Spring 2008 Professor's Blog - Happiness

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Next Morning Blogs

Jan 15 2008

Well, I hope we raised alot of the big course questions and that you're as excited about getting underway as I am. Please start organizing your reading for next week now. As you may know, with once-per-week courses, it's easy to "forget" about the course until the night before it happens each week. On the bright side, meeting once per week gives you more control of your time, and that class can become more of an event. But some of that is up to you.

I forgot to mention that my exams are based completely on the study questions we identify in the course schedule. We'll adapt some of last year's questions, so follow this each week. You can see the updated study questions from our first class on the schedule now as an example. My strong advice is that you make notes on these questions each week after class. That will be your study guide for the exam.

Please go ahead and logon to the course site and start building your grading scheme. You can change items in your grading scheme up until you turn them in.

I was really struck (again) by how much our images of happiness seems to involve specific situations of tranquility, satisfaction, and enjoyment. Here are some ancient greek terms that get at similar states:

hesychia - quietness athembia - absence of pain in the soul (psyche) eustatheia - stability euthymia - tranquility experienced as pleasurable kara - joy eudaimonia - being guided by or possessing a happy spirit (daemon)

As we start to explore the views of happiness of some large ancient cultures, you'll see some of these concepts (which we also find in sanskrit) informing philosophical accounts of wisdom and happiness. As you dig into your reading for next week, if you find terms or concepts that you don't completely understand, consult some quick reference sources such as www.wikipedia.com or, in philosophy, the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (which is online through Foley). There are great, concise articles on both sources.

Well, it was great to meet you all last night. Please do stop in (Rebman 203) at some point to introduce yourself. My office hours are MW 10-11 and Th 10:45-12:00, and by appointment.

Mark Alfino

Jan 22, 2008 - Second Class - Models of Happiness in Global Traditions & Causes and Correlates of Happiness

Sorry about being in a bit of a fog last night from my cold. Last night after class I realized that I left a few things out and failed to underscore a couple of other things, so I'll use this "next morning" blog to take care of that. On the whole I thought your discussion was good and that most of the topics we started to discuss could have developed into longer discussions. Sorry if any of you felt skipped over. I'll continue to try to balance participation opportunities. We'll be doing more small group discussion in the coming weeks (especially when our reading volume settles down) and that should give more of you a chance to think through these issues in discussion with each other.

I think it's important to see Daoism and Buddhism as involving what I call a "strategy of separation and (re)union." Both of these traditions suggest that part of the cause of our unhappiness is our involvement in self-deception, over attachment to desire, and inaccurate judgment. The remedy is to separate ourselves from these "snares" and achieve a kind of union with fundamental reality. (As you compare the other traditions on our handout, you will find that this strategy applies to Christianity as well (though we haven't gotten to this discussion yet).) Indeed, in the philosophies of the Mediterranean cultures we plan to look at (Classical Greek and Hellenistic thought), you will find a similar strategy. The point I omitted last night was to look at these traditions in terms of a general "happiness strategy". We'll be building on this in the next few weeks.

The Argyle reading is new this time around, and I'm worried that too many of you didn't get to it or found it impenetrably difficult, so I would value your feedback on that. The reason I put it in the course is that it seemed like a really concise and tightly organized summary of the research, but let me know if you had trouble with it. The main point I want to underscore about this research is that, as philosophers, we use research like this to build our own theories of happiness. So, for example, when you read about the strong correlation (likely, cause) between intimacy and happiness, you have a couple of theoretical questions to answer: Why is intimacy so important to happiness? What makes for successful intimate relationships? Given that intimacy is not equally important to everyone, do you see yourself as an exception to the pattern? Remember, the overall goal of looking at all of this material is the formation of your own "philosophy of happiness." As we discussed last night, finding patterns in our actual experience is relevant to this, but we should also be open to the possibility that happiness lies in "separating ourselves" from the culture's larger patterns. So, for example, when you read about the hedonic treadmill, you have an example of a phenomenon that could defeat our happiness. The obvious response might be: Am I an exception to the treadmill effect? If not, how do I avoid this effect? Where do I see this in my experience?

