Happiness and the Liberal Arts: Three Movements
April 14, 2010
▷ Hear These Remarks
May I be well; may I be happy; may I be free from suffering.
May you be well; may you be happy; may you be free from suffering.
May all be well; may all be happy; may all be free from suffering.
It is a curious fact that the word "happiness" does not appear in Illinois Wesleyan's
mission statement. Seemingly, we want you to be creative, critical, and inquisitive,
but not necessarily to be happy. We want you to be citizens in a democracy and a
global society, but not necessarily on top of the world. We want you to have specialized
knowledge and a comprehensive worldview, but not necessarily a cheerful outlook.
Now as someone who played a part in the process by which our current mission statement
was put together, I know as well as anyone that it is unfair to use the phrase "we
want," suggesting that there was some single conscious intelligence with coherent
and discernible motives for including things or leaving them out. As is no doubt
true for most mission statements, our mission was the result of a long communal process
full of arguments over ideals, special interest pleading, compromises, and writing
by committee. Still, no one pled for happiness as a special interest, and so far as
I can remember happiness was not among the ideals anyone argued for. It simply didn't
We are not alone in this omission (if omission it is). None of the small liberal
arts colleges to which we ordinarily compare ourselves, either our peer group or our
aspirant group, mention happiness in their mission statements. In my unsystematic
survey of the other schools I could think of where the liberal arts have a central
place, only two use the words "happy" or "happiness" in their mission statements.
Colby College aspires to graduate students who are "happy with themselves," which
hardly seems to count given the narrowness of the word's application. Only Duke University
mentions happiness as an ideal in itself: Duke's mission calls upon the university
to "[pursue] those areas of teaching and scholarship that would…promote human happiness."
Even here it's ambiguous whether this means that its graduates should be happy themselves,
or that they should simply provide happiness to others.
The lesson to be learned from the omission of happiness from our mission statement,
then—aside from the fact that mission statements are by nature porous and reductive
documents that do not by any means capture the totality of our ideals—(heed who must)—the
lesson is that happiness is not a concept that has prominence or currency in our nation's
ongoing discussion of what the liberal arts should be or should do. If there is a
"we" who does not consider happiness our mission, it is liberal arts colleges and
universities in general. And that, as I say, is a curious thing. We all strive for
happiness; many have said that it is the central motivating principle behind all human
action. Is it really no part of a liberal education? And if not, why not?
To pursue these questions, let me continue using this unjustifiable "we" for a moment.
If there were a "we" that consciously chose not to include happiness in our mission,
what might "our" reasons be? As I see it, there are a number of evident possibilities.
The first is that while the goal of happiness might be worthy, it is not achievable.
Perhaps it's too insubstantial, too ideal, too abstract. But this objection would
surely apply to "creativity" and "strength of character," both of them a part of our
mission, and anyway it would surely be a very sad thing if a university, of all places,
didn't recognize the value of ideals and abstractions. Perhaps happiness is unachievable
in another sense: as something that one is simply born with, or born without, and
therefore unalterable. At one time, this was the predominant view of psychologists.
Research by Brickman, Coates and Janoff-Bulman, for example, showed that lottery winners,
after a year or so, go right back to being just about as happy as they were before
they won the lottery. Even more strikingly, the same is true of people who are paralyzed
in accidents; within a few years they are only slightly less happy than the general
population. Studies like these seemed to suggest to psychologists that happiness
has a set point. If you are born happy, you'll stay happy regardless of what happens,
and if you are born unhappy, you're just out of luck. Recent research has modified
the set point theory considerably, however. It now appears that our genetic disposition
for happiness only accounts for about half of the happiness we feel: 10% is accounted
for by circumstances--it does matter a little bit whether you win the lottery or become
paralyzed--and about 40% is determined by intentional activity. You're born with
a set point for happiness, in other words, but what you do in life can raise or lower
that set point significantly. So if "our" reason for excluding happiness from our
mission is that achieving it is impossible, we're wrong.
