Most of my friends were taken aback when asked to recall moments when they felt happy at Yale — whatever that meant, if anything. The answers varied from winning IM pingpong to tailgates with their residential college. Most were community-centered: having someone to ride exercise bikes with at the gym, group applause for a revealing tale at a storytelling event, bumping into friends at parties. There was another common denominator among my friends’ answers: They were most often non-academic and unstructured, occurring neither in the classroom nor in extracurricular settings.
Personal meanings of happiness, my peers revealed, are a survey in scope. For some, insignificant moments were paradoxically rendered significant in retrospect. For others, happiness involves a deliberate vision about how the seemingly disparate components of their lives correspond with one another. This second conception, which looks at the big picture rather than the little things, is centered on finding meaningful order in one’s life.
But if happiness can mean such different things to different people, perhaps Yale is off-target in marketing itself as the “happy Ivy” and pitching happiness as the ultimate goal for a Yale experience. Some of my friends felt pressure to provide scripted answers to university inquiries about well-being, from freshman fireside chats to university-wide surveys. Even if well-intentioned, such efforts seem wooden, incapable of engaging with the actual issue. Informal discussions among close friends, expectedly, provide a more honest snapshot of how people feel. But it’s still a weird question to ask or answer: “Are you happy?”
And maybe it’s not always the right question. A healthier and more productive goal might be to learn how both happiness and sadness are integral to the human condition. My friends and I couldn’t resolve the relationship between happiness and mental health; one friend suggested that happiness here often becomes a substitute for mental health, when it might be more honest to say “There are things that worry me, but I am still OK.”
As confused as my friends and I might be about happiness, we could agree on wanting more of an emotional and personal education from Yale. Peter Salovey may have championed emotional intelligence years ago, but it is still lacking in many of our professors’ teaching methods. One of my friends thought that classrooms would benefit from the professor checking in for a minute: “This is a rough week, how is everyone doing?” Classrooms should be part of our lives, not insulated from them.
“We were talking about ‘King Lear,’” a friend of mine recalled of a recent class. “I like it as a work of art but, why I really like ‘King Lear’ has nothing to do with that. It’s the same way I appreciate music theory or the physics of a building. But the Eiffel Tower isn’t just something that is physically astonishing. It’s the magnificence I feel when I look up at it … Professors need to be able to articulate that mysterious awe, that magic about literature, science, music…” He trailed off.
Even if we aren’t sure exactly what happiness means, we need professors, to the best of their ability, to really teach us about ‘King Lear,’ the Eiffel Tower and ourselves. Yale classrooms have too long demanded a separation of students’ emotional and intellectual lives, but the “mysterious awe” my friend described doesn’t fall neatly into either of those categories. We want answers from our professors, so we can learn to feel that awe ourselves, but too often we just get more questions. Students have deans and masters to approach with questions about how to guide their lives, at the cost of professors not understanding what it means to be a Yale student. As a result, it’s hard to connect.
Everyone agreed that Yale has offered them a place of newfound acceptance. A home. But this comfort does not undermine the sincerity of concerns about what happiness here means. It’s a difficult, if not impossible, question to answer. Which is perhaps why “mysterious awe” is a good place to start.