Harvard Course on Positive Psychology: Watch 30 Lectures from the University’s Extremely Popular Course

Several years back Tal Ben-Shahar taught a course on Positive Psychology at Harvard, which became, at least for a while, the most popular course at the university. About the course NPR wrote: "Twice a week, some 900 students attend Tal Ben-Shahar's class on what he calls 'how to get happy.' ... His class offers research from the relatively new field of positive psychology, which focuses on what makes people happy, rather than just their pathologies."

Available in an admittedly grainy format, you can watch the 30 lectures from that course above, or over on YouTube. According to the original syllabus, topics discussed include "happiness, self-esteem, empathy, friendship, love, achievement, creativity, music, spirituality, and humor."

If you're interested in delving deeper into Positive Psychology, we'd recommend reading the works of Martin Seligman, the University of Pennsylvania professor who effectively invented the field. Or better yet, you can sign up for a Coursera course that Seligman helped create--Positive Psychology: Well-Being for Life. The next round of that course starts on August 21st.

For related subjects visit our collection of Free Psychology Courses, a subset of our meta collection, 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Explore Harvard’s Iconic Spaces with 360° Interactive Videos

For me, nothing captures those occasional feelings of post-graduate yearning like "I Wish I Could Go Back to College," a N-quite-SFW track from the Broadway musical, Avenue Q.

With all due respect, it feels like the five members of Harvard University’s just-graduated Class of 2016 sharing their recollections in the interactive 360° video project, Harvard Students Say Farewell, left a few crucial details out. (Note: Youtube 360 videos only work in Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, or Opera browsers.)

It’s completely safe for prospective parents, not a keg or condom wrapper in sight. (The project is hosted on Harvard’s official Youtube channel.)

Unsurprisingly, Harvard appears to have been the participants’ universal first choice of college. Hasty Pudding performer, Joshuah Campbell, above, a self-described “Black kid from the country,” confides that it was the only place he applied to.

He may have arrived wondering how he would fit in, but four years later, his grubby dorm room is one of the “iconic” Harvard locations viewers can explore digitally as he briefly reflects upon his experience.

That’s about as down and dirty as this series gets. The human subjects seem to have been selected with an eye toward diversity and humility, rather than the clenched Boston Brahmin jaw that once defined the institution.

Meanwhile, the libraries, quads, and theaters through which this new breed of Harvard men and women wander attest to the place's ongoing exclusivity.

Sreeja Kalapurakkel, above, a member of the Harvard South Asian Dance Company, knew what she was getting into, as a student at a respected Boston secondary school. Shortly after graduation, she sung Harvard's praises somewhat more frankly on her Facebook page:

Each day of my time at Harvard was filled with everything that makes life beautiful: darkness, struggle, despair, loneliness, friendship, hope, perseverance, light. Every experience, every lesson, every friend transformed me into someone more human and gave me something new to fight for.

Harvard, like every other college in the land, has relaxed its policy on ending a sentence in a preposition.

Ana-Maria Constantin arrived sight unseen from her native Romania to pull us out onto the deck of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.

On to the locker room! Hockey captain Kyle Criscuolo joins the Detroit Red Wings, reflecting that Harvard student athletes enjoy no special treatment. In future, the university may want to require them to listen to Will Stephen’s lecture, "How to Sound Smart in a TED Talk." Criscuolo sounds sincere, but also stiff, as if reading from a sheet of paper, or the digital equivalent thereof.

(Thereof is an adverb, by the way. Not a preposition. I checked.)

Harvard Art Museums Student Board member Rachel Thompson paints herself so meekly, I’m tempted to check with her freshman year roommate. Was she really so filled with self doubt? I've always assumed Harvard acceptance letters would puff the recipient up. Good lord, imagine the effect the rejection letters must have!

Use a mouse to explore the immersive environment on your computer, or the YouTube app to navigate on a mobile device. Use a virtual reality headset and the Harvard Crimson staff’s vocabulary list to enhance the experience even more.

