Get Happy

A critical look at college happiness movements
YDNMApril01
Photo by Jacob Geiger.

On West 113th Street, on a hill in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights neighborhood, the former convent of the Community of the Holy Spirit is undergoing construction. Men in soiled boots and orange hats move in and out of the jungle gym of scaffolding that encloses the brownstone. Behind the black construction fabric, I make out the white façade and red doors that match those from a photo I saw on the Columbia Student Wellness Project’s (SWP) website. The image accompanied an announcement, which urged, “Live well. Apply to live in the Wellness House.”

The nuns have moved to a different neighborhood, and the brownstone now belongs to Columbia University. For this college in the city, 2012 was a year of emotional tumult, with the October suicide of junior Tina Bu rousing her fellow students to talk more openly about stress, alienation and mental health. Underground forums gathered and organizations like SWP formed to address student wellness on campus.

This autumn, the third floor of the former convent on West 113th Street will house a small group of students who were chosen out of 82 applicants to live in the brownstone. The students will have wood floors in their bedrooms, will enjoy fireplaces and bow windows, and have access to a kitchen in the basement. More importantly, the announcement emphasizes that the home’s residents will have the space to form a “warm, supportive, and welcoming community.”

The Wellness House, the white brownstone with red doors and a still-empty interior, is perhaps the largest and most tactile product of a trend that’s also been quietly on the upswing here at Yale: our very own happiness movement. The evidence on our campus is not of stone or cement but can be found instead in the stacks of publications outside dining halls, on the cluttered bulletin boards on Cross Campus and, of course, on our Facebook news feeds. These are the places you’ll see a budding contingent of student groups with something in common: they want you to think more about being happy.

But on a windy spring morning, it’s my presiding skepticism that brings me down the Metro-North rail to the sidewalk in front of SWP’s latest project. I’d always thought that one only stumbled upon happiness by aiming for something else — that by making happiness the goal, we’d automatically prevent ourselves from ever reaching it. Could the deliberate, the regimented and the academic approaches to happiness on our campus actually help us come closer to achieving this most elusive state? Or is the quest for happiness turning into one more checkbox on an already long list?

 

The conversation about happiness on college campuses often takes on the form of lists or the language of statistics. In 2011, Newsweek ranked Yale first in a listing of the happiest college campuses. A 2009 American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment reported that almost 30 percent of students experienced depression so painful that it was “difficult to function.” Such facts do little to capture the group of thinking, breathing and feeling people they’re meant to describe. The data that ring true and familiar, rather, tend to be those that resist metric calibration. In May of 2012, Yale lost Zachary Brunt ’15 to suicide. Six months ago, a student anonymously posted on YaleFML, “One month into freshman year and Yale is already making me feel so, so inferior.”

At least intuitively, it’s always seemed to me that the body of rules and rituals adopted purely for the purpose of making us happy is, from the outset, doomed to failure. I’ve struggled with anxiety for a few years now, but doing exercises to reassure myself that “things will be okay” has always struck me as contrived.  Once, on a day when I’d woken up beneath that dim cloud of worry, a friend pulled out her notebook and began to draw what looked like a flow chart. At the top, she wrote four broad things she wanted out of life. From these four desires she drew branching lines and wrote more specific desires within each of the four broad ones. By the time her pen reached the bottom of the page, she had derived several concrete steps to take towards her goals. I thanked her, but I couldn’t help but think that her chart somehow grandly missed the point. My fears about the future seemed too large and amorphous to reduce to a short list. The method seemed like it would provide just a temporary form of relief that would quickly be eclipsed by reality.

One of today’s best-known advocates of a regimented approach to happiness is, in fact, a Yalie. Not long after I arrange to speak with Gretchen Rubin ’88 LAW ’94 about her best-selling book “The Happiness Project,” in which she spends a year test-driving modern and ancient wisdom about how to attain happiness, I receive an email with the subject line “Happiness Project monthly newsletter.” Skimming the email I catch the words “What you can do to be happier right now,” “7 tips for bringing the pleasure of art into everyday life” and “Yippee-yiy-yay.” The newsletter also says that Oprah.com, that eternal well of self-help wisdom, called Rubin’s newest book, “Happiness at Home,” “a must-read.” My skepticism only deepens.

Surprisingly, Rubin’s voice on the phone is serious and composed, not the bubbly effervescence reflected in the chipper words of her blog. While in college, Rubin rarely considered the question of whether or not she was happy or if she could do anything to make herself happier, behavior she now deems “the dog that didn’t bark.” The question of personal fulfillment and satisfaction, she recalls, didn’t occupy much of the campus conversation.

