The Happiness Advantage - A Conversation with Priya Shah
by R. Whittaker, Jan 14, 2019
I met Priya Shah at a ServiceSpace Healing + Transformation retreat. Some twenty health care professionals shared their experience, questions and their visions of how healing can optimally take place, what is really essential, and how healthcare could be improved. Dr. William Stewart and Dr. Grace Dammann were among those anchoring the circle. Not being in the field of health care myself was no obstacle to being inspired by the wide-ranging exchange that took place. Each story was very special. Among those who I wanted to speak with afterwards at greater length was Priya Shah. She'd talked to us about two things - a study she participated in at Children's Hospital in Oakland and a class she'd initiated at the University of California at Berkeley on happiness.
Some weeks later, we met for the following conversation...
Priya Shah: My parents are both from India. They’re both from the state of Gujarat. But I was born and raised in San Jose and have been a Bay Area native my entire life. I moved up here to Berkeley, for undergrad, about four years ago.
Richard Whittaker: Are your parents in the computer world?
Priya: Yes. My dad works at Adobe Systems. He went to Stanford for his Masters and then went back home where he was kind of set-up to meet my mom, and it worked out. They got married, and she moved here to Silicon Valley with him.
RW: I see. So, you went to UC Berkeley as an undergrad.
Priya: Yeah. I started as a freshman, and then I was able to finish in three-and-a-half years. I just graduated in December. I majored in molecular and cell biology, with an emphasis in neurobiology, and I minored in Spanish language and literature.
RW: And while you were a student there, I understand you initiated a course yourself. Could you say a little bit about that?
Priya: Sure. We have a program at UCB called the DeCal Program where undergraduates can create and teach courses for other undergraduates—or even grad students—for credit. There’s a whole host of topics—from analyzing Calvin and Hobbs comics, to pop music, to more professional ones like Pre-med 101, which is another one I was involved in. It’s more like a resources and support system for pre-med students at Cal.
RW: When you say you were involved in it, you mean someone else initiated it?
Priya: Someone else started that one about a decade ago, but during my sophomore year, I took over as one of the head facilitators to lead and teach the course, organize the speakers coming in, and things like that.
RW: How many students would there be in that class, typically?
Priya: 140 or so. That was one of the bigger and more established DeCals. I took it as a freshman and loved how useful it was hearing from physician guest lecturers, and being able to get some shadowing opportunities.
RW: What does that mean, “shadowing opportunities?”
Priya: That’s where you set-up time with a doctor, or other professional, and follow them around for the day. You get to see what their day-to-day life is. A lot of medicine gets sensationalized in movies and literature and you get to see some of the less glamorous parts of the profession, as well—things like paperwork, meetings and phone calls.
RW: Right. You get a more realistic impression.
Priya: Yes. I got to see things from surgery—like cardiothoracic surgery, and open-heart surgery—all the way to the routines in a clinic, like well-care appointments with children, and things like that. So, I had opportunities to see all these different parts of medicine to make sure I wanted to go into that field myself.
RW: At this point, heading for Harvard, what’s your vision?
Priya: I've done about 130 hours of shadowing in all these different departments, and the one that was the most fun for me was pediatrics - working with kids. So, I think I want to explore a career in pediatrics. And I loved my major in neurobiology. So, I also want to think about going into neurology, and maybe even bridging the two together.
RW: Okay. So, around the beginning of your junior year, you initiated a new course in the DeCal program at UCB, right?
Priya: Correct. This one was my own brainchild. I created the syllabus and the lesson plans, and things like that. My motivation to start the course evolved over my sophomore year, where I was going through some of my own mental health imbalances—just being really stressed with exams, deadlines, professional and personal stress, and things like that all adding up—on top of the fact that both locally and globally, there’s so much violence going on in the world. Every time I’d open my email or scroll through Facebook, there were so many negative news stories being thrown at us, that I felt there was a need, from me and my peers, for a little more positivity - and for that to spread some ripples through the UC Berkeley Campus. And I’d already had some introduction to meditation - and to gratitude and doing random acts of kindness throughout my upbringing. So I thought…
RW: Oh, could you say something about that background, first?
