What is Happiness?

by Ariel Bloomer '13

What is happiness?

Each year, sophomores choose from an exciting array of Core III offerings. This year, Professor of French Nathalie Rachlin added a new course, “What Is Happiness?” Fourteen eager Scripps students quickly signed up. They now, quite happily, sit with their professor two afternoons a week at desks arranged in a square for free-flowing discussion on a range of issues that often bring smiles to their faces.

Why study happiness?

“Happiness is arguably the most important issue of human existence — it permeates and orients everything we do,” says Rachlin. “But the paradox of happiness is that while most people want it, few can define it. Most people agree that happiness is one of life’s most important goals, yet we do not know how to achieve it.”

To create the course, Rachlin was awarded one of several grants offered by the National Endowment for the Humanities to support undergraduate courses that address one of humanity’s most enduring questions. The interdisciplinary course approaches happiness from three distinct fields of inquiry: ancient philosophy, behavioral economics, and social psychology. Students are encouraged to explore other disciplines through recommended reading material; great thinkers, such as Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Aldous Huxley, and the Dalai Lama are represented in the assigned reading, and students are additionally exposed to some of the newest research in the realm of happiness, such as Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling into Happiness.

The course is structured to facilitate more than an academic approach to happiness; each student is responsible for a final project, which can be a traditional research paper or a creative project done in visual art, film, or writing. During the semester, each student also delivers an oral presentation, which covers one of the recommended readings, allowing students to discuss ideas, disciplines, and theories on a broader scope. For example, one Thursday in September, a student stood at the front of the class giving her Powerpoint presentation and said, “Everyone, close your eyes…Now; imagine a time when you were completely focused on an activity.” She then verbally guided her peers to a time when they themselves had experienced “flow,” an idea discussed in Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience.

The question “What is happiness?” has kept philosophers busy for millennia, but Rachlin hopes it is only one of the many questions students will begin to ask on the way towards an examined life: “Is happiness the purpose of life? Or is happiness the result of having a purpose in life? What is a life well lived? What will fulfill me in life?” She hopes, finally, that students will come away from the course equipped with conceptual tools and research findings that can inform their own reflections on what it might mean to be happy.

As for Rachlin, “Happiness is teaching a course about happiness. Teaching is what I love doing. If you lead a life in which you are doing things that are meaningful to you, and meaningful to others, then it is not a waste of your life.”


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