When 1,200 students signed up to take professor of psychology Laurie Santos’ class “Psychology and the Good Life” this spring, the University seemed to catch on to something we already know: Yalies are struggling. Faced with the demands and anxieties inherent to an elite institution like Yale, many of us are left feeling isolated, stressed and burnt out. The website for the Good Life Center, which opened in Silliman College this fall, claims that the surge in class enrollment was a result of students getting “hyped to be happy.” But looking at Yale from a bird’s-eye view, it would be more apt to say that we were — and still are — yearning to be happy.
The Good Life Center seems to be the University’s answer to our yearning for happiness. In this new center, students can relax in a room inspired by a zen garden or “cultivate your innate wisdom” in a lounge space. Since its opening, I have been fascinated with the premises behind such a space. In my conversations with friends, a trend has emerged: the Good Life Center is great, but there’s something missing. That something, in my opinion, is rooted in two phenomena. The first is the dichotomy between wellness and flourishing, two modes of approaching human happiness that produce very different results. The second is the question of whether the center is equipped to name the good in its fullest sense, and this query is intrinsically connected to the first.
In the dichotomy between wellness and flourishing, wellness asks: how can I live the life I want most effectively and healthily? Flourishing asks: what is worth wanting? What life is it that I want to lead? The former concept works within current conditions to produce happiness with things as they are. The latter requires a rethinking and recalibration of ourselves and the systems around us to produce long-lasting joy about the life we are living.
The limits of the wellness movement are evident when considered in the context of a broader discussion that involves secularization and individualization, developments that influence how we talk about meaning. For centuries, questions of meaning and of purpose were rooted in religious and philosophical discourses. The beauty of these discourses is that they are inherently communal. As secularization and individualism have triumphed and been equated with “the modern,” we have moved away from these communal methods of seeking meaning and have instead placed our trust in disciplines such as positive psychology that offer empirical, researched methods to achieving happiness. The individualized nature of these methods robs us of the communal discourses required to discern what it means to flourish.
This leads to the second question: is the center capable of capturing what it truly means to live the good life? Grounded in the same psychology of happiness that was the subject of Santos’ class, the Good Life Center and Yale Well offer strategies to live happy lives. These strategies include practicing gratitude, engaging in meditation and staying active. They are scientifically proven to increase levels of self-reported happiness. While these strategies do make us empirically well, we have to ask whether or not they are helping us to live good lives. Psychologized methods for happiness will consistently come up short in helping us to realize the good life because they in no way define the “good.” They are fruitful in helping us lead well-adjusted lives in pursuit of whichever ends we may have already chosen, but in no way do these practices necessitate the rigorous introspection and engagement inherent to human flourishing. To flourish, we must forcefully search for which ends we wish to orient ourselves toward, rather than simply engage in a change of means. In short, the practices espoused by the Good Life Center are important in helping us to lead operationally healthy lives (it is worth noting that the healthy is limited here simply to categories that positive psychology can measure), but they do not lead us to good lives. The good goes beyond healthiness into a realm that exists outside of the human experience.
The very term “the good life” is powerful and radical. At its core, it holds the promise of a better tomorrow, a better way of being. This idea’s power is rooted in its ability to rethink and uproot institutions, to radically empower the communities in which it is deployed to change their situations. Here at Yale, though, the term has been bandied about to describe a process by which students are encouraged to simply want more effectively and to be happy with how things are going. We seem to take the good life to be simply living by maxims of wellness instead of what it should be: a mode of being that requires the reorientation of the world in which we live toward the concept of what is good.
Over the centuries, philosophers, theologians and, more recently, psychologists have endeavored to answer the question of how to live a good life. Now, it seems that Yale as an institution is attempting to make its own intervention in the discourse. This is not a bad thing. In fact, it is an amazing opportunity to encourage students across the University to question and ponder the nature of the good, to question how each of us wants to see that lived out in our lives. But as the University makes its foray into a millenia-old debate, we as students must be careful that we do not get drawn in by the allure of ready-made answers that cater to individual needs, but instead push for answers that are discerned communally and are oriented toward the “ought” instead of the “how” of living well.
C.J. Fowler is a sophomore in Pauli Murray College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .