Go to College to Study... Happiness?

The number of seriously depressed students at the University level is on the rise. It's hard to ignore the pain and anguish on so many of their young faces.
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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 course on happiness (formally called positive psychology) was at one point the most popular class on that campus. So I suppose I could do worse than try to teach a class like that at my own 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 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 ex-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 from looking out the window, as I am now, and gazing at a lush green lilac bush spilling over with lavender 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.