Happiness – is this even appropriate when we are confronted daily with new causes to defend or protest, all the while trying to stave off overwhelm? My colleague Dr. Jay Kumar and I are teaching a very popular course on Happiness at Chapman University this spring – popular because, well, don’t we all want to be happy? It is our fifth time teaching this course, and we have learned much about happiness that can make an enormous difference as #lovetakesaction today. It’s our way of offering love, actually.
We begin the course by deconstructing happiness in our culture and the way we repeatedly perpetuate certain happiness constructs. Take wealth, for example. We all chase it and worship those who have it (even electing them as President), as though it will make us happy. Then we call those poorer than us unhappy, or worse yet, useless…even though we know that very few of us will suddenly become one-percenters. Even though we experience great happiness in multiple ways, such as relationships and family, right now. Yet, we perpetuate the myth, hence shunning many people that aren’t that different from us.
Or take heterosexuality. Because our society upholds hetero relationships as the ultimate happiness, society portrays LGBTQ persons as unable to reach happiness, and even calls them unhappy (angry, killjoys, etc.) This allows the majority to keep the fantasy that people outside this hetero normality are the block to societal happiness. While in reality, persons of these identities are not necessarily unhappy but instead mirror for society the fallacy of this normative construct, effectively making those who hold the false construct uncomfortable and unhappy and often even more defensive.
So what does make us happy? The Happiness course moves onto brain science. Once a person has enough wealth to eat and sleep comfortably (and doesn’t have so much that wealth is their only preoccupation), science is revealing happiness comes from things every free person can access. They include, simply:
Gratitude – I think of this as positivity that does not ignore reality. Being mindful of surrounding oneself with goodness, with hope, and with gratitude so we are not taken in by negativity which too easily overpowers the good.
Service to others – happiness is never just about us. It is about recognizing our connectedness and integrating our own life for a better society.
Focus – yes, turning off the cell phone, and spending time in meditation or focused concentration.
As we move onto studying religious practices, we learn that brain science today is corroborating basic truths religious and spiritual traditions have taught for centuries. People know from experience that prayer, meditation and gratitude actually transform one to live a more compassionate life. Christian centering prayer, Islamic daily prayers, Sufi practices, Jewish gratitude prayers, Buddhist meditations, Hindu devotional practices – all of these transform the practitioner. Great compassion has been shown in caring for the vulnerable and bettering society by people of faith and humility through the ages.
So today we help students to find happiness and greater self-awareness by first turning off their cell phones in class (students initially experience a moment of panic here!... yet last Spring a student approached me toward the end of the semester to thank me for those sole 3 hours weekly where was not distracted by her phone). Students focus on academic thought and shared discussion and on a passion of theirs in research, and if they choose, learn meditation practices to train their brains toward happiness and compassion. This course is our love in action to help students find their true Self and happiness.