Rubin’s book, published in 2009, has spent over 100 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, and its popularity is consistent with the country’s burgeoning interest in positive psychology, the deliberate study of how to be happy. A great portion of the letters Rubin receives are from college students, and some professors even assign “The Happiness Project” to their classes. Theories explaining its appeal to our age group note increased awareness of personal satisfaction in the workplace and the psychological effect of our time’s economic uncertainty also gets an obligatory airing. The question “What do I want out of life?”, a question Rubin rarely asked herself in college, is asked so frequently today that it’s almost become cliché, perhaps symptomatic of our generation’s more individualistic bent. It makes sense that this movement, increasingly popular on college campuses, should spread to Ivy League schools, which are known for their cultures of stress and competition.

On a frigid Tuesday night in February, a group of 10 students meets for dinner in a room in Slifka. The night’s conversation, moderated by Daniel First ’14, asks, “What is the role of philosophy in happiness?” A religious studies major and an economics major sit across from me, a cognitive science major is on my left and a physics major sits near the end of the table. This gathering is hosted by Flourish, a new journal publication that sets out to understand how different fields and disciplines approach “the good life.” Twenty-five students contributed papers to Flourish’s first issue — that is to say, even when students are immersed in academic work during the day, the idea of doing additional research isn’t unappealing when the subject of study is our happiness.

First has a deeply religious Orthodox Jewish background; he transferred to Yale from Yeshiva University, a school in New York whose motto “Torah umadda” means “Torah and secular knowledge.” There, the students study the Talmud, thinking about how to translate the text’s conception of happiness and the good life into their own rules to live by. It was typical of professors at Yeshiva not only to teach the class material but also to offer their values or perspectives on life. Most of the forums at Yale, First notes, don’t address topics like finding the good life. Leaving out a few eccentric exceptions, most professors refrain from sharing their worldviews during class time.

A broader and more interesting explanation of why we’re drawn to practices espoused by positive psychology relates to another trope of our age — the post-religious and relativist climate many of us have grown up in. We’ve lost our sense of awe, the sociologists say. And, at a place of learning, it’s possible that the disappearance of religion from our rhetoric has left room for new ways to grapple with the larger questions — for instance, the individual search for meaning, happiness and the good life.

 

One November evening last semester, in the cold days leading to finals period, Linsly-Chittenden 101 was filled to capacity with students sitting cross-legged in the aisles and crammed into doorways. They weren’t there for a class or for any required purpose — they were there to partake in a panel discussion presented by the magazine Vita Bella! that sought to address “Fear and Living the Meaningful Life.” The panel included philosophy professor Shelly Kagan, psychology professor Laurie Santos and mathematics professor Michael Frame. Santos said in an email that her main concern following the discussion was how relevant this question of a meaningful life is to Yale students. She agrees that forums for such questions are scarce and hopes to teach a lecture class that will address how psychological research can inform the way we think about happiness.

Harvard has a history of such classes. In the early 2000s, Tal Ben-Shahar’s renowned “Positive Psychology” class drew 845 people, according to a 2006 Crimson article. During a session of Ellen Langer’s GRD ’74 “Health Psychology,” a Harvard class similar to “Positive Psychology,” the class watched a video clip from one of Langer’s experiments. The study placed elderly people inside of a house with an environment fashioned to resemble one from two decades earlier. The age experiment seemed to show that talking, acting and living as if they were younger restored qualities of youth in the subjects, such as physical strength and vigor.

One segment of the video, sophomore Annie Giebelhaus remembers, zoomed in on the subjects as they struggled to move their suitcases up a flight of stairs. Some elderly participants stopped trying altogether, but others divided up their luggage piecemeal, eventually reaching the top flight with all of their belongings. For Giebelhaus, that lecture’s takeaway focused on overcoming your fears, allowing yourself to believe that you can accomplish a difficult task by breaking up its steps into manageable parts. She doesn’t hesitate to say that this principle can be applied, for instance, when speaking up in class seems intimidating or when she’s training on the varsity track team.

Near the end of our conversation, Giebelhaus jokingly wonders if “Health Psychology” would attract more students if its listing in the course catalogue appeared as “Secrets to Happiness.” But do the means to happiness lie in simply making small behavioral adjustments that are based on what you’ve learned in a class? The working definition of happiness espoused by some positive psychologists alludes to feelings of joy and satisfaction combined with the feeling that one’s life is purposeful. It’s not a far stretch to see how stress from school, pressure from extracurriculars and feelings of loneliness tend to brush elbows with more existential worries — where do I belong? What should I strive for? (Is it even worth trying?)

 

But I’m still unsure of whether or not this crop of clubs targeting happiness — as a subject of study or a subject of desire — can deliver. There is an implicit irony in SWP’s decision to schedule and plan a Random Acts of Kindness Week. Barbara Ehrenreich, who bitingly critiques the positive psychology movement in her book “Bright-sided,” believes that such steadfast dedication to “being positive” breeds, among other ills, a morbid obsession with smothering the negative. Phenomena like Yale Compliments run the risk of mutating the object of pursuit into something else — another burden or a prize to show off.

