Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Happiness Class at Harvard? No, it's no Hoax

By Claudia Ricci

One of my favorite readers of this blog emailed me shortly after my piece on happiness appeared here the other day. She wrote to say a) she loved the piece, and b) she'd been talking to friends about the topic, and telling them that there is a class on happiness taught at Harvard. Indeed, it's the most popular class on that august Cambridge campus.

Well, so, some of the folks she was talking to -- a couple of them apparently are academics in similiarly august institutions -- were a bit, shall we say, skeptical of my friend's news. So she wrote to me asking if I could send her any additional information.

So I am HAPPY :) to report that there has been a ton of publicity on this Happiness class at Harvard. More perhaps than you want to read. To start, though, there is in fact the course syllabus:


and the reading list for the class:


(Harvard is apparently offering the class on-line now for a hefty fee.)

There are also, free of charge, articles from Harvard Magazine,http://harvardmagazine.com/2007/01/the-science-of-happiness.html and
Business Week. http://www.businessweek.com/globalbiz/content/aug2008/gb20080820_939323.htm

The New York Times ran a blog post on the topic, NPR did a segment, and even my favorite funny man Jon Stewart had the Harvard prof, Tal Ben-Shahar, on The Daily Show a while ago. It's a great intervew:


I should also mention that there is book out called The Happiness Project, by a woman who spent a year figuring out how to get happy and writing about it on a blog. http://www.happiness-project.com/happiness_project/about.html

Haven't read it yet, but I will. I am taking it with me on vacation Thursday. Be back in two weeks!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Why Do We Resist What Can Really Help Us?

By Judith England

It’s quite a puzzle why people often resist that which would be most helpful to them. Even knowing this to be the case, I still find myself guilty at times of this strangely self-defeating behavior.

Consider the following:

“I know I ‘m tired and need to go to bed, but I’ll stay up just a few hours longer”.

“ It took months of hard work to lose the weight, why can’t I just stay away from the ice cream?”

“ All the requirements for my degree are done, all I have to do is finish this last paper…..I keep getting distracted.”

“ When I exercise I feel really great. I think I’ll start a regular program….tomorrow…”

Believe me, if I were to find a way to bridge the gap between intention and action I could retire now a multi-millionaire!

Fellow Holistic Health blogger, Ann Carey Tobin’s most recent post “Change is Scary” discussed that part of our brains hard-wired to equate change with danger. Unfortunately, all change – whether it represents an actual threat or not – is cast in the same light.

In many cases we’ve come to believe that who we are is the same as what we do. We can become so entrenched in our life roles and scripts, that to alter them seems as dangerous as a loss of self.

It doesn’t even seem to matter if the change is one which just “happens” to us, or one we initiate.

Consider the implications of a divorce. There’s the loss of a life partner, along with a whole host of unmet, unspoken expectations. There’s also a change in how we are viewed within our communities and ultimately by ourselves., It’s no wonder that people will stay in dysfunctional relationships, unsatisfactory jobs, or unhealthy lifestyles rather than face the risks and fears of what is new and unfamiliar.

Change, or the possibility of change, triggers the eternal question “If I’m not this, than what am I”.

With yoga students there’s a pattern I see over and over again. The beginning student loves the practice. They come to class eager to learn, welcoming the new awareness of the body, breath and possibilities. They dive enthusiastically into the thought that they’ve found something to make life better.

Then something shifts.

Some weeks, or months down the line resistance* rears it’s head. There’s all kinds of reasons to skip class – too late, too early, too cold, too tired. Trouble spots, aches and pains show up in the body. Questions begin to hover just below the surface of the conscious mind. It’s so predictable you could set your watch by it.

It’s not that something is wrong. On the contrary, it means that something is right.

Yoga, when taken on with commitment and discipline, is guaranteed to be a transformational process. The disquiet, the resistance is a clear signal that something old is breaking down, making a space for something new to emerge. When discomfort replaces bliss you’re on your way.

Sometimes people ask if yoga has “changed” me. My answer is simply this: It has unflinchingly brought me face to face with every part of my life where belief and behavior didn’t match up. It has pressed me beyond my comfort zone, and challenged me to take another look at places where my life was less than authentic.

Paradoxically, it has also been a place of comfort and support when life seemed strange, unpredictable and yes, scary.

