My first class at Yale was an English 114 seminar called “The Pursuit of Happiness.” In it, a graduate student led us through a syllabus with Aristotle, John Stuart Mill, Daniel Kahneman and OECD lifestyle indices. We analyzed happiness through the lens of utilitarianism, learned about wealth thresholds and discussed how community is crucial to maintaining positive wellbeing. We wanted to study happiness until a theoretical point of finality — until its components could be streamlined into a ubiquitous trademarked formula.
And all around me, freed from the paradigmatic confines of high school, I was witnessing intellectual institutions’ addiction to the happiness craze. At Harvard, Tal Ben-Shahar taught “Positive Psychology” to 854 students. At our own local Barnes & Nobles, books by Daniel Gilbert, the Dalai Lama and Jonathan Haidt discuss “peace of mind,” adding to scores of self-help titles catering to an American readership thirsty for emotional enlightenment. My fellow students chatted about these ideas and pursued them on campus, from free yoga lessons to startups such as the Happiness Challenge — an eight-week series of activities eliciting mindfulness through healthy habits.
I’m glad I took English 114 during my first semester on this neo-Gothic campus. Its lessons about interpersonal connectivity and the pitfalls of social comparison primed me to better navigate Yale’s intense environment. But part of me has become acutely critical of the happiness craze — the craze that extends beyond necessary effort to combat issues like anxiety and depression.
For one, the craze can motivate unhealthy hedonistic and individualistic tendencies. Take, for instance, a student who embarks on a personal quest to be happier. After exploring modern literature on well-being, the student subscribes to the paleo diet, runs for two hours each day and deactivates Facebook, all the while neglecting phone time with family and skipping fast food meals with friends. In the process of enhancing his own well-being, the student forgets the well-being of others. He ignores the value of communal welfare.
The second flaw to the happiness craze is one of omission: Students of happiness forget the importance of a meaningful life.
What do I mean by this? In 340 B.C. Aristotle wrote “Nicomachean Ethics,” in which he established the concept of “eudaimonia”. Eudaimonia is human flourishing — it’s the highest aim of humanity; it’s living and doing things well. Eudaimonia draws a critical distinction from Aristotle’s “hedonia,” which signifies pleasure and cheerfulness. Eudaimonia entails meaningfulness; hedonia signals happiness.
Academics seized upon this distinction at Stanford’s School of Business, where they surveyed 397 adults on their definitions of happy and meaningful lives. They found important differences between the two concepts. First, happiness arises from the fulfillment of desires, while meaning is more complex, requiring an interpretation of circumstances across time according to abstract values. Moreover, the scholars found that happiness occurs in the present with positive effect while meanings materializes when people weave their past, present and future, albeit with more negative effect. Concerns over personal identity and self-expression also contributed to meaning but subtracted from overall mindfulness.
So why worry about meaning when it heightens stress and invites heavy questions that stray from the present moment?
For one, the Stanford academics found that people see happiness as an act of “taking,” while they view meaningfulness as an act of “giving.” To lead a meaningful life — be it through transgender activism, nursing in a refugee camp or teaching at an inner-city school — is to contribute to a cause greater than the self. Another reason to pursue meaning is because knowing your purpose and value in life helps during times of strife. Succumbing to the superficial happiness craze rarely alleviates suffering; finding meaning in community does.
A lot has happened since that English 114 class five years ago. At Yale, students have lost peers to suicide. We’ve seen a University committee uphold the name Calhoun — commemorating a man who recognized slavery as a “positive good”— until several months of protest led them to rename the college after Grace Hopper GRD ’34. Our gender nonconforming community has had to fight tooth and nail just to benefit from the smallest of incremental changes in identification and housing policy. We’re gripped to celebrity opportunities, boasting of progress in a National Geographic documentary, all while most of our gender nonconforming counterparts suffer from institutionalized disadvantage beyond Yale.
Our progress as a community cannot be measured by bursts of serotonin. Being happy doesn’t matter anymore — finding a consummate life does.
Isaac Amend is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. His column usually runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .