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.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Mindfulness and Contemplative Practices: SUNY Educators Building a Network

By Claudia Ricci

If you had been driving the perimeter road around the University at Albany shortly after lunch on Saturday, April 21st, you might have wondered what exactly was going on in the lovely wooded area behind the campus’ Chapel House.

Three dozen or more people were slowly wandering in different directions through the thick forest, stopping periodically to listen to birds, to gaze at the blue sky, or to examine budding maple leaves, tree bark, plants and spring flowers.

The half-hour event was in fact a walking meditation led by Dr. Terry Murray, Assistant Professor of Humanistic/Multicultural Education Program at SUNY New Paltz, part of a day-long conference held at the University at Albany on “Mindfulness & Contemplative Practices.” The goal of the conference was to begin building a SUNY network to promote contemplative pedagogy and practices within the 64-campus SUNY system.

A total of 42 people attended this debut event, with eight SUNY campuses represented. Among the attendees were faculty from a multitude of disciplines, as well as doctoral students, undergraduates, mental health practitioners, yoga and mindfulness and meditation teachers and interested community members. Joining me as a co-chair to organize this event was Dr. Hedva Lewittes, Professor of Psychology at SUNY Old Westbury. 

A very special guest was SUNY Trustee Joseph Belluck, a Manhattan attorney who has a strong interest in promoting contemplative practices and pedagogy within the SUNY system. Mr. Belluck praised the group for taking the initiative to strengthen a wholistic approach to education within SUNY.

The morning was devoted to introductions, in which all of the participants shared with the larger group why they were drawn to contemplative practices, what kind of work they were doing, and how they hoped their work in mindfulness and contemplative practices could be enhanced or encouraged as we work together to build an alliance of likeminded individuals within the SUNY system. Faculty and students shared the experiences they have had using meditation, mindfulness exercises or contemplative approaches to teaching.

Dr. Lisa Dulgar-Tulloch, a psychologist at UAlbany’s counseling center, spoke about her experience introducing a brand new series of mindfulness classes to interested students through the counseling center. Undergraduates from my new upper division, writing intensive “Happiness” class at UAlbany shared their enthusiasm for mindfulness and contemplative practices as part of the curriculum. Robert Moysey, Area Coordinator of Residential Life at SUNY New Paltz, talked about his interest in offering mindfulness-based programming to students through the college’s dormitory system. Dr. Heinz-Dieter Meyer, Associate Professor of Education at UAlbany, shared an entry from a reflective teaching journal that helps enhance his classes and strengthen his connection to college students. SUNY Old Westbury’s Dr. Lewittes was joined by others emphasizing the relevance of contemplative practices to SUNY's diverse students who often face economic, family and educational challenges.

Many participants talked about the fact that with this daylong event, they felt they could now “come out of the closet” to talk about their deep interest in cultivating a contemplative approach to education, one that incorporates the whole student.

By the end of the day, participants had had a chance to learn about research projects already underway at SUNY schools: among them: Nicholas Van Dam, a doctoral student in psychology at UAlbany, discussed his research (supported by the Mind and Life Institute) evaluating the benefits of mindfulness-based interventions in reducing anxiety and depression; Dr. Matthew Immergut, a sociologist at SUNY Purchase, discussed his studies showing that meditation enhanced students’ cognitive abilities. Graduate student Lisa Napora, in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at SUNY Buffalo, shared with the group her plans to study the impact of meditation on academic performance in the classroom.

Going forward, the group agreed on a number of steps that should be undertaken to build a SUNY Network. Among them: 1) apply for a SUNY “Conversations in the Disciplines” grant in March of 2013 to bring prominent researchers in the field of mindfulness and contemplative practices to a SUNY-wide conference; 2) establish a SUNY blog on mindfulness to which all conference participants could exchange information about mindfulness and contemplative practices, 3) encourage individual SUNY campus members to form small meditation groups or faculty support groups to discuss mindfulness practices in the classroom; and 4) encourage SUNY faculty to become members of the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education.

One thing was clear at day’s end: there are already numerous connections among the many diverse participants, and there is a groundswell of interest in forging a SUNY network of educators devoted to contemplative practices.  As one participant noted, and she spoke for many, “leaving this conference, I wasn’t drained, the way I am so often by conferences. I was energized and excited.”


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