When I was in my teenage angst-ridden-roller-coaster stage I would sometimes look whistfully at the adults around me and wish for the life of quiet steadiness they seemed to enjoy. Now I know that that was an illusion. That life surges on, changing moment by moment, whether we invite it or not.

And that’s just as it should be.

I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
more accessible,
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance;
to live so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom
and that which came to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit.

“fully alive” -by Dawna Markova

Writer Judith England, trained as an R.N., is a massage therapist and yoga teacher. Her writing appears at the Holistic Health blog at the Albany Times Union's website at http://blog.timesunion.com/holistichealth/. This is a blog that is well worth bookmarking.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Wanna Be Happier? Read this....

By Claudia Ricci

Lately I've been doing a lot of thinking, and reading, about happiness. And the more I read, the more I think how happy other people might be if they were reading along side me.

I'm thinking about happiness because I want to teach a class on the subject next year. I am following in the footsteps of an amazing teacher at Harvard, whose class on happiness (he started it in 2002) has become the most popular course at Harvard University. So I could do worse than try to teach a class like that at my university.

The reason I want to teach this class is very simple: I've been teaching literature, journalism and creative writing at the college level for almost a dozen years and the number of seriously depressed and completely dysfunctional students seems to be on the rise. I was told by students this semester that the mental health clinic at the University is so swamped and overwhelmed by desperate kids that the clinic is starting to turn students away if they have other counseling resources available to them at home.

Maybe it's the economy. Maybe it's this increasingly crazy pace at which we live -- all wired up and hooked to screens and Ipods and Ipads and Iphones and always on the run. One thing is definitely clear: it's getting harder to get students to show up in class. And when they show up, it's hard to ignore the pain and anguish on so many of their young faces.

Last night, I finished grading for the semester, and I gave out a D minus and an F, unusual for me. I would have had another D except that I chased that particular student (a senior) down to get his final paper. I know I know, no teacher should have to go chasing a senior in college down for his final paper, but in this case, there were extenuating circumstances.

Another student in the class -- one who got a C plus -- spent part of her final paper (also late) writing very eloquently about why she has had such an abysmal 2010. It started on New Year's Eve, with a horrifying tale that now explains to me why she was absent a miserable 13 or 14 times. Again, there would be good justification for failing that student on absences alone, but this person really tried, and really suffered all semester.

I'm not sure what we can do as a society to address these deep emotional chasms amongst our young people, but I think at the University level, we had better begin to address this issue. Interestingly enough, at the same time our desperation levels are growing, so too are our insights into how we might become happier. One area in particular that is a gold mine: the field of mindfulness. Just try doing a google search and see what comes up. There are a growing number of research projects demonstrating that mindfulness -- which involves a kind of moment-by-moment awareness of life, and its many riches -- has great potential for reducing stress and anxiety, and for giving people of all ages a set of simple but powerful tools to manage life's many "issues." The field of mindfulness is decades old (see in particular Jon Kabat-Zinn's groundbreaking work at UMass), but in recent years, it's just been growing faster than the grass is growing right outside my window. Curiously, at the university where I teach, an enterprising young graduate student in Psychology is conducting research on mindfulness and stress reduction and his funding comes from ...

the Dalai Lama. More on this later.

Over the next months, I will be sharing some of what I've been reading. But I won't wait to tell you what I read this morning in the book, Happier, by that Harvard professor, Tal Ben-Shahar. Happiness doesn't come from having things. Most of us know this, but at the same time, we don't know this. We think if we just get one more "thing" in our lives -- that high def TV, that drop dead pair of shoes, that amazing new gadget from Apple, that we'll be set.

In fact, the research suggests that material prosperity doesn't do it. As a society, we Americans are far less happy than are other much poorer nations like Afghanistan or Nigeria.

And happiness doesn't come from stacking up achievements either; in fact, Ben-Shahar suggests that those "rat-racers" who endlessly chase success inevitably end up in a kind of "now what?" situation where it makes no sense to keep chasing success.

Happiness, he suggests, is a quiet inside job. It's those moments that we cherish with friends, or simply, by ourselves, when we realize just how miraculous life is.

It comes form looking out the window, as I am now, and gazing at a lush green lilac bush spilling over with lavendar blossoms. It's the cup of delicious coffee at my left hand, and it's the gentle touch my husband just laid on my head as he headed to his study to make a phone call.