Priya: Sure. My parents introduced me to meditation as a child. I used to do like weekend retreats to learn meditation - the ones for kids in elementary school where they kind of teach you the Anapana breathing meditation. They work it in with activities and games and stuff, to make it kind of relatable for kids.
So, I started using it a little bit through elementary and middle school even though I didn’t really grasp what it meant. And then in high school, I started using meditation right before my exams. I found it was really helpful, because it would help clear my mind and help me focus better on those exams, as well as be able to deal with new situations. I’d be able to think more logically and clearly, and recall memories and be able to bring that all together cohesively a lot better, when I’d meditated before.
It’s when I got to college that I realized that, instead of getting to that stressed state and then using meditation to save myself, I found it was better for my health to use it on a daily basis, to help avoid even getting to that really stressed state.
So, that’s the meditation background. That was really strong. Gratitude was from how my parents would have us go around the dinner table and talk about things we were grateful for that day and things like that. So just starting to focus on what we were really blessed to have in our lives really helped us view the world through a positive lens.
RW: That’s wonderful to hear. I don’t think a lot of families do that.
Priya: No. It’s such a simple practice.
RW: Were both your parents together on in that way?
Priya: I think my dad had a little bit more experience with meditation and service, but my mom, as well. They both came in as a team effort. And actually, right before starting college, I did a ten-day meditation retreat. It was my first one and it was definitely one of the most difficult things I'd done. But it was awesome because not only did I learn Vipassana meditation, but it also gave me a boost in self-esteem and some confidence that I can get through other challenges, as well.
Then in terms of kindness, we used to host free lemonade stands on the weekends.
RW: Had your family met people from ServiceSpace?
Priya: Nipun [Mehta] is actually a family friend of ours. So I was exposed to ServiceSpace and those ideals, but wasn’t heavily involved or anything like that. But I did have mentors, in that sense, and heard about people doing these things in the world.
RW: Nice. Okay.
Priya: So, we had free lemonade stands, things like that—just random acts of kindness growing up. So those were the three main threads I wanted to weave together into this course called, Happiness Advantage, which is inspired by a book written by a positive psychologist at Harvard, Shawn Achor. He talks about the benefits of these different practices and poses that you should test them out for 21-days which is the scientifically proven time needed to form a habit. You try doing something or 21 days, and see what tangible and perceived benefits there are in your life.
Priya: So, I started this course in the Fall of my junior year. I’d written the syllabus and had gotten it approved over the summer. Then I started teaching the course, and having to grade homework and answer questions, which is difficult the first time around, especially answering questions about things like meditation. I wasn’t an expert, by any means.
RW: Okay. Did you teach this course once a week?
Priya: Yeah, once a week for an hour. I started with a class limit of 25, because I wasn’t sure how much interest there would be. But there was overwhelming interest in the course and I had a full course.
RW: So, this was your first course and then you said you were grading papers - like grades, like A through F ?
Priya: DeCal stands for Democratic Education at Cal and all the courses are on a pass, no-pass basis. So, I set-up the course syllabus with four sections: meditation, gratitude, kindness, and then “create your own challenge.” At the end of each three-week section, they would have to turn in a paper, which was basically like journal entries every day for whatever practice they were doing for that section.
RW: I see. What did you feel at the end of that first semester?
Priya: That first semester was amazing. When you’re standing in front of people, some people are nodding along when you’re talking, but you don’t really know how much it’s impacting them. So, I sent out a survey at the end of the semester just to see what people thought of the course and its challenges, and it was awesome to read about all these experiences the people had.
I remember one student from my very first semester; it really had an impact on her. She struggled with having panic attacks, and I remember one day after class, she came up to me. She shared that she’d been using breathing techniques that we’d learned in the classroom, the meditation portion, to stop three different panic attacks that she’d felt arising just that day. She’d been able to fall back on strategies that we’d practiced in class.
There was another student, who had trouble sleeping at night, but if she meditated before falling asleep - just for five or ten minutes - she was able to sleep for longer stretches of time, like five to six hours instead of two to three hours. Just to hear these stories - to see that it was having this tangible effect on people’s lives - was absolutely heartwarming. That really was motivation to keep going.
