For several years around 2014, David McCormick spent a few weeks each summer teaching neuroscience to Buddhist monks in Tibetan monasteries in India. He brought back lessons in the nature of happiness.
“Even though people in rural India have, most of the time, far fewer material goods than we do—and certainly monks have very few material possessions—they appear to be much happier,” says McCormick, a Presidential Chair and director of the Institute of Neuroscience at the University of Oregon. “They’re much calmer, peaceful, connected, loving, kind.”
Each time McCormick returned to the US, he was jarred by the reintroduction to American attitudes. Despite this country’s advantages, he says—the abundance of food, clean hot or cold water with the turn of a faucet handle, reliable electricity—“our minds are a living hell.”
“We’ve convinced ourselves somehow that life is terrible and it’s getting worse,” says McCormick. There are certainly tremendous problems, he adds, “but we’ve lost the appreciation of life and a connection with the world around us.”
McCormick is now at the heart of a booming happiness enterprise at the UO, aiming to restore those connections and inspire students to examine how their minds mold reality. His science-based course, Happiness: A Neuroscience and Psychology Perspective, is one of the most popular electives on campus.
“A course like this is really needed—and that’s the most common comment I receive from students,” McCormick says. “They love the material. They love learning new ways to de-stress, to change their mindsets, to be happier and healthier. They love opening up and talking about how to engage in life with meaning and purpose. They tell their friends. Most of the tremendous growth has been word-of-mouth. This is not a required class for any major.”