At New Mexico State University, philosophy professor Mark Walker has spent three years pushing juniors and seniors to ask two seemingly straightforward yet complicated questions: What is happiness, and should they chase it?
The questions are part of a course Walker teaches called "Should We Want To Be Happy?" Through lessons drawn from philosophy, psychology and economics, as well as by reading novels such as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and engaging with the campus community, Walker guides about 30 students during each offering of the course as they tackle the cosmic questions.
Walker, author of Happy-People-Pills For All, spoke to The Huffington Post about how he and his students explore happiness and the "good life," and how a class on happiness can change students' perspectives on living.
What is the student's perception of what happiness means as he or she comes in? How do you define happiness? How about the "good life?”
I think there are a number of distinctions here. The locution, "the good life," can mean either the "morally good life" or the "prudentially good life." A "prudentially good life" is one that goes well for the person whose life it is. We referred to this in the course as "wellbeing." A life that is high in prudential value is a life high in wellbeing. A "morally good life" is one that goes well from the point of view of morality.
So, for example, the sex, drugs and rock and roll lifestyle of Keith Richards may be one that goes well for Keith, but it may well fall short on most moral evaluations. Mother Teresa led what many consider a morally good life, but her life, considered from a prudential point of view, seems less than ideal: She seemed plagued by doubts and a lack of presence of God in her life. Drawing a sharp line between these two conceptions is not easy. On some conceptions we have moral duties to ourselves as well as to others. So, for example, if I say, “You should go to college. It is wrong to waste your talents.” At least one understanding of this is that I am claiming that you have a moral duty to not waste your talents. Likewise, in exercising moral duties toward others we can often help ourselves, e.g., we might gain a good reputation, and there is plenty of evidence that helping others is one of the most effective ways to make ourselves happier.
“One of the questions we pursue for much of the course is whether happiness... is all that is necessary for wellbeing.”
The word "happiness" seems to have several uses in English. In our class, we focused on what is perhaps the most common meaning: a positive psychological state. So, in this sense "happiness" is contrasted with negative psychological states such as being depressed, “down,” or glum. One of the questions we pursue for much of the course is whether happiness (in this psychological sense) is all that is necessary for wellbeing. So, for example, if you compare two lives, the happier person is always living a better life if happiness is all there is to wellbeing. Certainly this seems a common thought. People sometimes say things like, “I just want to be happy," to explain why they are not pursuing, for example, a prestigious promotion.
How do students change between the first and last class meeting?
In general students tend to have a much better understanding of the nature of the good life, wellbeing and happiness. Interestingly, they will also say that they do not think they understand the nature of these concepts as well as they did before the start of the course. This seemingly paradoxical result is a frequent upshot of philosophical investigation of some subject: The more we understand, the more we understand that we do not understand nearly as much as we thought we did.
“The more we understand, the more we understand that we do not understand nearly as much as we thought we did.”
The “Socratic” assignment in the course emphasizes this journey of self-discovery to students. About two-thirds of the way through the course, we hold one of our classes outside of the student union building. Most of us, dressed in togas, play Socrates asking the university population about their understanding of the nature of happiness and the good life. The assignment is called “Chocolates for Wisdom." In a good Socratic fashion we claim ignorance about the matter and offer chocolate in exchange for the wisdom of the campus community. It is definitely a fun and interesting exercise.
When we discuss what we learned the following class, inevitably one student will say something about a naive response to the question of the nature of happiness. For example, sometimes in answer to the question "What is happiness?" we might hear, “Happiness is drinking beer and playing video games.” Students in the class are quickly able to recognize that this confuses the question of what causes happiness —drinking beer and playing video games — with the question of what happiness is. Quickly other students chime in that students in the class would have given similarly naive responses only a few months ago.
Why's this an important area for college students to study?
A traditional view is that one of the missions of universities is to help students lead a good life. (This view has been supplanted by the idea that universities are merely “institutions for higher earnings.” In this respect, I am old-fashioned.) If the bull’s eye is a good life, then clearly it is important to get a clear view of the target. In fact, it is surprising that this topic is not covered more extensively in the typical college curriculum. We have an agriculture college at my university. I suspect many students graduate with a better understanding of what is required for a good life for sheep than they do for what is required for a good life for a human.
“If the bull’s eye is a good life, then clearly it is important to get a clear view of the target. In fact, it is surprising that this topic is not covered more extensively in the typical college curriculum.”
Is there anything that's surprised you as you have taught the course?
I am surprised how much overlap there is between these different approaches to the question of happiness. To cite one example: When discussing whether the people in our world lead better lives than the people in the Brave New World, perhaps 70 percent of students side with our world, while the remainder side with the happy lives in the Brave New World. There is near universal assent, however, around the idea, discussed in my book Happy-People-Pills for All, that Mark’s Braver New World has better lives than our world or the Brave New World. In Mark’s Braver New World, denizens are as happy as the citizens of the Brave New World, and have the same level of creativity, friendships, virtue, knowledge and freedom of our world. If correct, this tells us there is a high degree of convergence around the idea that positive mental states are not enough for wellbeing.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.