Another possibility is that happiness is simply not important. It's all very well
if you're happy, this line of reasoning goes, but what really matters is--and then
you can fill in the blank however you like. What matters is truth. What matters is
morality. Having some kind of higher purpose. Scientia and/or sapientia. And so
on. A better scholar than I could probably trace this view deep into the church roots
of the liberal arts university, not just to the Wesleyan traditions maintained in
our name but much further back to the medieval university, closely tied to the church
and foundational for the liberal arts in the modern era. In the church-affiliated
model of the university, learning is always in the service of something higher, and
happiness a reward, more likely after death than before, and paid for with a life
of devotion and self-sacrifice. Today, however, schools whose missions are centrally
and explicitly religious are more likely to mention happiness in their mission statements
than are liberal arts colleges. And it seems to me that this devaluation of happiness
persists now mainly in a secular form such that happiness is considered suspect without
actually being secondary to a positive ideal. As Ursula LeGuin says, "we have a bad
habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something
rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting."
There are a number of ways to refute the view that happiness is unimportant. One
can dispute the premise outright, for example by following Aristotle, who in Nichomachean
Ethics claims that only happiness is something we choose "always for itself and never
for the sake of anything else," whereas other goods—among them virtue and reason—we
choose for themselves but also for the sake of happiness. Alternatively, one can
argue that even if happiness is secondary to a higher end such as, say, morality,
happiness is still important as a means to the higher end. One could infer this,
for example, from a study by Fowler and Christakis that showed that happiness is contagious:
if I am happy, a close friend or family member living within a half mile of me is
42% more likely to be happy than if I am not. This effect holds over several degrees
of separation: a friend of a friend is 15% more likely to be happy if I am, and a
friend of a friend of a friend is 9% more likely. Having a friend of a friend of
a friend who is happy increases your chances of happiness more than gaining $5000.
One might infer from this that trying to be happy is a moral act, or even that we
have a moral obligation to try to be happy.
But the reasoning that I find most salient to the question of whether happiness is
important is simply this. Our mission statement, like most, isn't focused on a single
ideal, it's a grab bag of several: critical thinking, a spirit of inquiry, social
justice, and so on. So even if one wanted to say that happiness is less important
to the liberal arts than, say, truth--which also doesn't appear in our mission statement--it's
quite another to suggest that it doesn't make the top dozen or so. I suspect that
if you walked up to a random group of students, alumni or faculty and asked them to
rank in importance happiness and every key phrase in our mission statement, happiness
would come out near the top for just about everyone.
This brings us to the third possibility why our fictional "we" might have chosen to
exclude happiness from the liberal arts mission: that happiness is actually antithetical
to liberal education in one way or another. It could be, for example, that happiness
suggests a condition of stasis or complacency that would decrease our desire to strive
for a better life. This version is relatively easy to refute, because it presumes
that happiness itself does not require striving, a premise disputed by thinkers both
ancient and modern. The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, though he defines happiness
in terms of pleasure, insists that pursuing happiness requires "sober reasoning, searching
out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through
which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul." Buddhist doctrine goes further,
teaching that happiness requires an intensive life discipline of right beliefs, right
intentions, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness,
and right concentration. My own admittedly sketchy survey of modern positive psychology
suggests that the best scientific evidence confirms that increasing happiness is a
complex, multi-faceted task requiring a great deal of effort in a number of different
domains: strengthening relationships, finding activities in which one can find that
state of immersion called "flow," fostering positive emotions like optimism and gratitude,
contributing to something larger than oneself, savoring pleasant moments rather than
just rushing through them, exercising, eating well, committing to goals, and so on.
By any account, becoming and staying happy is hard work, and in no way inimical to
A stronger version of the premise that happiness is antithetical to the liberal arts
is that happiness in itself is not the problem; rather, the apparent means to the
end of happiness is the problem. If ignorance is bliss, for example, then logically
at least some forms of happiness must entail ignorance, something that no university
would include in its mission statement as a positive value. This version of the third
possibility is difficult to assess. There is some evidence to suggest that pessimists,
or even more tellingly people who are depressed, are more accurate in their assessments
than optimistic or non-depressed people. The phenomenon is called "depressive realism."
