Friday, April 2, 2010

Can colleges teach happiness? Can students learn it?

My college-age daughter visited Utah a couple of weeks ago. Her women's lacrosse team played Westminster's in a tournament. She had some challenging times in her first semester. She seemed much better. I said to her, "you seem much happier." She said, "Of course. I have friends now."

Happiness is a burgeoning field of research (my favorite book in the genre (of which I have read very few) is Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness) that is providing some counter-intuitive results about the roles of money, education, prosperity, and consumption in promoting or limiting happiness. The gist of many findings, at least as summarized in this recent New Yorker book review is that while much of our public policy is at least publicly committed to building happiness by limiting poverty, providing access to services, spreading justice equally through society, etc. many of those things are unlikely to bring about happiness.

Happiness studies are trickling into the curriculum (at Westminster mostly through an increased emphasis on positive psychology in intro psych courses) and much of our work in student support and retention is devoted in part to helping students feel happy.

I wonder whether it is possible to teach happiness. I suppose at one level it is simple--just offer a class on happiness in the way you would on history or child development or accounting. Students would learn a lot of interesting stuff about happiness; some may become happier.

Plenty of faculty would be opposed to such I course, I would guess, because the subject smacks of the sort of stuff served up on Dr. Phil and checkout counter magazines. Full-time jobs in higher ed (especially for faculty) have many of the trappings of happiness--good pay, good benefits, low stress (at least when compared to law enforcement, business, or customer service) and significant autonomy. But campuses can be home to a lot of unhappiness--dissatisfaction with work, poor relations with colleagues, grudges borne far too long.

And in the same way that teaching ethics courses doesn't necessarily improve the ethical behavior of students, should we expect that a course on happiness would make students happier? My daughter's experience brings me up short, as do the reports of increasing unwellness among college students. She is at school on a Christian campus with all of the trappings of student support, prosperity, and support systems favored in higher ed. But none of that, in her telling at this point, helped make her happy. Having friends did it.

A small center affiliated with Stanford University, the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education is taking a different approach, by teaching not happiness but compassion and the skills (especially meditation) that in theory bring it about. Their work is based on Buddhist views of the sources of compassion; they are now developing a curriculum on altruism. One of their hopes is that learning altruism will lead both to compassionate acts and to happier people.

So maybe the pathway to happiness in higher ed is to come at it sideways--don't teach a course on happiness, but do focus on altruism, and compassion, and satisfaction as goals. And find ways to understand and highlight the benefits of these things, many located in the co-curriculum, for the overall well-being of students, staff, and faculty.

Should we be doing this? Is it our responsibility to teach happiness? To help students learn it?


Bryce said...

On a very personal level, I believe campuses should "teach" or facilitate happiness. When I came back to Utah after being at school in NC I felt a lot of what your daughter seems to have felt during her first semester at school. It was hard, I hated school, and I think I made people around me miserable. So, stories like your daughter's resonate with me.

Moral arguments or emotional rhetoric aside, I think there are practical (and even financial) reasons why institutions should be concerned with student's happiness. Happy students stay on campus and happy students who stay on campus and graduate also have fond memories of their college years and are more likely to give back to their alma mater at some point in the future. It also seems to make sense that happy students are more productive students who learn more deeply and meaningfully, effectively furthering institutional aims related to learning and growth for students.

I'm not sure if you've seen Arthur Brooks work on happiness, but if not you might be interested ( His research has demonstrated that happiness comes in the back-door approach you describe at the end of your post. Most notably, people who give of their time and means are more happy, which leads to more productive lives (and, interestingly, increased financial wellbeing).

So, I think you're right in that happiness among students won't come through another course, campus lecture, or any sort of messaging. Rather, administrators need to provide opportunities for students to give, exercise compassion, or serve in meaningful ways.

Anonymous said...

At some point, educational administrators need to care as much about what their students are thinking as what they want their students to think.

Teaching students how to use their brains to find pathways of well-being would go a long way to helping them be happy. Teaching them that feelings (of happiness or whatever or not) have as much to do with what their thinking as anything. It would be enlightening and empowering for them.

One can only learn not to attach to things/events/outcomes, etc. that are painful when one understands how not to attach.

Serving, giving, friends are all wonderful tools. But the most important piece in the puzzle is the mind of the student.

Educating the mind with the keys to well-being strengthens the student and the system.