That's it for now. Please start putting your grading schemes together, especially if you're going to do journal entries. We'll talk about grading schemes in class next week. Also, let's shoot for a higher level of reading preparation. Many of you were able to refer effectively to the readings, but some of you clearly couldn't. The higher the level of preparation, the higher the level of philosophical practice we can achieve. But you all know that already, right?


Jan 29th - Gilbert - Prospection, Objectivity of Happiness, and Large Numbers

Well, if Gilbert is presuading you then you woke up today less sure of the relationship between your predictions about what will make you happy and the actual things (whatever they turn out to be) that will influence your well being. I thought we gave this a good discussion last night, and your small group discussions sounded productive. Now, the next morning, I'm wondering if Gilbert's research is good news or bad news. It's good news to know that I'm likely to tell a story of my life in which I conclude that I'm happy, but it's bad news if you're worried (as every good Happiness philosopher should be) that this complicates the the distinction between "genuine" and "false" happiness. If we "synthesize" happiness in the narrative we invent for our lives, which stories are to be preferred and why? Should we (could we) really avoid the illusions of prospection?

I also hope we were able to demonstrate something about "philosophical method" with Gilbert last night. If you go back to those basic questions from the first week, you could say that your job as philosophers is to develop an overall view of happiness that gives the best answers to those questions that you can. To get there, of course, we break the job down, in this case by asking what must be true (or is more likely to be true) about happiness theories (at least at the experiential level) on a particualar interpretation of Gilbert's "skeptical perspectivism"

Next week we get to look at two clear, well-developed answers to the problem of happiness: epicureanism and stoicism. Again, it's a different sort of evidence than recent cognitive psychology, but I hope to show that these ancient "graceful life" philosophies have interesting relevance to the problems Gilbert raises. Does this help the plot thicken?

Thanks for getting your grading schemes together. Drop by the office (office hours MW 10-11, TH 11-12) if you have time.


Feb 5th - Stoics and Epicureans

Stoicism and Epicureanism give us our first real look, within the course, at two "philosophies of happiness." As we discussed, they share a common strategy for happiness: focus on understanding reality and adjusting your emotions in light of your understanding. In other words, if you train yourself toward virtue you will be happy. The Epicurean claims that this training will enable you to enjoy pleasure as a consequence of virtue. The Stoic argues that virtue just is happiness.

One of the more interesting discussions last night concerned the criticism that the idea of the "ratio" in Stoicism and Epicureanism (Don't demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they heppen as they do.") sounded like an endorsement of complacency. All that "settling", my goodness. The criticism doesn't go away if you substitute "accepting" for "settling", but it helps. Can you, in fact, combine these in your experience? Isn't it inevitable?

The hard philosophical problem in the discussion of virtue and happiness, at least the way it emerged last night, is to assess this whole idea of the pursuing happiness by pursuing discipline. Virtue is a discipline, much like physical training, in which you try to find the appropriate emotional responses to situations based on your understanding of the kind of thing you are and the reality before you. When we talked about "enjoying anger" I realized something about how complicated this topic is. Beating someone up intellectually or physical can feel like the fulfillment of one's abilities. After all that training in argumentation (or boxing for the physical analogy), it can feel like the exercise of "virtue" to beat up on someone. Of course, for Stoics all pursues harmonize in the Good and the Epicurean would tell,"A man who causes fear cannot be free from fear." But you don't need to agree with this. Just figure out your considered response to these philosophies and you'll have more clues about your own.

On the drive home, I was wondering how these philosophies settle with your religious (or non-religious) attitudes. After all, Epicurus' "ghostie Gods" were not big hits. Humans want their gods to help out and to be involved. Stoic pantheism might not strike some of you as theological at all. If God is distributed throughout all reality, is he/it/she thinking about me? I think these philosophies are compatible with alternate theologies or none at all. That might be another strike against them for you, but you could also say these are "root" philosophies, they seem adaptable, in different ways to a high level of confidence (faith) in purposiveness (that would be stoic) to a "low epistemology" such as Epicurus, in which you just have to pursue pleasure (after understanding what pleasuure is and how virtue is a necessary condition for being a hedonist. As I told you in class, I admire the faith of the stoic and the attention to the psychology of pleasure in Epicurus. Of course, you should select views and rationales according to your own lights, especially if you're building toward that "My Philosophy of Happiness" paper.