The complete playlist is here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine, and a Northwestern University grad. Follow her @AyunHalliday

Daily Meditation Boosts & Revitalizes the Brain and Reduces Stress, Harvard Study Finds

I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but meditation may have saved my life. During a particularly challenging time of overwork, underpay, and serious family distress, I found myself at dangerous, near-stroke levels of high cholesterol and blood pressure, and the beginnings of near-crippling early-onset arthritis. My doctors were alarmed. Something had to change. Unable to make stressful outer circumstances disappear, I had to find constructive ways to manage my responses to them instead. Yoga and meditation made the difference.

I’m hardly alone in this journey. The leading cause of death in the U.S. is heart disease, followed closely by stroke, diabetes, and depression leading to suicide---all conditions exacerbated by high levels of stress and anxiety. In my own case, a changed diet and daily exercise played a crucial role in my physical recovery, but those disciplines would not even have been possible to adopt were it not for the calming, centering effects of a daily meditation practice.

Anecdotes, however, are not evidence. We are bombarded with claims about the miracle magic of “mindfulness,” a word that comes from Buddhism and describes a kind of meditation that focuses on the breath and body sensations as anchors for present-moment awareness. Some form of “mindfulness based stress reduction” has entered nearly every kind of therapy, rehabilitation, corporate training, and pain management, and the word has been a marketing totem for at least a solid decade now. No one ever needs to mention the B-word in all this meditation talk. As one meditation teacher tells his beginner students, “Buddhism cannot exist without mindfulness, but mindfulness can exist perfectly well without Buddhism.”

So, no need to believe in reincarnation, renunciation, or higher states of consciousness, fine. But does meditation really change your brain? Yes. Academic researchers have conducted dozens of studies on how the practice works, and have nearly all concluded that it does. “There’s more than an article a day on the subject in peer-reviewed journals,” says University of Toronto psychiatrist Steven Selchen, “The research is vast now.” One research team at Harvard, led by Harvard Medical School psychology instructor Sara Lazar, published a study in 2011 that shows how mindfulness meditation results in physical changes to the brain.

The paper details the results of MRI scans from 16 subjects “before and after they took part in the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness,” reports the Harvard Gazette. Each of the participants spent “an average of 27 minutes each day practicing mindfulness exercises.” After the program, they reported significant stress reduction on a questionnaire, and analysis of their MRIs “found increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.”

The Harvard Business Review points to a another survey study in which scientists from the University of British Columbia and the Chemnitz University of Technology “were able to pool data from more than 20 studies to determine which areas of the brain are consistently affected. They identified at least eight different regions.” Highlighting two areas “of particular concern to business professionals,” the HBR describes changes to the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), an area of the frontal lobe associated with self-regulation, learning, and decision-making. The ACC “may be particularly important in the face of uncertain and fast-changing conditions.” Like Lazar’s Harvard study, the researchers also identified “increased amounts of gray matter” in the hippocampus, an area highly subject to damage from chronic stress.

These studies and many others bring mindfulness together with another current psychological buzzword that has proven to be true: neuroplasticity, the idea that we can change our brains for the better—that we are not “hardwired” to repeat patterns of behavior despite our best efforts. In the TEDx Cambridge talk at the top of the post, Lazar explains her results, and connects them with her own experiences with meditation. She is, you’ll see right away, a skeptic, not inclined to accept medical claims proffered by yoga and meditation teachers. But she found that those practices worked in her own life, and also had “scientifically validated benefits” in reducing stress, depression, anxiety, and physical pain. In other words, they work.

None of the research invalidates the Buddhist and Hindu traditions from which yoga and meditation come, but it does show that one needn’t adopt any particular belief system in order to reap the health benefits of the practices. For some secular introductions to meditation, you may wish to try UCLA’s free guided meditation sessions or check out the Meditation 101 animated beginner’s guide above. If you’re not too put off by the occasional Buddhist reference, I would also highly recommend the Insight Meditation Center’s free six-part introduction to mindfulness meditation. Chronic stress is literally killing us. We have it in our power to change the way we respond to circumstances, change the physical structure of our brains, and become happier and healthier as a result.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Discover Harvard’s Collection of 2,500 Pigments: Preserving the World’s Rare, Wonderful Colors

If modern paint companies’ pretentiously-named color palettes gall you to the point of an exclusively black-and-white existence, the Harvard Art Museums’ Forbes pigment collection will prove a welcome balm.