In general, the theory goes, happy people are more susceptible to effects like optimism
bias and the illusion of control than unhappy ones are. But from what I can tell,
the jury is still out on depressive realism. Some positive psychologists accept the
theory, and counter it with the claim that positive illusions are adaptive nonetheless.
But other psychologists argue that the effect only applies to trivial situations,
or that depressed people actually overlook more contextual information than non-depressed
people do and are no more accurate in their assessments overall. At the very least,
the relationship between happiness and truth is best expressed as a question, not
as an assumption. Indeed, I would make the same point about all the possible objections
to happiness as a goal for the liberal arts university: whether happiness is achievable,
whether it is important, whether it furthers striving or hinders it, whether it in
league with truth or opposed to it--these are all questions, important intellectual
and life questions, and as such precisely fitted, in my view, to the mission of a
liberal arts university.
So--am I making the case to include happiness in our mission statement? Well, if
I were the philosopher king in charge of rewriting mission statements, a post I do
not by any means aspire to, then, yes, I would probably work happiness in there somewhere.
But I would also want to include truth, history, and beauty--none of which appear
in our mission statement either. I have my own views of what our mission should be,
but I said at the beginning that it is curious that happiness does not appear in our
mission statement, not that it is particularly reprehensible.
What I really want to figure out, in asking whether the liberal arts ought to aspire
to foster happiness, is what to expect of myself. I am acutely aware of and grateful
for the honor done to me today. That awareness and gratitude makes me think about
what I have to give back. And for whatever reason--maybe because in a time of war
and economic hardship happiness seems especially valuable, or more personally because
I know too well I have often been unable to bring happiness to those I have most wanted
to make happy--for whatever reason, it matters to me now, in this time and place,
whether one of the things I have to give back is happiness. Have I helped my students
become happy? Is it possible? Is it even something I want to do?
Dear fictional student writing back to Illinois Wesleyan after some years out in the
Hey--good to hear from you! I'm glad you're doing so well, and even glad that you've
had to work so hard at it. I'm not surprised. I always knew you had it in you--and
much more still to come.
Something you wrote has stuck with me. It was just an offhand remark, a joke, really:
"I don't know if making us happy was exactly what you were trying to do in that class."
That made me think. Was I trying to make you happy? Have I ever tried to make my
I have said to you many times, as I have said to hundreds of students over the years,
"I'm happy if you're happy." It was always at the end of a conference about one of
your papers, and as often as not our discussion had led to the point where you had
to scrap pretty much everything in your draft but the kernel of some idea. So sometimes
you said, or wanted to say, "I'm not that happy." But sometimes we had worked through
all that, to some new version of the idea that was more ambitious, better argued,
and it was clear to both of us that, hey, this could be good. And all you had to
do was go write another paper, pretty much from scratch, that was harder and longer
than the first one, knowing full well that this one might not work out either…so when
I said, "I'm happy if you're happy," you said, "I'm happy." And even if what I really
meant was, "you've made progress, now please stop making my brain hurt," and even
if what you really meant was "I've made progress, but my brain hurts too much to continue,"
I nevertheless believe that you were happy, and I was happy. I want to believe you
were happy because you saw a way to make something good, and because the something
good was something that you yourself made. I was happy…for the same reason. We both
suffered immensely in pursuit of that small moment of happiness, and I suppose that
what has made the cost bearable to me was the belief that such moments would be self-replicating
throughout the rest of your life.