It's all those tiny moments we generally dismiss as we rush to the office or wherever it is we are going to "get somewhere."

The point about happiness is simple: we are already here, if we just open our eyes and realize it.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Colors of People

By Joshua Powell

I remember my father’s aunt, who we called Aunt Jean, because she was always around when we were growing up. She lived near the little house on the little street and she loved my father like he was her own son. My father’s mother, Bert (who was Jean’s sister) died years before and I think my father looked at Aunt Jean as a maternal figure. Aunt Jean was a hard as nails Yankee woman who was both blunt and practical.

She was the one who told me how to pee standing up. And because of this lesson learned from her, I thought her to be a wise woman. Naturally, when she made a passing comment about India, the woman who came to the house every morning to watch Leah and I, being a Negro, I was curious. And when I was a boy if I had a question in my mind it was on my tongue. So, naturally I asked her about it.

“She’s a Negro Joshua,” Aunt Jean said. I guess the perplexed look in my eyes communicated my confusion.

“She’s a colored woman,” Aunt Jean went on as if I were as stupid as a drop of pine pitch. I had no idea what she meant but I was on it – the next day I would take a good hard look at India.

I met India at the door. She had her grip in hand. I have not heard the word “grip” used a lot these days, but it is basically a bag that is larger than a pocketbook and smaller than a suitcase. What she had in it was a mystery to me except for the butterscotch candies she would fish out of the side pocket for me.

On that day from the minute she entered the house I watched her – studied her. For the life of me I did not see the COLOR. But this lack of observation did not keep me from watching her like a hawk.

After lunch India would turn on the TV and watch her shows – which to this day I still remember the words, “Like sands through an hourglass so are the days of our lives." On this particular day I was becoming undone. I did not see any color to her. Sure she was a bit darker than me, and she had liver spots on her hands, but she was no color in particular. I mean if someone's color was so important that a person would talk about it and label it, surely that person should have some very unusual shading to them.

I must have thought that her color was fleeting because I just stared at her ready to catch her turn blue, red or yellow. I just kept staring. Finally, when a commercial for Biz came on, she turned to me and asked me what I was looking at.

“Your color,” I said. She looked at me like I had a screw loose.

“You're looking at what?” she asked.

"Aunt Jean said you were colored,” I explained. “She said you’re a Negro AND a colored woman. So what color are you?” I asked.

She took a butterscotch candy out of her grip and slipped it to me.

“I'm people colored."

That night in bed,monster-repellant block in hand, my mother left my room after putting me to bed only to have me call her back.

“Mom, you know that India is a Negro, right?” I declared more than asked.

She walked into my room and sat on the bed and she calmly explained to me that people are all the same on the inside and that’s all that matters. She asked me not to use the word Negro. She said that India was black! Now, I didn't know much back then, but I did know my colors and India was not black. She was more the color of hot chocolate.

This was the late 1960s. At church women still wore white gloves, men still wore hats even though it was not cold outside, but the times were changing. And so was I. As hard as it was to see the differences between me and my "Negro" babysitter, it was only too easy for me to see how different I was from other people.

Writer Joshua Powell lives in the Capital Region of New York State. He is writing a memoir on his blog, http://www.Joshat44.com.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Mother's Meditation

By Richard Kirsch

The Buddha sits smiling

In the Mother’s Garden

Sits peacefully

Mind empty and mindful

Breathing in the spring fragrance

Of the colored bursts of energy

That surrounds his sitting sereneness.

The mother plants each flower

With a prayer for peace in her soul

And in the souls of all her children

To embrace the flow of time from

Spring through summer to fall

To the brace of winter

And the renewal of spring.

Richard Kirsch meditates each day sitting on a pillow given to him by his daughters.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

She Looks At Things With Different Eyes Now

By Camincha


with different eyes now. No longer
does she see herself caressing
the chairs, the tables, the
paintings with the duster.
She now sees her shadow that
visits without anyone knowing it,
rooms that at other times
gave her shelter.

outside of their familiar places
going from hand to hand,
orphaned children,
wandering from one place to another.
She sees herself in the small screen,
the scenes follow each other fast:
She is a teenager in love. A
woman loaded with children.
A mother pained by responsibilities. A
woman anxious of living before
the clock strikes the hour.
A woman that knows she mustn't try to avoid
the inevitable. A woman that lives
a day at a time. A woman that
learns to trust in the Mother-Father to
be able to bear the load on her shoulders.
The images accelerate, get fuzzy, disappear.

with different eyes now.
She wants less than other days. She
wants to make her load as light as possible.
She wants to take with her only happy memories
that don't weigh anything: Birthdays celebrated
with music. Cheerful friends. Sunny
days at the beach. Sentimental embraces.
Loving embraces. Passionate embraces.
Sexual embraces.

with different eyes now.

Camincha is a writer based in the Bay Area of Californi

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Ordinary Opportunities to be Happy

By Judith England

It’s easy to get lured into the trap of thinking that we need to do something “special” if we want to grow spiritually. I agree that the discipline of a regular practice in yoga and meditation is essential, as is taking time periodically for a longer retreat of some sort.

But other than that, all the we need to fuel our progress is right here in our families, friendships, jobs, and the rest of the stuff of daily life. Never mind going on a trek to some far-away mountain cave, meditating for hours, eating nothing but nuts and berries. My guess is that it’s a greater challenge to remain compassionate and mindful while trying to car pool with four 12 year olds, balance a checkbook, or remain attentive as an elderly relative tells you the same story you’ve heard so many times you know it by heart.

The March 2010 issue of Shambhala Sun Magazine was filled with articles addressing how to bring Mindfulness Practices to our relationships, communication and work – even that most routine, seemingly endless activity we call “Housework”.

Reading Karen Maezen Miller’s little gem “Do Dishes, Rake Leaves” I’m reminded of how satisfying the work of home care and maintenance can be. Of sure, I don’t mean to wax eloquent about folding laundry, or scrubbing toilets, but being able to create order from disarray or show care for my surroundings pleases me. Even the fact that chaos will soon return, dust will again accumulate, or the clean dish will become dirty doesn’t really matter. I do it for others so they feel at ease in my home. I do it for myself because my thoughts feel more orderly in a well-ordered environment.

There is truth in the statement that all work, done with intention and awareness, has value. As Maezen Miller writes: “Nothing is worth the measure we give it, because worth doesn’t really exist. It is a figment of our judging minds, an imaginary yardstick to measure the imaginary value of imaginary distinctions, and one more way we withhold ourselves from the whole enchilada of life that lies before us.”

Just yesterday I picked up my favorite broom to sweep the maple tree droppings from the deck. This morning, those efforts were completely undone. I picked up the broom again, and began to sweep. The sun was warming the day, birds clustered around the feeders for breakfast, my dogs were enjoying the grass and fresh air. The physical work felt good in my arms and shoulders, my breathing got deeper with the exercise. Does it really matter that tomorrow I may need to do it again?

Incorporated in the article, Maezen Miller shares a list, “10 Tips for a Mindful Home”. I share it now with you:

Wake with the sun
There is no purer light than what we see when we open our eyes first thing in the morning.

Mindfulness without meditation is just a word.

Make your bed
The state of your bed is the state of your head. Enfold your day in dignity.

Empty the hampers
Do the laundry without resentment or commentary and have an intimate encounter with the very fabric of life.

Wash your bowl
Rinse away self-importance and clean up your own mess. If you leave it undone, it will get sticky.

Set a timer
If you’re distracted by the weight of what’s undone, set a kitchen timer and, like a monk in a monastery, devote yourself wholeheartedly to the task at hand before the bell rings.

Rake the leaves
Rake, weed, or sweep. You’ll never finish for good, but you’ll learn the point of pointlessness.

Eat when hungry
Align your inexhaustible desires with the one true appetite.

Let the darkness come
Set a curfew on the internet and TV and discover the natural balance between daylight and darkness, work and rest.

Sleep when tired
Nothing more to it.

—Karen Maezen Miller

From the March 2010 issue of Shambhala Sun.

When it comes to mindfulness, ordinary opportunities make the ordinary truly special.

Peace- Judi England, RN, LMT, Kripalu Yoga Instructor – yogajudi@aol.com

Judith England writes the "Holistic Health" blog for the Times Union in Albany, N.Y. "Holistic Health" is a blog that is well worth bookmarking! http://blog.timesunion.com/holistichealth/