The hand and typewritten labels identifying the collection’s 2500+ pigments boast none of the flashy “creativity” that J. Crew employs to peddle its cashmere Boyfriend Cardigans.
Pigment Collection

Images by Harvard News

The benign, and wholly unexciting-sounding “emerald green” is ---unsurprisingly---the exact shade legions of Oz fans have come to expect. The thrills here are chemical, not conferred. A mix of crystalline powder copper acetoarsenite, this emerald’s fumes sickened penniless artists as adroitly as they repelled insects.

Look how nicely it goes with Van Gogh’s ruddy hair…

Van Gogh Harvard

“Mummy” is perhaps the closest the Forbes collection comes to 21st- century pigment naming. As Harvard’s Director of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, Narayan Khandekar, notes in the video above, its mushroom shade is no great shakes. The source---the resin used to seal mummies’ bandages---is what distinguishes it.


The collection’s crown jewel is a rich ball of mustard-y Indian Yellow. This pigment comes not from maize, nor earth, but from the dehydrated urine of a cow subsisting exclusively on mango leaves. I'm drawn to it like a moth to the living room walls. I'm sure Benjamin Moore had his reasons for dubbing its urine-free facsimile "Sunny Days."

pigment_vault India Yellow

The images above, save the Van Gogh painting, comes courtesy of by Harvard News. The video above was created by Great Big Story.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday

What Does the Spleen Do? A Music Video Starring Harvard School of Medicine’s Class of 2016

According to Harvard Medical School’s Admissions department, "to study medicine at Harvard is to prepare to play a leading role" in the "quest to improve the human condition."

It might also prepare you to play a giant spleen, as Richard Ngo, Class of 2016, does in this video for the Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Dental Medicine's 107th Annual Second Year Show. 

In this anatomical homage to  "The Fox," Norwegian comedy duo Ylvis' deliberately bizarre hit, the Crimsonites demonstrate a pretty straightforward grasp of their studies:

Lungs go whoosh

Help you breathe

Kidneys filter

Make your pee

If, as they freely admit,  they're a bit murky on splenetic function, well, that's why they're at the top ranked medical school in the country, right? To learn?

And to dance?

Their parents, particularly the hard working immigrant ones, must have been so relieved to learn that music videos are a fallback should the doctor thing not work out.

Though why wouldn't it? Secret male uterus? Vestigial fin? Possibly a backup tongue?

They may be guesses, but they're educated guesses!

For comparison's sake, here are two of the winning entries in the Medical and Dental School's Organ Challenge, an anatomy-based music video contest for kids K-12Oakland's Pacific Boychoir Academy’s Miley Cyrus-inspired take on the Digestive System (above) and Poolesville, Maryland's local high school's  "Happy”-flavored anthem to healthy cardiac function (below).

I'd say those kids stand a good chance of getting into Harvard.

(Don't be embarrassed if you remain a bit shaky on what exactly the spleen's there to do. This simple, non-musical primer on the "Queen of Clean," compliments of I Heart Guts, should clear things up right away.


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Ayun Halliday is an author, homeschooler and the Chief Primatologist of The East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday

Steven Pinker Uses Theories from Evolutionary Biology to Explain Why Academic Writing is So Bad

I don’t know about other disciplines, but academic writing in the humanities has become notorious for its jargon-laden wordiness, tangled constructions, and seemingly deliberate vagary and obscurity. A popular demonstration of this comes via the University of Chicago’s academic sentence generator, which allows one to plug in a number of stock phrases, verbs, and “-tion” words to produce corkers like “The reification of post-capitalist hegemony is always already participating in the engendering of print culture” or “The discourse of the gaze gestures toward the linguistic construction of the gendered body"---the point, of course, being that the language of academia has become so meaningless that randomly generated sentences closely resemble and make as much sense as those pulled from the average journal article (a point well made by the so-called “Sokal hoax”).

