Spring 2011 Happiness Class Professor's Blog

From Alfino
Revision as of 18:11, 9 February 2011 by WikiSysop (Talk | contribs)

Jump to: navigation, search

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 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, but without really explaining it. The individualist/collectivist difference is an example of a line of thought that might develop into 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. So yes, part of happiness is cultural. (But that doesn't mean it's not objective or causal.) We're not necessarily determined by this. We can still 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 degree of personal change we can or should seek relative to our socialization should be an open question your inquiry at this point.

As a way of deepening our understanding of this cultural dimension in the shape of happiness and maybe approaching that open 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. Their advice is interestingly relevant to us. Of course, it's all material that you can consider for 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. We'll try to do two next week. 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.


Happiness: February 1 (4)

I thought we did a good job looking at Christianity, Yoga, and Buddhism, as both philosophies and religions with insights about happiness. We were specifically interested in what might be "borrowed," as well as respecting "life effects" that only come from actually having a faith commitment. As we said at the start, Theos is a source of insight and truth that seems to require faith (along with reason) So, on the one hand I meant it when I said that I've tried to emulate some of the joy-making practices of my religious students (including some of the Islamic Visiting Fulbright scholars/teachers whom I supervise). There are many aspects of religious practice that are great happiness makers because of the way they open us up to relationships. On the other hand, I do agree (and thanks for calling me on it) that there is a dimension of faith commitment that is important to happiness yet not "transferable." It's only available to those within the faith. At least that's the hyposthesis to beat.

It did occur to me that there's a pithy way to sum up McMahon's chapter on Christianity. We didn't have time to do justice to the progression of Christian actors/thinkers he lined up (martyrs, Augustine, Eurigena, Aquinas) but you could say that McMahon's thesis is that over the first millenium or so of Christianity, Christians "discovered" (or articulated) their inner "affect pump". Given the devaluation of pleasure in Platonic thought and the challenge of separating itself from a decadent Roman culture, Christianity had real difficulty theorizing pleasure (some of my colleagues in Religious Studies would agree with this). But clearly, there is a joy in "walking with the Lord" ("asher") as many of you demonstrate to me year in an year out. Forgive me if we try to dissect this at bit.

The discussion of Yoga focused a bit more on meditation than I intended. It is important to see Yoga in parallel with Buddhism as offering a full program of practices and disciplines to promote happiness (thanks to the student who made that point). The emphasis on embodiment really came out when we finally lined up "ashtanga" yoga tenets with the Buddhist eight fold path. What we might have gone into more is the way yoga cultivates a "body sense" that people find valuable (no matter what body type they have). Practitioners of Yoga often report that they feel differently about the integration of mind and body in light of practice. You can see how that might carry over into many interactions in which our sense of our body might be a factor in our affect. Being "more comfortable" your body and having more disciplined physical/emotional responses might be real happiness makers, and don't require you to believe in telekinesis or get costly cosmetic surgery! Things like a commitment to a moral code tend to get overlooked as happiness makers, but as I argued last night, they are essential to the strategy for friendship, trust, and social life, and lots of our "major correlates" fall in these areas. The disciplines of philosophers and religious communities don't always look like happiness makers, but they may be.

Ok, I hope the cold doesn't chill your philosophical quest to develop your theory of happiness. Shopping in the "ancient culture mall" might seem a bit scandalous since we're inclined to think of cultures as holistically and non-transferrable, and we have funny ideas about the relationship between the truths a culture holds and its effectiveness in promoting human flourishing (we want to think it can't be effective if it doesn't possess metaphysical truth, but fortunately that's not so clear), but I do think the peripatetic philosopher can find a few gems and bargains with some smart shopping. Next week we'll browse the Epicurean and Stoic booths for some deals.

Good luck to the Practicum students, starting their first week of meditation. Please add this assignment to your grading scheme if you are planning to do it. I'll only be sending emails about meditation to those signed up, and I'll do that soon.


Happiness: February 8 (5)

So, our project was to look at Stoicism and Epicureanism both as historical philosophies and, perhaps more germane to the happiness inquiry, in terms of their therapeutic advice about achieving a good life. Note that we have to say "good life" because strictly speaking the Stoic doesn't commit to happiness as the end of life (definitive of the good life, a life which achieves its end or telos). But they do hold that the virtuous life will be the least disturbed and, in aligning our "ruling principle" (hegimonikon) with nature and reason/theos in nature, we may even experience a kind of joy from the virtuous life. But that's the whole package. We also broke it down to their specific psychological insights into some of the ways that we distort our judgement or fail to bring our emotions into line with what we say we know about the world. This led us down the path to the infamous doctrine about adjusting to loss, and the radical challenge to accept the mortality of our loved ones. But don't forget that there's a broad psychology of "attachment" here, and even if you don't rise immediately to this challenge (I don't), you can try out Epictetus' advice about smaller things. There are personal experiments you can do with the "lesser challenge" in stoicism to try generally to bring your emotions into line with your knowledge of how the world works. For example, you can notice those "asymmetries" in response (the example of the vase) that are clues to irrational over-valuation of things.

I felt we had a weaker or less thorough response to Epicureanism. Maybe there's just something less appealing to you about a philosophy that lacks that faith in reason and the presence of the divine in nature that stoics evince. Maybe Epicureans are trying to live "too small." Or maybe we're just trained to be suspicious of hedonism. At least the Epicurean acknowledges that the search for pleasure is central to human life (And if you grant that culture sublimates pleasure in various ways -- work, social status, etc. you can start to explain more sophisticated "pleasures" like having one's work praised.) But again, if I can't sell you the whole philosophy, you should still look at his practical analysis of desire, note it's anticipation of the treadmill and his optimism (given the modestly of his epistemology) that we can indeed retrain our emotions to heighten pleasure to its natural maximum of both kinds. With kinetic plesures the trick to realize how finite they are. With katastematic it's to realize how much BETTER they are. (Meditators, get after it!) Again, there are little experiments you can do by increasing and withholding pleasures, becoming mindful of your approach to and valuation of different pleasures. As with stoicism, there's a process of training and alignment that may take years!

Finally for now, I think there's tremendous practical insight to the idea that virtue enhances pleasure, but to see that you have to think broadly about virtue as "knowing the right measure of things," having ordered priorities so that you can know when it's time celebrate and, really, how to celebrate almost everything.

Ok, that's about 2 cents.

Oh, if you're taking the mid-term, plan on March 1 from 7:30 to 9:00. Sorry about the delay in scheduling that. We'll need to have an action-packed class that day from 6-7:30, but none of that will be on the mid-term.

Thanks for following up on grading schemes and getting project off the ground. I'm around tomorrow and Friday and not too busy to see a few of you who have been thinking about coming by to discuss a project or just introduce yourself. Always a pleasure!