activity, curiously, was present in the monks' brains even when they were NOT meditating. The more hours the monks had meditated, the stronger was the baseline gamma reading.

The monks' brains also showed a greater activity in those portions of the brain associated with generating compassion for others.

For years, the prevailing wisdom among scientists, as well as the general public, was that the adult brain was, in the words of a famous Spanish neuroanatomist named Santiago Ramón y Cajal, "fixed, ended and immutable."

As late as 1999, neurologists writing in Science magazine declared that no new brain cells (neurons) could be generated in the adult brain, and that the functions assigned to different portions of the brain were fixed and not changeable.

If something happened to damage that part of the brain that controlled the movement of your left arm, for example, well, then, so be it. You couldn't expect another part of the brain to morph in such a way that it took over the control of the left arm.

New research has now disproved that old dogma of the fixed and immutable brain and instead shown that the brain has enormous plasticity. "The brain," suggests Begley's book, "can adapt, heal, renew itself after trauma, compensate for disabilities, rewire itself to overcome dyslexia, and break cycles of depression and obsessive compulsive disorder."

This is a book worth reading, because the implications are enormous. For older adults, it suggests that keeping active, and challenging ourselves with mental activity -- playing piano, for example -- well into our advanced years, have direct benefits.

The findings also offer hope for people who suffer from depression and other mental illness, like obsessive compulsive disorder. The book offers direct evidence that by learning new ways of thinking -- particularly mindfulness, which is really awareness -- we can rewire the physical meat of our minds.

"By thinking differently about the thoughts that threaten to send them back into the abyss of despair, patients with depression have dialed up activity in one region of the brain and quieted it in another, reducing their risk of relapse. Something as insubstantial as a thought has the ability to act back on the very stuff of the brain, altering neuronal connections in a way that can lead to recovery from mental illness and perhaps to a greater capacity for empathy and compassion."

There is no way to summarize all of the findings that this book lays out. And the way it's written -- in a lively engaging tone with a lay audience in mind -- all of the research is accessible. Certainly, it isn't the only text on this exciting new nexus of research, connecting neuroscience and Buddhism. This new view of the brain as a highly-mutable organ, is being widely circulated. (National Geographic did a long piece, for example.) But I am particularly impressed with Begley's book, and so are my students.

In June, the Mind & Life Institute's Summer Research Institute will be held in Garrison, New York. Previous summer conferences have been held in Dharamsala, India and Washington, D.C. The summer conference brings together investigators (and graduate students) in neuroscience, psychology and medicine, as well as scholars and mindfulness practitioners. The scientists present and discuss new research on mindfulness and neuroscience; they also engage in meditation practice.

It is difficult to get admission to this popular conference; a wonderful student in the Happiness class has applied for "admission" to the summer research institute. Trevor Williams, who recently graduated from RPI with a degree in biochemistry, and who is planning to apply to grad school in either neuroscience or psychology, recently asked me for a letter of recommendation for the conference. I wrote the letter.

Lenore Flynn, who is teaching the weekly mindfulness "lab" portion of our class and doing a fabulous job, has also applied as a research fellow.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that both of them get to go. And when they come back, I'm hoping they'll share with me some of what they've learned.