The most obvious irony of studying or promoting happiness through extracurriculars is that these activities themselves can induce more stress, aggravating the cycle they’re meant to relieve. Columbia senior Steven Castellano says that during SWP’s early stages, the group found itself adding to the manic horde of activities on campus. Then the group hit on a new idea: instead of only holding events that students would need to fit into already packed schedules, SWP’s members decided to go straight to the students. They storm the library during midterms, passing out tea bags and candy with encouraging words. They roll a large whiteboard onto the central lawn and encourage passing students to write positive notes on it.

Some happiness groups at Yale have also adopted this model of delivering surprise bursts of pleasure. Yale Compliments once dominated students’ news feeds, showering users with anonymous words of praise or confessions of love. HappyHap, a publication and website founded by Sunnie Tolle ’12, included a Web platform that let users dedicate a happy video or message to someone. Its members once delivered 500 flowers to students across campus. “Sharing happiness is easy,” the HappyHap website says.

The positive psychology definition of happiness, we should note, demands more than a mood of contentment or joy. Aspiring to happiness also means aspiring to a life imbued with meaning and worth, and based on the worries voiced during the Vita Bella! panel, this burden feels not only demanding but also troublingly vague. Not long ago, I was doing homework at a coffee shop when I felt something light hit my left elbow. It was a yellow packet of Splenda, and above “Splenda” someone had written, “Joy Shan is sweet like ___.” I confess that I was soaring as I walked home that night. But even as I smiled at strangers and skipped up the stairs, a voice in the back of my mind reminded me that this happiness could very well just be a temporary state of being, contingent on a chance occurrence. Was it nothing more than a mood?

A chief principle of positive psychology is the role of mindfulness in finding happiness — that concentrating on what makes you happy can make you better at being happy. I’ve slowly awakened to the fact that I cannot try to understand the happiness movement without reluctantly joining in myself. The profound contentment that has followed has made me deeply suspicious that I’m simply deluding myself.

A common theme that pervades Langer’s research is the effectiveness of placeboes. Part of me finds this analogy, comparing the rituals and practices to find happiness to a placebo, somewhat unsettling. Placeboes, after all, don’t have properties that actually cure the disease. The analogy also hints at the possibility that I may, in fact, be deluding myself in some way, accepting a veil that hides the actual state of things. (Another part of me wants to tell the doubt, “Screw it.”) Perhaps in the case of happiness, it’s hard to differentiate between imagining that you’re happy and actually being happy. Rubin acknowledges that when she’s lying in bed at the end of the day, she’s still at about the same level of happiness as she always was: a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest. Her experience of life is better — less boredom, less anger, more fun — but the 7 is part of her nature.

At the Flourish meeting, I learn of a colloquial joke called philosopher’s depression, which, in terse terms, is a suspicion — frequently on the part of thinkers — that every quest is meaningless from the beginning. It is the terrifying suspicion of a norm, a norm that would nullify all hope and all striving. How many of us have been here? Such a suspicion would make the work of happiness groups, then, feel only like bland little distractions. Lately, though, I wonder if the products of these happiness groups — the anonymous compliments, the regimented exercises in positive thinking — do more than simply create a good mood. Perhaps they also briefly reveal the state of things, a state that is good. If the trope of our generation is true, if our framing of the world is relativist without the comfort of a grand designer, these brief hints at a wonderful norm are incredibly reassuring.

Members of the group InspireYale, “an initiation for spreading a happiness revolution,” parked themselves on Old Campus one morning in March. Blocks of frozen snow still dotted the grass, but groups of friends lingered outside on their way back from brunch. InspireYale was filming a video for release in April in which students were asked, “If you could talk on the phone with yourself from five years ago for 30 seconds, what would you say?” Some students urged their past selves to break up with a girlfriend, to sleep more or to get a haircut. The overwhelming response, however, was something along the vein of, “I know you’re scared and worried about the future. But things will work out, and everything will be okay.” It’s the same statement I repeated to myself in the past, but this time, I can’t help but believe that it’s actually true.

 

The rooms of the Wellness House are empty as of now, awaiting the conversation and clutter its new residents will bring. The windows are black, but will soon emit the glow of lamps burning late into the early morning, the silhouettes of crouching figures against glowing laptop screens. Its future is unclear. What I’ve ended up with is the same as when I began: an exhausting disarray of floating bits from poll data, psychology, philosophy and stories people have told me. But I’m not worried, for the moment.  We have the rest of our lives to parse through all of this, and in this disarray, I’ve also left enough room to rearrange the parts and change my mind.

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