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.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Movie Screen in Your Mind

Try this: close your eyes and slowly take in a long slow breath.

Release the breath from your nose, letting the air make a little puffing noise, quietly so only you can hear it.

Do it again. Slowly.

And when you release the air, let go of all the stress you're holding in your body.

Let your neck and shoulders go limp.

Let your head hang forward.

Let your jaw go slack.

Let your back soften.

Let the muscles soften in both arms.

Both legs.

Your feet.

Breathe in again. And again, let the air out with a quiet little puff. Think about your entire body going limp.

All the stress draining onto the floor and disappearing.

Keeping your eyes closed, now imagine a screen, a white screen, in the space right above your nose.

It's a screen like those you see in a movie theatre, or the one right here in the classroom.

This is your own private little movie screen. See it there in your mind right above your eyes, stretching to fill your forehead?

Stare at it for a moment. Let it stay white. Steady your inner gaze right on that screen.

Now shift your attention back to your breath.

Breathe in, normally. And then let the breath out, with a tiny puff. Feel the air coming out of your nose.

Maybe it feels warm. Maybe it feels cool. Maybe it wants to be a color.

Golden like the sun. Light blue like the sky. Pink and orange like a sunset.

Or white like the fluffy clouds and your movie screen.

Just let your breath be whatever it wants to be.

Try this for a few minutes.

Soon, something will pop up onto your movie screen.

A thought. A story of something you did. Something that's bothering you. A person you're angry at. Something you have to do. Somewhere you have to go. Somebody you miss dearly.

See it there on the movie screen.

And very slowly, breathe in. And when you release your breath with that little puff, imagine your breath magically wipes the movie screen clean.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Puff. The screen is clean.

The screen is clean.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Maybe you want to count your breaths.

Breathe in. Puff out. One.

Breathe in. Puff out. Two.

Breathe in. Puff out. Three,

Breathe in. Puff out. Four.

Keep going.

Maybe there is another movie there.

There will be.

More and more and more movies.

And every time one more movie appears. One more thought. One more person. One more story. One more troubling idea.

See it there on the screen.

And then, puff it away with your breath.

Feel the breath.

In. Out.

In. Out.

In. Out.

In. Out.

In. Out.

In. Out.

In. Out.

And now, continue. As long as you can.

See the movie.

Let the breath puff the movie screen



Friday, January 20, 2012

Warm Up: Writing in a Sunny Waterfall

NOTE TO READERS: Something quite amazing happened in my happiness class yesterday. I decided to try something new; like so many of my best ideas, the exercise came to me while I was meditating in the morning before class. When the students arrived, I asked them to freewrite for a few minutes, as I usually do, so that they could vent their thoughts and clear their minds before class started. Then I asked them to close their eyes, and I led them in this exercise I called "Writing in a Sunny Waterfall."

Before I started reading the words out loud, I was worried that it wouldn't work. I was afraid that when I finished, the students would say, "why did you make us do this boring thing?"

Something quite different happened.

When I finished reading, and looked up, each and every student in the class was sitting there in perfect stillness. There wasn't a sound in the room. Not a single student opened his or her eyes for almost 25 minutes. I was shocked. I kept looking at my watch thinking, should I just let them sit there? I did. I was astonished at the power of these simple words to relax a group of young people.

Finally I decided it was time to bring them back to the classroom. When I did, several of the students said they felt refreshed. One young woman said that she had never been able to meditate before, but that this exercise had helped her sink into a deep meditative state. I asked the students to write about what they felt. After a discussion, we decided as a class that we would try this exercise again. My husband thinks I should record the words and include them on the Happiness class blogsite. Maybe I will, so that other people can try it if they want to relax in a sunny waterfall.

Suddenly, we are all sitting in the sun, below a gigantic waterfall.

The water showers each of us in the most blissfully perfect temperature,





You look up and see the tiny little prisms of color in the water droplets as the sun passes through them.

You just close your eyes and sit there, letting the gloriously warm water fall on your head....

feeling it slip down your forehead...

over your eyelids...

onto your eyelashes...

your nose...

your lips...

your chin...

the back of your neck...

your shoulders....

down your arms and legs...

your hands and fingers and toes.

You just sit there, letting the water flow down, carrying away all of your stress.

You don't have to go anywhere.

You don't have to do anything.

You just sit there and

go limp.

The water pools at your feet and disappears.

You feel so relaxed that you smile.

If you were to look up, you would see the water sparkling in the sun.

You can feel the water,

the warmth of it, the sun's rays gently hitting the top of your head,

You just let the water drain every bit of stress away.

You just sit there in your own perfect waterfall, and all around you are the most beautiful flowers and trees.

You stare at the most beautiful flowers and trees. You

would swear that you were

in some sort of Paradise.

When you're ready,

write about what it looks and feels like

to sit there.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Questions From Students and Discussion In First Day of Happiness Class

Will this class make me happier?
Is happiness the same for everybody?
Who determines happiness?
How important do people think happiness is?
Is making yourself happy more important than making others happy?
How important is it to surround yourself with happy people?
Do you have an obligation to make other people happy?
How does freewriting make us happy? What other daily routines and rituals make us happier?
Is there really a way to make yourself happy?
If you buy a new car, and it makes you happy, is that "synthetic" happiness?
Are older people generally happier than younger people? If so, why?
Are married people happier than unmarried people? If so, why?
Does religion make you happy? Why?