Christian Giraldo had lost all hope of ever being happy. During two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, the former hospital corpsman tried to save others. When he received a medical discharge in 2010, he realized he couldn't even save himself.
Diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Giraldo felt overwhelmed with war-born guilt and shame. The 29-year-old sank into deep depression, nearly drowned himself in alcohol, and misused prescription drugs. A suicide attempt landed him in a psychiatric hospital for six months. It was a dark place. The demons didn't go away.
"I didn't think I was salvageable," Giraldo said. "I thought I was a horrible person."
Putting his life back together has been excruciatingly difficult. Despite the counsel of doctors, input from therapists and support groups, Giraldo said the only treatment that has really helped him is the semester he spent studying happiness at United Methodist-related Wesley College, Dover, Delaware. He is currently a nursing student there.
Course # HU210, Happiness, is taught every semester by Dr. Tony Armstrong—philosopher, "happiness education crusader," and author of Educating Angels: Teaching for The Pursuit of Happiness.
"Pursuing happiness requires training," Professor Armstrong said. "Part of the cure for depression, deprivation and disappointment is training ourselves to manage negative thoughts."
Armstrong's students discuss everything from accepting flaws and finding moments of appreciation to awareness of feelings and unconditional love.
Always first on the class agenda is dispelling misconceptions people have about living on the sunny side of the street.
"It's a myth that life circumstances control your happiness," the professor teaches. "It's not about money, getting a bigger house, a nicer car, looking younger or finding an ideal relationship. Those expectations just lead to a bottomless pit of disappointments."
Armstrong also debunks the conventional understanding of happiness being about "us" or the thinking that giving to others requires some kind of sacrifice.
"We shouldn't focus on our own happiness, but on the happiness of others," he said. "By playing a part in someone else's happiness, we make ourselves happy."
Another of Armstrong's happiness-seeking students believed she'd be happy if she could do what she wanted, find someone who loved her like she wanted to be loved, and accomplish what she always planned to accomplish.
Like Giraldo, fellow student Tykia McGriff was also going through a tough time when she signed up for the popular class. She said she was looking for "completeness."
"Now I've learned that happiness is in the moment," the psychology student said. "Happiness is hanging around with people who are good for me. It's letting go and not being so hard on myself. Most of all I feel best when I am helping other people."
Armstrong has always been a philosopher. His own search for happiness began with trying to understand what Jesus really meant when he talked about love. The deeper he searched, the more he discovered. Revelations came.
"They just fell from heaven," he said.
"I've always believed that love was key and the purpose of life. I believe Jesus was very clear about that. The pure experience of love combines both the greatest love and peace—the greatest happiness—we can know."
"When the experience of love is unpolluted with the fear and longing we usually attach to the word, we can begin to understand that the kind of love Jesus taught is agape."
The Rev. Cara Stultz Costello, co-pastor at Faith United Methodist Church, Canton, Ohio, added to Armstrong's message about happiness. Like Armstrong, she believes happiness is an inside job.
"We often begin looking outside of ourselves for the things that will make us happy," she said. "Soon after we discover that these external—these grabs at self-security—are all plastic."
These "plastic" things can't live up to our expectations so the sense of happiness goes flat, she explained.
John Wesley on Happiness
In this alone can you find the happiness you seek; in the union of your spirit with the Father of spirits; in the knowledge and love of Him who is the fountain of happiness, sufficient for all the souls he has made.
Sermon 77, "Spiritual Worship," III, 8,
on Board of Global Ministries website.
"In my life and work, I intentionally replace the word happiness with joy," she said. "Happiness is simply an evidence of joy. When we see happiness as the end result, we have stopped too soon. Joy is the fullness of God's intention for all of us."
As a counselor and comforter, Stultz Costello remembers the many times she's heard people in crisis say, "I have nothing to be happy about."
"Later," she said, "after having been stripped of the externals, after having even recognized that security is something on which they cannot rely upon the self to provide, they paradoxically come to joy. They say, 'The presence of God has been with me throughout my pain and despair. My relationship with God is pure joy.'"
When she counsels people with depression and disillusionment, she finds a common denominator.
"Most folks, who are not clear about their calling, their purpose, and their mission in life, experience diminished happiness," Stultz Costello said.
"Whether we are a sanitation worker, a nurse, a journalist or something else, there is no greater joy in life than living into God's call."
For Giraldo, good things are happening. He's a good husband and father, close to finishing school and looking forward to giving back—especially to other military vets who are suffering. He said he found happiness in Tony Armstrong's atypical college classroom.
"His class woke me up with a spiritual awakening that has been instrumental in my recovery," Giraldo said. "I never thought I'd be able to forgive and love myself."
"Now I can see occasional bursts of sunshine. Dr. Armstrong is a light in a dark world. I finally see hope."
This story was first published on January 21, 2015.