So, I realized I didn’t need to be the expert. Just opening up dialogue about these practices and themes, and engaging in conversation with my peers about what they were going through was really helpful. And another thing was looking at what kinds of things we could do together to create a support group - that kind of community on campus - because I hadn’t found one earlier, people interested in self-care and meditation and things. So, this was a way to almost create that community and delve into it myself.
RW: Right. Then the next semester?
Priya: So, that first semester a couple of students came up to me saying, “Wow, we really love this course. We’d be interested in teaching it as well and helping you expand it,” which was really cool to hear. But I didn’t want to open it up immediately for a lecture hall with a really huge class. I felt that the discussion part was really important with the very personal journeys people were going through as they started meditating and reflecting on things in their life. I wanted to keep it to a small, tight-knit community, and not have it get too big.
So, I was able to train two of my former students to teach a second section of the class, and we doubled in size the second semester. So, on top of teaching my own class, I was also training them how to teach the other class. Then, at the end of that semester, more people were interested in getting involved.
RW: So how many hours a week, would you say, you were putting into this course all together?
Priya: I’d say probably at least three to four hours a week. I actually had other things going on that were bigger commitments time-wise. This one was just something I really enjoyed.
RW: You had probably a full-time load yourself, right? And you must have been able to do a lot in that three or four hours a week.
Priya: It was kind of squeeze it in and figure it out. It was hard because a student’s schedule is so different week-to-week throughout the semester. It was hard sometimes to be the only one in-charge.
RW: Were your students pretty faithful? Did they come every week?
Priya: In the grading policies and the syllabus, the requirement of attendance was pretty strict. I felt that the discussions and things that we had in class were a really important part of the it, so I wanted to make sure people were coming on a regular basis.
RW: You sort of knew in advance that the discussion would be an important part?
Priya: Yes, because of my involvement in the pre-med 101 course. Attendance was a problem there, so we had to make that more strict, and I was able to see that. You know we were really limited on time. We could only do one 21-day challenge. There was no wiggle room in that sense. I needed to make sure people had clear instructions and a place to ask questions and reflect on how their challenges were going with other peers. Once a week we reconvened to see how things were going, because during the week they were doing these practices on their own.
So, I made sure that everyone in the class was speaking up. I wanted everyone to have a chance to share. I found that sometimes, people were comfortable sharing with the entire class, so I started doing more small group activities for sharing.
RW: I want to hear about the trajectory. You did this for four semesters?
Priya: I taught for three semesters, because I graduated a semester early.
RW: That’s right. What were some of the things that you learned in teaching this?
Priya: I've done a lot of tutoring over the years in Spanish. Something I’d found there is that teaching is the best way to cement my own knowledge and learning. When people came up to me with questions about meditation, I’d have to go back and reflect on my own practice to see how I could answer their questions, and best present the information to them.
So, I identified the gaps in my own practices and my own learning by going through the challenges with the students every semester. I was able to deepen my own practices, which was a really cool side benefit.
RW: So, actually, teaching is a good way to learn.
Priya: Definitely. I found that for sure.
RW: So, describe the trajectory of the three semesters you taught this course. What sort of developed?
Priya: It grew almost faster than I could keep up with. The first semester was with 25 students, the second with 50 students that I was sharing with a pair of facilitators, and the third semester we were at 100 students. We were running four different sections of Monday through Thursday with two people in charge of each section.
On top of leading my own section, and doing the lesson plans, I was also leading the entire team and having team meetings for all of the teachers to exchange ideas. And it was really interesting to make sure that they understood, at the core, what the class was about.
The theory behind our class was something that Shawn Achor posed in his book. He writes about how we make these goal posts, like once I get into college, I'm going to be happy. Then when you get into college it gets changed to once I get into med school, I’m going to be happy. So happiness keeps getting pushed over the horizon.
Basically, the theory is that if we flip the equation and have the happiness in the present moment, that’s actually going to help fuel that success.
I found this was what really resonated with a lot of undergrads, especially - like, “Okay. If I really spend these ten minutes a day to focus on my own mental health and self-care and happiness, that’s actually going to benefit me in the long run.”
There’s the thought that “I don’t even have ten minutes in my day to sit down and meditate.” But what you get back from those ten minutes is more than spending those ten minutes.
