Professor Who Teaches Popular NYU ‘Happiness’ Course Offers Advice on Keeping it Together


Photo by Irina.

By Carol Tannenhauser

Mental health is often thought of as the absence of symptoms of mental suffering, chief among them stress, anxiety and depression. But it wasn’t always viewed that way, according to Upper West Sider and Professor Dan Lerner, MAPP. The letters stand for Master’s in Applied Positive Psychology, which Professor Lerner earned at the University of Pennsylvania in 2012. He now co-teaches the most popular elective course at New York University: The Science of Happiness, with his best friend, Dr. Alan Schlechter. WSR spoke to Professor Lerner by phone this week about his definition of mental health — and how to protect and maintain yours during a pandemic.

West Side Rag: What is your definition of mental health?

Dan Lerner: Consider your state of mind as a -10 through a +10. -10 to 0 indicates issues with mental illness that need to be addressed. 0 through +10 means the nurturing of well-being, or what William James, the father of American psychology, called “healthy mindedness.” Until very recently, people tended to think of being healthy as the elimination of the negative only, but that would mean living at 0. Positive psychology explores and nurtures the 0 through +10, the qualities and behaviors that make people thrive. These processes can occur simultaneously, because people suffer and thrive at the same time. I mean, we live on the Upper West Side and things kind of suck right now, but I can turn to my 12-year-old son and say I love you.

WSR: How can you nurture healthy mindedness during a pandemic?

DL: Martin Seligman, one of the founders of positive psychology in the late 1990s, said to think of having five buckets, one each for: positive emotions (feeling good); engagement (total absorption in an activity); relationships (authentic connections); meaning (attachment to something larger than yourself); and achievement (setting and meeting goals.) You have to have, at least, a little something in all five buckets to thrive. But the number one predictor is the quality of your relationships. That’s the factor cited most by people who say they are thriving in all periods of life. The quality of relationships is the greatest predictor of how first-year college students will do and whether or not they will graduate. It also predicts how well we do in the workplace and at home.

WSR: What are the greatest challenges/obstacles to maintaining healthy mindedness during this crisis?

DL: One may be how difficult it is to nurture relationships right now. But we do have tools at our disposal. As lacking as they sometimes may seem, getting on a zoom call, or simply having a phone call to say hello and catch up, can go a long way. We can take time to write a quick note of gratitude or appreciation in the morning to someone we haven’t spoken to in a while. Even if you are in the house with the same people for the last two months, finding new ways to appreciate them – even the smallest ways – and sharing that with them, can be enormously helpful to both of you. Another challenge is feeling like we’re getting anything done. Accomplishments are a big part of our feeling like we are thriving — or even doing reasonably well in life. Setting a checklist, even for simple things, such as laundry or reaching out to others, can be helpful. When we check it off at the end of the day, it can be key to our doing well.

WSR: What else can we do to increase our healthy mindedness?

DL: We can reframe stress. Alan’s younger daughter came up with the word “nervousited.“ It’s perfect because nervous and excited feel pretty much the same: your heart beats faster, you get butterflies in your stomach and short of breath. How you interpret those feelings is the key. You’re stressed out because you care about something. If you frame it as excitement — as something with a possible good outcome — then you’re talking about it in a much healthier way. It’s possible to be too stressed and that can be debilitating, but many of us have an opportunity to reframe stress in a way that is helpful rather than harmful. That said, some situations really don’t have a bright or “exciting” side. In cases like this, an effective way to address anxiety is to focus on what you can actually control. You can’t control the virus; you can’t necessarily control what’s going on outside; but you can control what you do in the moment and how you respond. Something as simple as taking a deep breath (or three), savoring a great piece of music, or calling a friend can let us know that there are SOME things that we can control, and no matter how small, they can be quite powerful.

Thanks to Erin Bellard, owner of e’s bar and wife of Dan Lerner, for bringing his ideas to our attention. (They met when she was a hostess at the now-defunct Ocean Grill.) You can see Dan and his co-teacher Alan live on a video-cast every Wednesday at 5 p.m., talking with experts about positive psychology and healthy mindedness. Link to The Happiest Hour here.

COLUMNS | 4 comments | permalink
    1. sally says:

      Thank you for positivity.

    2. Jonathan L. Segal says:

      adding “5 buckets” to my bucket list.

    3. UWS9697 says:

      I love this thought approach. Greatly appreciate it being shared.

    4. Marissa says:

      I find it quite amusing to think of a husband who lectures about happiness, but whose wife provides an alternative method by owning a bar.