The idea for the course began eight years ago, when Baraz's wife, Jane, gave him a book called How We Choose to Be Happy, by Rick Foster and Greg Hicks. "The instructions made a lot of sense, but they didn't have a spiritual dimension," Baraz says. "So I added that and presented it as a series of talks with my weekly meditation group for about three months to see what would happen." The results: "We got happier and happier!"
Baraz then turned Awakening Joy into a six-month class and found that participants maintained a positive attitude even after it ended (as long as they practiced the exercises; as with diets or working out, continuity is essential). Word of mouth about the course that could make people happier began to spread: The first round of Awakening Joy meetings consisted of about 40 members. The next numbered 100; the next, 200, and then 500. It went international when its members began e-mailing their monthly homework assignments from the lectures to friends. Baraz was thrilled to receive messages from strangers in Europe, Africa, and New Zealand. "It works!" they wrote. Apparently, you didn't have to be there to get the joy.
Nor do you have to be the type who can deftly turn a frown upside down. "I'm the person who walks into a nicely designed room and notices only that the painting was hung too high," says Gretchen, age 56. In addition to being a "serious" woman from a depressive family, Gretchen also found herself in chronic pain after sustaining a back injury. "It was horrible," she recalls. "Medication made me sick. I felt guilty about not being able to work, and I thought people were judging me." Though a specialist was able to alleviate some of her physical discomfort, Gretchen fell into a deep depression.
She heard about Awakening Joy after taking Baraz's meditation classes at Spirit Rock. "The first thing I was hit by was the instruction to notice what it feels like when you're happy," she says. "I loved the walks I took to help my back, but before, I just plodded down the street, not noticing anything. Now I'm aware of how I feel when I'm walking, which enhances my enjoyment." Writing lists of things she's grateful for was also a big help. "A lot of my seriousness has lifted," she says. "I have a lighter heart. I still have chronic pain, but I know there's a lot to feel good about."
Baraz is writing a book about Awakening Joy and the people who now routinely roll up the windows in their cars so they can sing as loudly as they want to. "More than 2,000 people have tested it, so it's not some airy-fairy idea," he says. "I've learned that it's possible to change, no matter what your history or the limiting beliefs you've held on to. If you have the intention to be happy and you do the practices, if you give it your best shot and are very patient, it works."
We're all so used to thinking that we'll finally be content when we find the perfect partner, lose weight, or get our dream job. Is it really possible to become happier just by deciding you can? "We use the language of having, getting, and chasing to describe happiness, rather than being," says Holden. "What we've learned about happiness is that it isn't an it or a thing. Research has proven that there is no one set of circumstances that makes someone happy; it's more about having a healthy mental attitude toward whatever you're experiencing. So, you can either chase happiness or you can choose to be happy. It really is that simple."
Visit AwakeningJoy.info for more details about upcoming courses.
From the January 2008 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.