[Marxism] Harvard's most popular course: triumph of the "me" era

David Thorstad binesi at gvtel.com
Thu Dec 4 15:03:09 MST 2008

Norman Vincent Peale ("the power of positive thinking") meets New Age. 
Our Panglossian world. Maybe these students should be using 'shrooms. 
That at least would give them the positive life-transforming experience 
they seek.

*Harvard's crowded course to happiness
'Positive psychology' draws students in droves
By Carey Goldberg Boston Globe March 10, 2006*

CAMBRIDGE -- The most popular course at Harvard teaches happiness.
The final numbers came in this week: Positive Psychology, a class whose 
content resembles that of many a self-help book but is grounded in 
serious psychological research, has enrolled 855 students, beating out 
even Introductory Economics.
Every Tuesday and Thursday at 11:30 a.m., students crowd into Sanders 
Theatre to learn about creating, as the course description puts it, ''a 
fulfilling and flourishing life," courtesy of the booming new area of 
psychology that focuses on what makes people feel good rather than the 
pathologies that can make them feel miserable.
''Positive Psych may be the one class at Harvard that every student 
needs to take," said Nancy Cheng, a
junior majoring in biology. ''In this fast-paced, competitive 
environment, it is especially crucial that people take time to stop and 
breathe. A self-help class? Maybe. . . . But from what I've seen and 
experienced at Harvard, I think we could all use a little self-help like 
this." In the last several years, positive psychology classes have 
cropped up on more than 100 campuses around the country, said Shane 
Lopez, an associate professor at the University of Kansas, who recently 
co-wrote a positive psychology textbook. But with such an enormous 
course enrollment, Tal D. Ben-Shahar, the lecturer who teaches Harvard's 
course, ''is the leader of the pack right now," Lopez said.
The courses can change how you see yourself and your life, Lopez says. 
''A lot of people are just not accustomed to asking, 'What do I have 
going for me?' and 'What did I do right today?' "
Marty Seligman, the University of Pennsylvania professor who is 
considered the father of positive psychology for his scholarship and 
efforts to promote it, said he saw a similar groundswell when he offered 
a course in 2003. He sees the student enthusiasm as reflecting the 
tremendous appeal of the positive psychology movement in society at 
large. ''When nations are wealthy and not in civil turmoil and not at 
war, then I think, like Florence of the 15th century, they start asking 
what makes life worth living, and that's what positive psychology is 
about," he said in a phone interview.
Among the research findings that support the idea that happy people 
function better: A study of aging nuns
found that those with a positive outlook in their 20s lived as much as a 
decade longer than those with a negative outlook, and people who were 
asked to keep a diary every night for six months, recording things that 
had gone well that day, fared better in measures of happiness, optimism, 
and physical health than those who did not.
Furthermore, studies show that optimism is a skill that can be taught 
and learned.
On Tuesday, midway through the lecture, the lights dimmed and Ben-Shahar 
led the assembled hundreds of
students through a couple of minutes of meditation, asking them to focus 
on their breathing and on releasing the tension in their bodies. ''Just 
let go," he said. ''Experience whatever experience you're having. Just 
let it be. Give it permission, give yourself permission to just be." A 
few deep sighs of relief could be heard. It was an astonishing scene in 
the hard-driving
academic atmosphere of Harvard.

Despite the short weekly papers, two exams, a final project, and 
required readings from hard-core psychology texts and journals, the 
course seems a bit like brain candy, compared to Harvard's usual 
academic fare. Some students do see it as a ''gut," according to an 
article in the Harvard Crimson's magazine. But Ben-Shahar argues that if 
the course seems easy, it is because it holds such great relevance to 
students' own lives, which they naturally are fascinated by. ''Most 
things we find interesting, we also find easy," he said.
''My goal is to create a bridge between the Ivory Tower and Main Street, 
to bring together the rigor of academia and the accessibility of 
self-help," he said. ''If the class has a rigorous academic foundation, 
which it does, then why not try to help people lead better lives?"
It certainly does not hurt that Ben-Shahar, 35, raised in Israel and 
educated at Harvard, tells deeply personal stories to illustrate points. 
On Tuesday, he described how, in his senior year at Harvard, he won his 
dream fellowship, only to start worrying the next day about why he 
hadn't won a better one instead. The moral: How you see things can 
matter more than what actually happens.
He also shares catchy phrases: ''Learn to fail or fail to learn," for 
instance, and ''not 'it happened for the best,' but 'how can I make the 
best of what happened?' "
He also spoke about routes to personal change, wondering aloud about 
post-traumatic stress disorder, in which a single trauma can damage a 
person for life. Might it be possible to create the opposite phenomenon? 
He proposed that perhaps a single glorious, ecstatic experience could 
change a person for the better for life -- and went on to describe how 
students might increase the likelihood of such an experience and its 
aftermath, from cultivating a sense of gratitude for
the beautiful things in their lives to taking the time to really listen 
to music.
Students left the 90-minute-long class cheering and smiling.
After Positive Psychology, Harvard's next most popular course this 
semester is an economics class with 669
students; and the third most popular class is another psychology course 
taught by Ben-Shahar that has 550 students.
Between his two courses, Ben-Shahar is teaching more than 1,400 
students. Although some may be taking both classes, it appears 
Ben-Shahar is teaching at least a fifth of Harvard College's 
undergraduate population of about 6,500.
But despite the clear appeal he holds for students, Ben-Shahar is not on 
the track to tenure and is not seeking to get there. To qualify for 
tenure, he would have to conduct and publish original research. But 
research is not where
his interests lie, he said. ''My passion is teaching," he said. ''So 
that's what I'll do."
*Happiness tips*
Give yourself permission to be human. When we accept emotions -- such as 
fear, sadness, or anxiety -- as
natural, we are more likely to overcome them.
Rejecting our emotions, positive or negative, leads to frustration and 
Happiness lies at the intersection between pleasure and meaning. Whether 
at work or at home, the goal is
to engage in activities that are both personally significant and 
enjoyable. When this is not feasible, make sure you have happiness 
boosters, moments throughout the week that provide you with both 
pleasure and meaning.
Keep in mind that happiness is mostly dependent on our state of mind, 
not on our status or the state of our
bank account. Barring extreme circumstances, our level of well being is 
determined by what we choose to focus
on (the full or the empty part of the glass) and by our interpretation 
of external events. For example, do we view failure as catastrophic, or 
do we see it as a learning opportunity?
Simplify! We are, generally, too busy, trying to squeeze in more and 
more activities into less and less time. Quantity influences quality, 
and we compromise on our happiness by trying to do too much. Remember 
the mind-body connection. What we do – or don't do -- with our bodies 
influences our mind. Regular exercise, adequate sleep, and healthy 
eating habits lead to both physical and mental health.

Express gratitude, whenever possible. We too often take our lives for 
granted. Learn to appreciate and savor the wonderful things in life, 
from people to food, from nature to a smile.
SOURCE: Tal D. Ben-Shahar

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