Some housekeeping items:

  • Try sharing your study question answers on the new Study Question Collaboration page at the main Happiness page.
  • Study questions from last night are updated on the course website. If you haven't been doing study questions, start right now! They are the key to your happiness in the course.
  • If you signed up for the meditation exercises, we will be having a short meeting next week at the end of class. Look over the resources on meditation on the course wiki for next week's class.
  • It's never too late to drop by to introduce yourself. Office hours are MW 10-11, TH 11-12 and, most importantly, by appointment. Send me a couple of times and dates that work for you and I'll pick one.

Feb 12th - Love and Happiness

The main goal of our class last night was to discuss some views of love in light of a critical distinction between culture and the basic realities we recognize in love. On that basis, you can assess the importance of love, intimate relationship, familial relations, and friendship, to your theory of happiness. Last night we focused on intimate sexual love (in honor of Valentine's Day), but it's important to see the broad picture.

Initially, we made a distinction between reductive views (which some kinds of evolutionary theories and, oddly, Schopenhauer's view are instances of) and non-reductive views, in which we argue that mental terms like "love," "trust," "passion", while perhaps ultimately dependent on physical processes, are nonetheless necessary for talking about and having a theory about love. In other words, love doesn't reduce to chemical processes between organisms, even if that is the physical reality.

We talked about love and status, following the de Botton reading. We also reviewed Montaigne's advice on "reconciling ourselves with our bodies." In that discussion, there was a significant student voice suggesting that we haven't resolved these issues 450 years later. I raised the skeptical possibility that "more talk" wont' help, but in the end Montaigne's counsel looks contemporary.

The question: What percentage of people you are attracted to could you imagine having a successful, intimate, long term relationship with? generated some lively discussion. The goal in asking the question is to shine a critical light on the basis for believing that there is a relatively small or large percentage of the "potential candidates" for the prize of your love. There might be a correlation between romanticism and a low percentage answer, though lots of other factors could account for the answer. Similarly, a high percentage answer might mean that you are more disposed to believe that love has to do with how two broadly compatible people actually treat each other. You could still believe this and be a romantic. Any view you come to on this should square with the fact of arranged marriage in cultures in which that is experienced as voluntary.

After the break we got into what come to be known as the "viral theory of love." As I disucssed last night, this theory emerged from the course deliberations over the past few years on following:

  1. What the relationship researchers are telling us these days - attachment theory, Gottman's work
  2. Evolutionary naturalism (which Schopenhauer also wrestled with more abstractly), and
  3. The puzzles of cultural models of love and happiness in views of romanticism, arranged marriages, etc.
  4. The happiness research, which tells us that love and intimacy across a wide range of relationships (from sexual partners to friends) is strongly correlated with happiness.

The theory itself suggests that there must be "susceptibility" to committment to an intimate relationship and that a good metaphor for that (to keep our naturalistic intuiions in the picture) is susceptibility to a virus. The second condition of love is committment to will the good (and to want to please) the beloved. Things get murky here. We stumbled a bit on the term "work". Is love work? I think we agreed that relationships require effort, but there is something remarkable about the dynamic of this effort. It is often "effortless effort" and returned many fold. I think we were realistic the difficulty of sustaining this kind of relationship, and I hope we weren't presumptuous about assuming that a single long term relationship is an objective ideal, though some research suggests that, all thing equal, longer term memories enhance old age (until you lose your memory).

The short love narrative in de Botton returns us to our larger theme: the critical questioning cultural ideals. The guy in the narrative has to negotiate his idea of himself, love, and the other in the face of the reality that unfolds as the couple get to know each other. It's not that rock climbing women can't love acrophobic men, it's just that you have to figure out (probably intuitively) what's going to be an obstacle and what isn't.

To some extent the viral theory of love is a counterweight to the inevitable cultural construction of love. Focusing on the pragmatic question of one's capacity to love and be loved, and considering psychological theories about attachment, I think we can get some critical distance on the cultural messages we get about love.

