Get happy, or die trying

Happiness is everywhere. Go find it, like this girl has.
Happiness is everywhere. Go find it, like this girl has. // Creative Commons

With just three weeks left in the semester, it’s getting harder to draw a crowd anywhere except a library — but on Tuesday night, LC 101 was overflowing with students. People were sitting on the stairs, standing in the back, crowding in the front. And many were even turned away.

It’s difficult to determine which part of the event hosted by Vita Bella! Magazine — the only on-campus publication dedicated to the celebration of happiness and beauty — was more responsible for attracting such a mass: the all-star, student-beloved panel composed of philosophy professor Shelley Kagan, psychology professor Laurie Santos and math Professor Michael Frame, or the topic of why Yale students should not be afraid of life after college.

“We’re basically terrified that we’re not doing something right,” said Vita Bella! Editor in Chief Shira Telushkin ’14 in her introductory remarks. She added (while standing on a chair next to the panelists, prompting Kagan to joke, “don’t jump!”) that she wants to combat the idea that “if you’re happy you’re oblivious.”

It was unclear whether the panelists fully agreed with Telushkin. At one point, Kagan even said, “You know what, you are not all going to be fine.” Santos also quipped that about 50 percent of happiness is based on a factor not in our control — genetics and other cognitive habits. We have to work hard to get there.

When I told some people I was going to the event, almost all of them responded by saying their Vita Bella! emails went directly to spam — and it isn’t so hard to understand why. Thinking about our lives as nothing but butterflies and rainbows, love and beauty or only in terms of happiness feels like an insult to intelligence and self-awareness. The antithesis of being honest.

Yet the event’s optimistic nature should not be dismissed. Anxiety is very present on campus, so perhaps there was a need for a forum like this. Professors, sharing their life experiences, were open and thoughtful in their responses to the audience’s questions. Frame’s words were especially touching: He was diagnosed with an incurable cancer four years ago, and is now also suffering from symptoms likely related to Alzheimer’s. He was sincere about his adversities, such as being depressed when he struggles to do math problems that were once very simple for him, but also remarkably upbeat, friendly and funny in describing his struggles.

If you didn’t go to the event, and are interested in ways to improve your happiness or want to be reassured about life after Yale, here’s one of the event’s highlights:

Kagan spent college thinking he wanted to be a rabbi, but got rejected from rabbinical school. In the year after graduation, he decided to try out philosophy instead. Moral? Don’t think you have to have it all plotted out now.

Ultimately, some of the things that you think are going to matter really won’t make a huge difference — so if you’re panicking about jobs, who you’re going to marry, if you want to get married, where you want to live, well, according to the panel’s resident statistician Laurie Santos, satisfaction in those areas actually make up a mere 10% of your feelings of happiness. Santos suggested three things that you can do to be happier: First, be grateful for the things in your life, second, spend money on someone else and third, go for the experiences and not the newest gadget.

Frame continued the encouraging words, and, though it may seem somewhat trite, he emphasized that the ride is more important than the destination, reflecting on having to let go of three manuscripts he’s been working on because of his health. But along the way, he said, he learned some new math, new physics and made some good friends.

So if you’re worried about your GPA or what you’re going to do with a life, take a breath and let life take its course — or go down one of the more traditional routes and get a pet, as advised by the professors. And if you’re a big Frame fan, make it a cat.

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