Spring 2011 Happiness Class Professor's Blog

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Happiness: Jan 11 (1): First Class

Somewhere along the line I got in the habit of writing a blog to my once a week classes the morning after the class. A lot happens in a typical once a week class meeting, so there always seems to be something to follow up on. Our first class was necessarily introductory, but we did cover alot of information and you each have your "to do" lists to act on. The question at the top of that list, "When am I going to do the reading for this class?" is an important one for me too. People seem to like or need to stay busy, and you haven't yet acquired the attitude that will cause you to say "When do I get to do my happiness reading?," so you're going to have to be disciplined at the start. Get out your calendars. You can do a lot with 6 hours a week of prep and a 3 hour class for 15 weeks.

I think we have an extraordinary class and I'm still looking forward to meeting most of you. I felt some enthusiasm in the class for the project of thinking deeply about happiness. I hope you all go well beyond the readings to develop a personal philosophy of happiness that you can consult and update over the course of your life. Ok, maybe that's ambitious, but why not?

We only had a short session doing philosophy, but you all responded really well. After class I was able to recall lots of specific uses of method in your comments, which is a great sign. I think we developed at least three interesting principles or claims from the distinction between H-S and H-L. It does seem true that judgements are not completely distinct from affective states since they seem to induce specific kinds of feelings. Second, H-L clearly isn't a sum of H-S, but there's skepticism that a H-L could be without H-S. Finally, Humans require more than good feels (or positive affect). This got us to the "meaningfulness" question, which will be with us in many forms in the coming months.

So, just a great start. Thanks in advance for your energy and commitment to the inquiry. Let's make sure you're finding books and clickers and managing the websites for the course ok. I'm available to help with any difficulties.


Happiness: Jan 18 (2)

Good job last night. Lot's of good philosophical responses and good initial results from your groups. I'll have some advice below about reading preparation for next week. I don't think we've set our highest marks yet on that front.

Aristotle is really important, but I did have some second thoughts on the way home about what an easy time we gave him. Sure, major aspects of happiness are going to probably be rooted in our nature and so all of developmental psych and related fields are technically in line with Aristotle. But his focus on our "function," particularly our unique function, doesn't really seem well targeted. We already talked in class about how he has to add on this huge list of things to complete the picture. Some of those items, like friendship, relate to our nature as social but not directly (or exclusively) to the rational element of our soul. Lots of things that are going to secure our happiness (like the ability to love) are things that we share in varying degrees with other animals. To the extent that A-totle gets obsessed with function (which postmodern philosophers point out, is a little phallic) and what's different about us, he can't really incorporate these factors. Happiness is likely to involve lots of dimensions of our being that are not unique to us. These classical Greeks (unlike the Hellenists) are a bit wooden when it comes to appreciating relevance of our animal nature to our happiness.

I also wanted to mention that interesting research detail in Haidt about pre-goal and post-goal satisfaction (p. 83). It relates to a point that was made at the first class about how "life happiness" is still associated with a feeling and emotion, but maybe a different kind. We'll run into this more when we talk about pleasure, but it's already useful for you to start thinking about the kinds of pleasures you would recognize and their values.

For reading preparation next week you have two research-report articles, which is somewhat challenging. The main thing is to keep track of major findings, notice methodological issues (even if you can't track all of the technical dimensions), and pay extra attention to summaries and concluding sections.

Finally, there is a student in the class who needs a note-taker as an accommodation. Please let me know if you are interested in sharing notes with this student.

Have a great week. Plan your happiness reading and keep track of questions and things that seem important to you in the inquiry. As you can tell, developing a theory of happiness is going to be a big job.


Happiness: Jan 25 (3)

If I had to draw one conclusion from the four "data immersion" articles we read it would be this: The shape of happiness follows some of the major contours of our nature as creatures. Our social nature, our need for relationship, our need for resources (market and non-market) are all real and consequential for our happiness. We get happy, it seems, by a combination of things we do (V in Haidt's formula) for ourselves and ways that we relate successfully to others (being a friend, fulfilling a duty, being an intimate partner). Of course, there's a lot to fill in there, so we'll have a class each on "love" and "relationship" and it's a theme in our history text.

The national differences research in Diener and Suh really foregrounded the cultural dimension of happiness, without really explaining it. The individualist/collectivist difference is an example of a line of thought that might develop in further research. As a philosopher, I took away this kind conclusion: Don't be surprised that nations and cultures exert group effects on an individual's concept of happiness, the ways that they experience affect (different baselines), the importance they attach to affect, to individual vs. family/group well-being, etc. We see these differences among individuals within groups as well, but the lesson is that social life, as a system, may have collective effects on our concept of happiness. That doesn't mean that we can't recognize, evaluate, and make our own call on many aspects of our culture. We just shouldn't underestimate the pull our family, ethnic, religious, and national group affiliations have on us by default. One way that this becomes a personal lesson for lots of people is through travel and reflection, which can show you your own and other cultures as both alien and attractive in lots of specific ways. The question of the degree of personal change we can or should seek relative to our socialization is an open question.

As a way of deepening our understanding of this cultural dimension in the shape of happiness and maybe approaching that question, we'll turn to cultural studies in the next couple of weeks (hopefully a refreshing change from all the numbers). We'll try to track happiness in early Christianity, Yogic and Buddhist thought and religious belief. Each of these cultural movements has a general model for achieving happiness. While we're pretty distant in time from them, their advice is interestingly relevant to us. Of course, it's all material that could be incorporated into your theories of happiness.

Alright gang, enjoy the reading for next week. Please try to fill in your grading schemes. We'll start the Happiness Practicum in the next couple of weeks. I've rewritten the Happiness Practicum to give you more choice over the specific exercises you try. So you can do only one, two, or all three. The meditation part, if you choose it, will start after our next class meeting with a short meeting of those interested. If you want to do savoring or gratitude exercise, let's schedule that for late March when those topics come up in class.

I really enjoyed our class last night, not withstanding my anxiety about being way out of my depth and using up your goodwill on dry statistics. I'm envious of your group discussions, which sound like they are developing into pretty reflective and productive time. Feel free to contact me about projects that you're thinking about or your grading schemes. Lots of afternoon time available in addition to the M-TH 9-10:15 hours.

Have a great week and enjoy the readings.