Students doing the meditation exercises: You should get a test email for the group today. Let me know if you don't.


Feb 19th - Extending Gilbert's Theory and starting Csiksentmihalyi's

Well, this week I wrote the study questions first and they seem to sum up pretty well our focus. I think we're far enough into Gilbert that we should start to look for positive conclusions from some of his skepticism. For example, if you do become convinced about some of the cognitive limits and biases he's discussing, then it might change the way you connect happiness with, for example, long range plans. As we discussed, though I don't recall us putting it this way, you might worry that we need the illusion that our long range plans will make us happy. Maybe we'd become slackers without this illusion. But there are other possibilities, too. It could be that long range goals are valuable for other reasons. For example, because they are simply good things to want - tenure, achievement in your career/life, service to others. Or, it could be that long range planning gives us a way to structure today and tomorrow. If the right time horizon for thinking about happiness is more short term (because of Gilbert's arguments), then maybe we should be looking more closely at the structures of everyday experience.

That's where Csiksentmihalyi comes in, at least with some theory. As I said, I think it helps to see his work on flow in the context of humanistic psychology and postive psychology. He has a specific theory of the self, consciousness, and motivation that values order or disorder and sees negative emotions as indicators or causes of "psychic entropy". We explored alternatives to this theory in our discussion -- Romantic culture made a cameo, but then we turned toward the central concept Csik. is known for - flow. After discussing both characteristics and experiences of flow, we started to ask about the relationship of flow to happiness. That prompted some beginning "phenomenology" of the actual relationship of pleasure and satisfaction to flow experiences, as well as barriers to entering flow. A pretty rich discussion took us to 8:30, but then everyone looked like they need to stop doing philosophy.

-Have a great week. Keep track (informally) of flow experiences.

-Meditators - send in journals if last week was Week 1 for you.


Feb 26th - Money, Social Comparison, and Maximization Behavior

Our focus this week was on explaining, at a deeper level, the initial data we reviewed at the outset of the semester on the relationship between money and happiness. We discussed the difference between an aggregate statistic on the relationship between money and happiness and your own individual assessment of the importance of money to happiness. Of course, Gilbert's skepticism was always in the background of the discussion. When it comes to hypotheses about the "decoupling" of money and well-being in the 60's, one hypothesis is to suggest a set of cultural influences as causal factors, but it may be that a simpler hypothesis is that money just has limited ability to boost individual well-being. There was, however, evidence for the former hypothesis in the data on depression rates and decline of social trust.

We also discussed and considered various hypotheses on the nature of social comparison. I was particularly interested in your reflection on whether the strength of social comparison (the degree to which your well-being is affected by comparisons you make to your reference group) is something you can "defeat" by changing attitudes and behaviors. And then there is the further question of whether you should defeat the effect of social comparison. After all, there might be a positive overall effect on your life satisfaction from being able to make yourself a little upset by adverse comparison. Or is that something you should transcend?

After the break, we gave Barry Schwartz "maximizer" / "satisficer" distinction a look. There was some skepticism about the concept, but generally we wanted to know how to distinguish "healthy" and "sick" maximizing behavior.


March 18th - Gratitude, Savoring, and Future Judgments

Thanks for a good discussion again, gang. (Somehow, it seems especially important to express my gratitude to you this time.)

As you review the readings, lecture, and discussion from this week, make sure you have a good idea of how psychologist theorize gratitude and savoring. The important judgment you need to make concerns the place, if any, of gratitude and savoring in your own theory of happiness. You should study the data form experiments in this area, but don't forget that this is also an "experiential" question. Whether you're like the norm in these studies is something you should try to answer. Even if you don't have an assignment in your grading scheme on gratitude or savoring, you should still do some personal experimentation with these phenomena. Try noticing how expressions of gratitude affect a dynamic, spend some time think about whether you include "cosmic goods" among the things you are grateful for, try out some of the savoring experiences we discussed in class, and finally, try to notice whether "savoring enhances savoring." Is there a positive feedback loop for gratitude and savoring?