RW: Yes. And what did you call this course again?
Priya: The Happiness Advantage.
RW: Now, was there a wait list?
Priya: Yes. The wait list started the first semester even. By the third semester, when we had 100 spots open, there were 400 people interested in taking the course. But I thought it wasn’t really my place to decide who deserves to be in the class and I left it as a first-come, first-served basis. So, that third semester we had four separate sections with room for 100 students and within an hour, the sections were full. It was crazy.
RW: Has it continued?
Priya: It has. And it warms my heart so much that people were interested in taking on this class that I started. It’s still running with four sections. I just did a guest lecture yesterday in one of the classes to talk about my experience founding the class and things like that. But yeah, it’s really great to hear that it’s going to continue at Berkeley.
RW: How was that transition, leaving the class in other’s hands?
Priya: When I left, I ended up creating a document that outlined what was needed each week of the semester and leaving some flexibility for how to present that information. I was able to answer questions online and things like that, but it was difficult, because I was also interviewing for medical school during that semester. I was flying out of Berkeley a lot and wasn’t always in Berkeley to hold team meetings. Luckily, I had some more experienced instructors from that second semester, who were able to kind of fill-in and help out in my place.
RW: Do you feel you left behind some well-qualified people?
Priya: Definitely. Because of this huge wait list of 400 people I felt something was needed there. So we created a weekend event that was open to anyone on campus, or even off-campus - a kind of a crash course on Happiness Advantage. It was a two-hour event and we did a little bit from each section of meditation, gratitude, and kindness so, at least, they had a little exposure to these practices. I followed up with a list of different meditation apps and resources online that they could explore before they were able to take the course.
It’s awesome that this semester, even though I'm not there anymore, they’re working on really building that weekend event. So that’s something people who are unable to take the full course are still able to use the resources. And I'm working on building a website, so that people can have an online base to read more about the class and things like that as well.
RW: That’s wonderful. Did you hook up with the Greater Good Science Center while you were there?
Priya: Yes. We reached out to Professor Keltner a couple of times and we’re working with him to see if he can come speak at the weekend event. I was able to get in touch with a couple of other people there also who connected us to Shawn Achor. He learned about our course and emailed us that he was happy we were putting it into practice. So, that was really cool, too.
RW: The general curriculum at UC Berkeley probably reflects trends in the world of university education in this country. Would you just reflect on some of the issues you see – some of the difficulties?
Priya: My exposure at UCB was mostly with STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) classes. But I really liked the set-up we had. The lecture classes, where there were hundreds of students, could be overwhelming when you first get to Berkeley. But I liked that the professor gave the lectures to everyone enrolled in the class. Some of the general chemistry classes get up to 800 students. But then, every week, we also would have weekly discussion sections with one of the graduate student instructors. These are smaller group sessions of 20 to 30 students from that 800-person class. In those you can ask questions and it’s more like a high school classroom. I really liked that set-up.
The diversity in the course topics was really cool. One of my favorite courses was actually in my final semester. It was in the Spanish Department, but it was on topics that were in my neurobiology major. It was called “Borges, Buddhism, and Cognitive Science.” Buddhism really influenced Borges’ writings and he kind of predicted the field of cognitive science. It was really cool that I was able to explore things in neurobiology, like neuroplasticity, but in my Spanish classes.
RW: My gosh, yeah. And now you’re headed off to Harvard Medical School?
Priya: I just got my acceptance last week, which is really exciting.
RW: What did you think of that ServiceSpace circle on healing?
Priya: It was really interesting to be able to engage in conversation with doctors who are interested in the type of medicine I'm interested in, which is integrative medicine. I used to think that it was either Western medicine, or alternative therapies. But I'm learning that there’s this emerging field of Integrative Medicine where it’s not an either/or; the two complement each other.
RW: Well, I already posted that little piece, where you talked about your experiences at Children’s Hospital. Do you want to talk a little bit about that? About not just the study, but the implications of it?
Priya: Definitely, yes. I got involved with a quality of life study at Children’s Hospital in Oakland. It was in their oncology department. This study was looking at the medication hydroxyurea. I was looking at two population groups, those taking the medication and those who weren’t. We were looking to compare the perceived quality of the children’s day-to-day life. And there was a seven-question survey that has been validated for use in pediatric chronic disease.