There are many theories as to why this is so. Some say it’s several generations of scholars poorly imitating famously difficult writers like Hegel and Heidegger, Lacan and Derrida; others blame a host of postmodern -isms, with their politicized language games and sectarian schisms. A recent discussion cited scholarly vanity as the cause of incomprehensible academic prose. A more practical explanation holds that the publish or perish grind forces scholars to turn out derivative work at an unreasonable pace simply to keep their jobs, hence stuffing journals with rehashed arguments and fancy-sounding puffery that signifies little. In the above video, Harvard cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker offers his own theory, working with examples drawn from academic writing in psychology.

For Pinker, the tendency of academics to use “passives, abstractions, and ‘zombie nouns’” stems not primarily from “nefarious motives” or the desire to “sound sophisticated and recherché and try to bamboozle their readers with high-falutin’ verbiage.” He doesn’t deny that this takes place on occasion, but contra George Orwell’s claim in “Politics and the English Language” that bad writing generally hopes to disguise bad political and economic motives, Pinker defers to evolutionary biology, and refers to “mental habits” and the “mismatch between ordinary thinking and speaking and what we have to do as academics.” He goes on to explain, in some fairly academic terms, his theory of how our primate mind, which did not evolve to think thoughts about sociology or literary criticism, struggles to schematize “learned abstractions” that are not a part of everyday experience. It’s a plausible theory that doesn’t rule out other reasonable alternatives (like the perfectly straightforward claim that clear, concise writing poses a formidable challenge for academics as much as anyone else.)

Pinker’s talk was part of a larger Harvard conference called “Stylish Academic Writing” and sponsored by the Office of Faculty Development & Diversity. The full conference seems designed primarily as professional development for other academics, but layfolks may find much here of interest as well. See more talks from the conference, as well as a number of unrelated videos on good academic writing here. Or, for more amusement at the expense of clunky academic prose, see the results of the Philosophy and Literature bad writing contest, which ran from 1995-98 and turned up some almost shockingly unreadable sentences from a variety of scholarly texts.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Science & Cooking: Harvard’s Free Course on Making Cakes, Paella & Other Delicious Food

I can hardly think of a more appealing nexus of the sciences, for most of us and for obvious (and delicious) reasons, than food. Add a kind of engineering to the mix, and you get the study of cooking. Back in 2012, we featured the first few lectures from Harvard University's course Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to the Science of Soft MatterTheir collection of rigorous and entertaining presentations of that which we love to prepare and, even more so, to eat has since expanded to include one- to two-hour lectures delivered by sharp professors in cooperation with respected chefs and other food luminaries on culinary subjects like the science of sweets (featuring Flour Bakery's Joanne Chang), how to do cutting-edge modernist cuisine at home (featuring Nathan Myhrvold, who wrote an enormous book on it), and the relevance of microbes, misos, and olives (featuring David Chang of Momofuku fame). You can watch all of the lectures, in order, with the playlist embedded at the top of this post.

Alternatively, you can pick and choose from the complete list of Harvard's Science and Cooking lectures on Youtube or on iTunes. Some get deep into the natural workings of specific dishes, ingredients and preparation methods; others, like "The Science of Good Cooking" with a couple of editors from Cook's Illustrated, take a broader view. That lecture and others will certainly help build an intellectual framework for those of us who want to improve our cooking — and even those of us who can already cook decently, or at least reliably follow a recipe — but can't quite attain the next level without understanding exactly what happens when we flick on the heat. One school of thought holds that, to come off as reasonably skilled in the kitchen, you need only master one or two showcase meals. When asked to cook something, I, for instance, have tended to make paella almost every time, almost out of sheer habit. But now that I've found Raül Balam Ruscalleda's talk on the science of that traditional Spanish dish, I can see that I must now, on several levels, raise my game. View it below, and feel free to take notes alongside me. You can find Science and Cooking in our collection of 900 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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