So in that sense I wanted to make you happy. But I wanted more than that, and some
of what I wanted for you was surely happiness. I am a teacher of English, of literature,
one of the liberal arts. Literature is in essence play: The essence of poetry is
play with words and images, flying along with "morning's minion, king-/dom of daylight's
dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon" and other fabulous linguistic birds. The essence
of fiction is play with pretend worlds, an infinite dress-up party in which we can
learn from wise talking horses, argue with monsters about natural rights, wake up
as a giant cockroach, or shrink to ten inches high with a sip from a bottle that says,
"drink me." In truth, the whole of the liberal arts is play, by definition that which
is undertaken for its own sake and not in the service of a practical goal. Play is
fun, but one need only watch a child playing on the lawn, or for that matter a scientist
engaged in pure research, to realize that there is more in play than just fun, or
that fun is deeper than we think: play is the joy of using oneself fully, stretching
the limits of one's mind and muscles, losing oneself in the flow of the moment. And
since play always involves a superimposition of the imagined on the real, play is
the joy of freedom, of being able to move around in infinite space. I wanted you
to have that happiness as well.
But I think that much of what else I wanted for you wasn't happiness itself--it was
something that surrounds happiness, curls around it, anchors it and deepens it. I
wanted you, first of all, to be rooted in time. When we struggled to understand the
historical context of some lines in Dryden or Pope, or followed the evolution of women's
poetry in America from Anne Bradstreet to Adrienne Rich, I wanted you to feel what
literature has always made me feel, the depth and weight of the history and culture
that runs through us and makes us who we are. And when I paused after reading some
lyrical passage in Zora Neale Hurston or William Faulkner, it wasn't just to let you
think about whatever question I was asking, it was to give you a moment with the beauty
and sublimity of the language. There is pleasure in the appreciation of beauty, whether
the beauty of a Remedios Varo painting or of a mathematical proof, but there is also
awe, a sense of some rightness that is as deep and as old as living creatures' sentience
on earth. And for the higher gradients of happiness, where contentment and pleasure
shade into joy, depth and weight are necessary; awe is necessary.
It is true that I have asked you to read many books that have been depressing: books
in which the main character is reduced to madness, books in which everyone dies, books
in which banal oppression triumphs over freedom and creativity. I can scarcely think
of a narrative I have ever taught which didn't have some tragedy in it. But I have
offered you this gift not to make you sad yourself, not primarily to serve as warning,
not only for the sake of the ideas. I have offered it to make happiness, when it
comes to you, mean something. This is the human condition: you can lose everything--love,
pride, health, sanity, life. But if you know that, if you feel your kinship with
all human beings vulnerable to suffering just like you, then you can also feel your
connection to the joy that sounds in a song or a symphony, that reaches skywards in
the Gothic arch and the Doric column. "For each ecstatic moment," writes Emily Dickinson,
an anguish pay
In keen and quivering ratio
To the ecstasy.
But I would add that we can get what we pay for, if we are open to it.
It is true as well, true most of all, that I have tried to pull the rug out from under
you: that I like modernism and postmodernism and poems with six levels of irony and
science fiction that calls into question what it means to be human and literary theory
that demolishes the very tools it has used in the demolishing, that I am partial to
Wallace Stevens and Doris Lessing and Djuna Barnes and Thomas Pynchon and other masters
of turning the world upside down, all to get you to one or another version of that
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
But this mayhem and chaos I have inflicted upon you, that I have inflicted upon myself
for as long as I can remember reading, has always been partly in the service of happiness.
The lesson of winter is spring; the lesson of the drowned king is that
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
When things fall apart, humans build; when you are over the abyss, you learn to fly.
That's human nature too. I wanted that for you, without ever saying as much.
Without ever saying as much. These are not the kinds of things one says about teaching.
It may be, fictional student, that these are things one is not supposed to say. It
seems to me sometimes that we are OK with the search for happiness just so long as
we never admit that's what we're doing. Acknowledging that search openly makes us
feel uncomfortable, vulnerable. It is a terrible responsibility, the responsibility
to be happy, even more terrifying than the responsibility to make others happy.
During those times in life when we cannot find happiness, or give it, we feel culpable.
In the moments when we do find joy, it feels as if we're leaving others behind in
some way, as if we just have to admit that we can't explain this, and even though
we know that others too have felt happiness, we can never fully share it; we're afraid
to let it show; we can only point and hint and hope that's enough, or maybe just hide
it altogether. It may be that after all it is only polite not to speak of happiness.
In which case, fictional student, take this closing as mere ceremony: be well, be