I met with over 100 patients, and administered this survey, asking them to rate their quality of life. There were questions like, “How do you rate your physical health?” Do you have fun with your friends?” “Do you feel sad often?” Then we went looked at the responses, and analyzed the data we’d collected. Our hypothesis was that those who were taking this medication (that we knew was mitigating their symptoms) would would have a higher quality of life correlated with that. But we actually found that there was no significant difference between the quality of life between the two different groups. It really made me think about all the different factors that lead into quality of life. And the fact is that health is just not physical health, it’s not just the mental health, but it’s really all these different aspects together that contribute to someone’s health.
RW: Do you reflect messages that are being fed to us every day, 24/7 – the promise of how whatever product or gadget or app you buy will make you happy?
Priya: I think it can be really dangerous. Those apps that promise happiness can be beneficial, but I think they can also be dangerous because you can get almost dependent or addicted to whatever content they’re providing.
The things I had in my course of the Happiness Advantage like the Anapana meditation that is just focused on your breath—that’s something you can rely on. You’re always going to have your breath with you.
RW: To come into a relationship with my breath, this is something we don’t have in this culture.
Priya: Yeah. In my Happiness course, someone brought up the point that we kind of live like we’re floating heads. We’re just all up in our minds the entire time, thinking through the problems and stuff. We’re all living up here (points to head). We forget that that’s just a part of our physical body. There’s so much more to us, our hands, our legs, our core and so on. Meditation gives us the opportunity to look inward and get back in touch with our body, and to remember and express gratitude that we have working arms and legs, and that our heart is functioning to provide blood to our body, and things like that - and really get rooted.
I think it’s really important to take a couple of minutes every day, to recognize that there’s so many other parts to us that are not just involved in the thoughts. So, something else I do is practice yoga. Every one of my seven semesters at Cal, I signed up for a yoga class. It was a great way to remember the physical reality of my body and get back in touch with that, at least for a couple of times a week.
RW: It’s odd, if you think about it, that we really don’t have much of a connection with our bodies. This body is our direct link to the world of nature - of plants and animals and energies.
Priya: Yes. We kind of separate ourselves from nature, even though we’re a part of it.
RW: Have you heard of other courses like yours in other schools?
Priya: When I posted on my Facebook page when I first started this course, a student at UC Davis messaged me saying that they had a similar program there, but not as robust as the one at UC Berkeley, and she was interested in bringing these principles to UC Davis, as well. We’ve been in contact over the past couple of semesters. I think it’s a bit more difficult, because they don’t have as well a fleshed-out of a program there. But I have received interest from friends are interested in bringing this course to their schools as well. But again, it’s more difficult when there isn’t an infrastructure like the one set-up at UC Berkeley to facilitate and support students who want to do such things.
RW: Well, it’s easy to envision how beneficial this could be. I imagine, now that you’ve started this course, that you can see how it could benefit every university and college in the whole country.
Priya: I certainly have. The Happiness classes that were started at Harvard and Yale are the ones that are most signed up for by undergraduate students, and I think there’s finally a movement where people are accepting that we need to focus on ourselves and our happiness, and make sure we’re prioritizing that. I think students are recognizing that, and I think the outcomes are also really positive and beneficial. So, yes, I definitely think all the universities around the country, and the world, could benefit from such a course.
RW: I think that an essential aspect to being happy is to be able to enter into a deeper and more real relationship with the whole of myself. What do you think?
Priya: Yes. I think so, too. That could definitely be a starting point. Yes, I think that’s good.
RW: And, as you’ve said, happiness depends on being able to be grateful for what one has, and maybe especially, being able to connect with others somehow. What are your thoughts on that?
Priya: The reason that I had it go from meditation to gratitude to kindness—the order of that was something that I did think through. I started with meditation, because that’s kind of looking inward and building that relationship with yourself. Gratitude is starting to think about your connection to others and how you fit into that web of connections. Then, kindness is starting to take action on that gratitude - to do things for others and for the community and to build on those relationships. So, it’s that progressive building those relations - building those connections with yourself, then with others and then with the greater community. That was the thought process behind it.