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She teaches happiness is a state of mind

Lizzie Casanave teaches philosophy at Northern Essex Community College, including "The Science of Happiness." North Shore Community College

Don’t worry, be happy.

Sounds simple enough. But, there is a science to it.

“It’s being able to rewire your brain,” said Lizzie Casanave, who teaches philosophy at Northern Essex Community College, which has campuses in Haverhill and Lawrence.

“It’s not just Pollyanna, be optimistic and have a happier outlook,” she said. “The brain creates certain channels. It’s like a riverbed: The more water that goes through it, the stronger, wider, and deeper it will be.

“If you can focus and create new thinking habits, you can become a happier person.”

Casanave, 45, of Arlington, has incorporated a workshop called “The Science of Happiness” into her philosophy classes. The premise is based on positive psychology, an approach that focuses on promoting people’s strengths rather than their weaknesses.


“You can alter your life by altering your attitude,” she said. “It’s not what happened to you, but how you think about it and react to it.”

Raised in Arkansas, Casanave attended the small liberal arts school Principia College in Illinois, earning a degree in philosophy, religion, and world perspectives. She also has a master’s degree in critical and creative thinking from University of Massachusetts Boston.

She moved up here to work at the Christian Science Monitor. She and her husband, David, have two boys, ages 16 and 9. She’s worked at Northern Essex for 10 years and has just joined the school’s speakers bureau.

In her classes she stresses gratitude, assigning students to write a journal citing several things they are grateful for each day.

“Some at first thought it was hokey, but they stuck with it and at the end said ‘I felt a shift in my thinking; what is good about something rather than what is bad about it.’ ”

She also stresses authenticity.

“It’s important to know yourself and understand how your own thinking works, and embrace it,” Casanave said. “If we were all the same, what a boring world it would be. Whatever package you come in, rock it.


“I am a big believer in helping educate the whole person. It’s not just the intellectual side but how students can flourish in life and feel good about themselves socially, morally, and physically.

“Preparing them for a job is important, but it’s more about how to be good at life.”

Wendy Killeen can be reached at wdkilleen@gmail.com.