March 25th - Leisure and Relationships

Good discussions on both topics, I thought. On leisure, I think found Csiksentmihalyi's theory pretty strong. It does seem true that kinds of leisure activities differ in terms of the states of mind they promote. One of C's points seemed to be that there are real limits to how much time we should spend in low skill, low challenge leisure since it tends to induce apathy. Of course, as a short term approach to reducing anxiety, television is pretty effective. As one of you said, we admire people who know how to use their leisure effectively in relationship to their mood or affect.

On relationships, well it's a tough topic for reasons we went into. There's so much variation in how people satisfy needs (healthy and unhealthy) through the many kinds of relationship that we typically have. Still, I think Csiksentmihalyi has a good general theory in the idea of "psychic order". I think we made some progress making this very abstract notion concrete, but there's still more work to do there. While there seemed to be general acceptance with his view, our criticism last night was that he might undervalue the sheer pleasure that social relationships involve (when they work well).

Sorry to have to cancel class next week. I think there's still room in the schedule to get everything done.


April 8th - Critique of Enlightenment & American Culture in Relationship to Well-being

Thanks again for a very good discussion. I hope it is settling well for you. I worry that the kind of historical and critical theses which McMahon is summarizing kind of hit you like a ton of bricks. I did sense that we dug ourselves out of that moment, but these are still large ideas to assess: Has the emergence of mass culture, consumer culture, rights culture, scientific culture contributed unambiguously to our happiness? I'm pretty confident to say on at least two of those, but what if the price of the good things of the Enlightenment (rights, penicillin) is a culture of individualism in which traditional relationships are harder to maintain? This line of thought could point toward the importance of investing in your friendship relationships, especially in the new places most of you will live in the Fall. It also might reinforce your intuitions if you feel that you do want to stay in the region of the country where your family lives.

On Gilbert, I think we developed this concept of the "psychological immune system" more deeply than we had in previous classes. Bravo. I felt that there was sort of an understanding about what we were doing. In other words, we've got our experience and this evidence from research of various kinds, and someone (Gilbert in this case) postulates a theoretical entity (the psychological immune system) and then we try to figure out what kind of "work" this entity could do in our theories of happiness, whether the concept holds together on its own, fits our experience, and connects with other things we're confident about. That may seem obvious to you, but that's a basic model of philosophical (and generally theoretical) method. If you get through Gonzaga being able to do that skillfully, well, you're on your way to becoming a sage.

Hey, I really liked the digression on self-forgiveness. It made good connections to Stoicism (where the imperative to adjust yourself to reality might be extended to accept that we will not always behave flawlessly). For that, if not other reasons, we do need humility, which ironically could facilitate healthy self-forgiveness. Ok, we're out there, but this philosophy.

That's more than I meant to write. Better stop here. Have a great week.

You folks who are doing projects should share your results with the class. We have class time for this purpose and it's a great way to wind down. You guys really have covered some ground.

Also, I'm glad to hear that some of you are working on Happiness CDs. I'll try to dig out a few from last year in case you want to compare.


April 21 - Happiness and Death

Our main goals in this class were to compare two different kinds of strategy for thinking about and living in relationship to death. Of course everyone really wants to decide how to prepare for death by first knowing the answer to the question of what happens to us after we die. While we can make a reasonable guess about that (or have a rational faith in a larger scheme of things), we need to ask about the preparation (if any) for death without firm knowledge of what happens after we die.

In some ways, the "dual strategy" (following both the classical/Enlightenment advice of Montaigne and the transcendentalist option (if it is a live option for you) covers all your bases (though you could be accused of playing "Pascal's wager") since it involves a strategy for "adequating" ourselves to the death that is approaching, while leaving open the option of a second point of view that concieves death as a transition (ala the Bardo Thodol or Christianity, for example).

Another goal for the class was to explore some of the means by which a consideration of Death might psychologically affect one's sense of relationship and well being. I think early discussion of the ways the culture deals with or avoids dealing with death helped here. Also, I think the phenomena of momento mori, imagining one's death, meditating on impermanence (hanging out at the charnel grounds or being a hospice volunteer or really meditating on it) all give us resources for exploring Montaigne's strong claim that only if you think and feel deeply your and others morality will you deeply appreciate life.

Our challenge, of course, is to assess this strong claim against alternatives. Thanks for a rich discussion.