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Smith Students Scrutinize Paths to Happiness

By Jan McCoy Ebbets

Not long ago, while executing shots during a genial game of pool, two gregarious Smith professors from the disparate fields of religion and psychology discovered a common interest in the topic of happiness.

It didn't take long before that conversation had found its way into a Smith classroom as a new cross–disciplinary course.

This fall's "Happiness: Buddhist and Psychological Understandings of Personal Well–Being"—as co–taught by Jamie Hubbard, professor of religion and Yehan Numata Lecturer in Buddhist Studies, and Philip Peake, professor of psychology—was no self–help class, and it didn't promise to deliver happiness. But it did promise to examine the notion of happiness as advocated by both the Buddhist and the scientist.

The course addressed Buddhist teachings and the results of recent brain–activity research in the psychological sciences to argue that there are multiple ways to measure and define happiness as well as achieve it.

It also investigated the places where Buddhist practice and psychological science intersect. "Coinciding with the recent growth in the study of 'positive psychology,' these two seemingly disparate areas have produced a vast amount of collaborative research," notes Peake. "From Harvard University to the Himalayas, scientists are studying the ideas and practices of Buddhism just as Buddhists are changing these practices and incorporating the findings of Western scientific research."

"Happiness" was one of six new Presidential Seminars launched in the 2008–09 academic year. These new offerings were designed to give juniors and seniors a chance to delve into interdisciplinary work at an advanced level. Sixteen students were enrolled this fall.

Senior Valerie Roche, with a double major in neuroscience and psychology, found the seminar compelling. "I was drawn to this course because of my interest in medicine and fascination with the mysteries of the human brain... and I was intrigued by the prospect of comparing and exploring different methodologies being used by experts in two fields to measure and understand human well–being."

Class assignments included readings and class presentations on assigned and chosen topics. At the same time, every presentation was filmed so that the students could hone their public speaking skills as they showcased their topics before their peers.

"I had initially expected to relearn the ways to achieve inner peace with this seminar on happiness," says Janice Wilson '09, an Ada Comstock scholar majoring in psychology, "but what I have gained is a wide range of information. This includes a more in–depth look at Buddhist philosophy, brain images of individuals who meditate extensively compared with individuals who do not meditate... to a comparison of Buddhist and Western views on a range of topics."

For their part, Peake and Hubbard hope students took away from the seminar both an enhanced ability to be mindful about achieving happiness and a newfound respect for the challenges of studying the topic from the perspectives of both the Buddhist and the Western scientist.

"I expect," says senior Roche, "that what I learned in this seminar will serve as an inspiration to me when I graduate and pursue a career in medicine and neuro–scientific research, as interdisciplinary collaboration will likely fuel the greatest breakthroughs in mind–science in years to come."

Selections from the Reading List

Dalai Lama and Cutler, H. C. The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living. Riverhead Books, 1998.

Epstein, M. Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy From a Buddhist Perspective. New York: Harper, 1995.

Goleman, Daniel Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue With the Dalai Lama. New York: Bantam, 2003.

Nauriyal, D. K, et. al. Buddhist Thought and Applied Psychological Research: Transcending the Boundaries. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Kwee, M. G. T. and T. L. Holdstock, eds. Western and Buddhist Psychology: Clinical Perspectives. Delft, Holland: Eburon Publishers, 1996.

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