Looking around the Stanford campus 15 years ago, Dr. Fred Luskin noticed success doesn't always lead to happiness. Luskin saw students there had already mastered academics, but he and a teaching partner decided that the prestigious school needed a happiness course.
"We really believed that these really super ambitious kids weren't happy enough," Luskin, the founder and director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects, told CBS Sports. "All the success in the world didn't give them happiness."
He taught the class for a decade and is now "semi-retired," but his job on campus isn't quite done yet.
"I'm still giving hippie, kind of peace lovin' granola to these students," Luskin said.
Stanford is one of the toughest universities in the U.S. to get into. The admission rate hit a record-low 3.95% for the Class of 2025, according to a report by The Stanford Daily. The school also has some of the top Division I athletic programs in the nation. Stanford teams have won at least one NCAA championship each academic year for 46 consecutive years.
Being an athlete there can bring a lot of pressure or opportunities, depending how you "frame it" -- which is one of Luskin's main teachings.
Five years ago, Stanford women's basketball coach Tara VanDerveer approached Luskin after he gave a talk to the Stanford athletic department. VanDerveer is one of the winningest coaches in college basketball history –- men's or women's. Only former Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski has more victories than her. Her team is highly successful, but she wanted to have an extra competitive edge.
"She started referring to me as the 'Happiness Professor,'" Luskin said.
Luskin began visiting the team for 10-15 minutes once a week, although he wasn't able to meet with them much during the COVID-19 pandemic because of health restrictions. He gives the team short lectures and leads in exercises such as meditation and imagery.
"I teach these basketball players and coaches that you want to like yourself whether you win or lose. You don't want to convince yourself that winning a basketball game is going to make you happy," Luskin said. "It's not that basketball is not important at all. It's that you are more important."
Luskin said there are multiple definitions of happiness, but he explained that at its core, it means knowing that your life is OK as it is and that you were "worthy of love from the moment you were born." For basketball, happiness can mean feeling peace during a free throw.
"Happiness is when you are about to take a free throw and you're bouncing the ball, you know you are going to be fine either way," Luskin said. "If the shot goes in, that's wonderful and your team wins. If the shot doesn't go in, that's not so good, but your future is fine and your life is fine."
Luskin said VanDerveer has built a positive culture off the court, which leads to consistent success on the court -- including a national championship in 2021.
Luskin described VanDerveer as "an extraordinary coach," but he said one of the most impressive moments was watching her during a low point when Oregon beat Stanford at home a few years ago. He didn't specify the exact game, but he likely meant Feb. 10, 2019, when the Cardinal swallowed an 88-48 loss at Maples Pavilion.
"She was embarrassed. It was at home and they got beaten badly. She went into the locker room and you could tell that this was not a happy place for her, but she didn't single out a single player, ever, for criticism," Luskin recounted. "She told the team, 'There will be changes, but I also want to apologize to you because obviously we didn't prepare you well as a coaching staff.'
"I thought, 'Wow what a leader.'"
Luskin said another major part of happiness in basketball is learning how to form good relationships with coaches and teammates. He practices that skill by sometimes shooting around with the players to gain their trust. When he is trying to get to know a player better, he'll ask them to play a game of horse with him.
Luskin said he mostly focuses on addressing the team as a whole, but sometimes there are players who reach out more and stay in touch long after they leave the program. One of them has been Kiana Williams, who graduated from Stanford in 2021 and went on to play in the WNBA.
"She befriended me as an 18-year-old freshman my first day showing up at practice. There was a circle where everybody went to the middle of the floor and Tara brought me in to introduce me," Luskin said. "Kiana went out of her way to tell me, 'Hey Fred, come stand next to me.' She welcomed me in and told everybody, 'Let's listen to the happiness guy.' I was so touched by that."
Luskin said he tries to remember moments like that for each player he teaches. He said his role is to not criticize them or worry about how good they are at basketball. Instead, he tried tries to find their strengths and focuses on moments in which they show kindness and good sportsmanship.
He tries to teach them to have the same attitude with their teammates. Luskin said one of the exercises he has them do is remember when a teammate went out of their way to help them, or remember a time in which they felt good because of someone else's accomplishments. One of the players that he thinks has already embraced this skill is preseason AP All-American Haley Jones.
"I've watched Haley in practice get a delight from passing. I've seen her work on behind the back passes, over the shoulder passes," Luskin said. "She gets this big smile about it."
Jones brought up Luskin during Pac-12 media day and said that the stuff he's taught her team is something she'll be thinking about through the entire season.
"Helps us keep things in perspective, helps a lot with your approach to the game and realizing that you have more identity than just a basketball player," Jones said. "I think coming (into) my senior year having more of this wholesome perspective, I'm really excited to just enjoy my season at Stanford."
Cameron Brink, another preseason AP All-American, led the team last season in scoring, rebounding and blocks. Luskin said her personality is different from Jones' but emphasized that they both know how to downplay their individual achievements to focus on the success of the whole team.
"Cam is more intense in certain ways. She knows that intensity is one of her strengths," Luskin said. "I'm going to say Haley is a little more of the Santa Cruz, laid back kind of mentality, but they are both hard working, not prima donna at all. They are wonderful cogs in a bigger picture."
Luskin said he will be asking Brink to play horse with him soon. He is also starting to attend coaches meetings on Fridays to learn more about them and their communication styles. The "Happiness Professor" said he is excited to be able to meet with the team more consistently again, adding that he feels very fortunate that VanDerveer invited him to be a small part of it all.
"I make it clear with everybody, I can be a very limited use to you about basketball, but I can help you with your mind and heart," Luskin said.