Pursuit of Happiness

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For many American high school students, an ideal senior trip would be to Cancún to soak up sun and suck down margaritas. But seniors at Watsonville, California's Mount Madonna High, a private school founded on yogic principles laid down by Baba Hari Dass (a master yogi who has not spoken in over half a century), recently proved there are better ways to polish off that golden year. This past March, the senior class of 14 flew to India, meeting with spiritual and political leaders including the Dalai Lama, Delhi Peace Summit chairperson Nirmala Deshpande, and even the country's president, Abdul Kalam. Their goal? To discover what it means to be truly happy. "If we're going to change the course of our world," says Sadanand Ward Mailliard, the students' teacher, "we have to get kids thinking ethically and creatively."

The unprecedented voyage was part of the Dalai Lama Foundation's project to use the Dalai Lama's 1999 book, Ethics for a New Millennium, as a springboard for discussion among the California students, Tibetan students in exile, and Nigerian teens. The students also helped create a high school curriculum, which has been requested by schools around the globe. It explores ways of bringing values like compassion into societies worldwide without involving religion.

Before they went to India, some of the Mount Madonna students admitted to a case of travel jitters—only two had been to the subcontinent before. But afterward, they reported having a blast, and quite a few said it had inspired them to dedicate themselves to helping others. "I think every American should travel to a third-world country," senior Emily Crubaugh says. "It showed me how much we have to be grateful for."

A longtime yogi, Mailliard says Project Happiness is testimony to the yogic adage that pure intention leads to good results. For the last 15 years, Mailliard has been engaging students in critical discussions on values and ethics, hoping to inspire meaningful career choices. Then last year, the Dalai Lama Foundation asked Mount Madonna to help with Project Happiness. Through both organizations' broad connections, the project quickly snowballed into an international multimedia event.

Before they even arrived in India, the Mount Madonna students had found themselves in face-to-face interviews asking U.S. House members Sam Farr and Dennis Kucinich and actor Richard Gere (to name a few) what lasting happiness means. The responses were videotaped for a student-made documentary that will be used in the curriculum. The students also built a website that they used before the trip to communicate with the Nigerian and Tibetan students.

With a documentary film crew in tow, the seniors traveled to meet the Nigerians in the holy city of Haridwar, and then to Dharamsala, where they met the Tibetans. "We were amazed by how similar we all were," says senior Jonji Barber. "It was so easy to get along."

Students say the highlights varied: meeting with Indian orphans, lounging in the president's palace, singing American pop songs with the Tibetans. And several noted the surprising answer the Dalai Lama gave to their stump question: "What does lasting happiness mean to you?"

"For me personally," the Dalai Lama replied, "I don't know."

"It was the perfect answer," says senior John Vissell. "It validated what a lot of us have found: Happiness can't be defined. Each person has to find it individually."

In 2008, PBS will air Project Happiness, a feature-length film documenting the Mount Madonna High School seniors' 10-day trip. Check local listings for times, or go to projecthappiness.com for more information.