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 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. 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. Ok, that's a tough sell. 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 in everyday matters. 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 hedonic 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, take note!) 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! So this semester will just be a preliminary assessment.

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, especially the activity of philosophy.

Ok, that's about 2 cents.

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!


Happiness: February 15 (6)

So this class introduced two big new dimensions to our inquiry: 1) Our first immersion in the cultural history which tracks the rise of the modern concept of happiness; and 2) The beginning of an extended argument about the limits of our ability to make predictions about our own happiness.

The issue I want to highlight briefly in this blog is the one that came up near the end of our discussion when we were trying to make sense of the claim, "You could be happy and not know it". I think this is puzzling, partly because we're natural Cartesians -- we tend to assume that introspection makes us aware of all of our states and that the state of our happiness is something we're in continual conscious contact with. But lots of the evidence in these first three chapters of Gilbert challenges that assumption. "Mindblindness" and studies of "attentional" focus (did you see the gorilla?) might make you wonder if you always have the most privileged access to our own states of mind. So maybe you could be in a state of mind that most people would call happiness, but you might not recognize the state as happiness. This could happen, for instance, if you developed a strong reflective concept of what your happiness ought to involve and used that to override a potential awareness that you were actually enjoying many of the objective conditions of happiness (am I cheating by using these last 8 words?). You might even acknowledge your enjoyment of these components (good relationship, job, friends, meaningfulness, etc.) and still not have awareness of that as happiness. The counter intuition is still there: The subject gets to call it -- if they don't say they're happy, they aren't. You can't be happy and not be aware of it. But that's sort of like saying you can't not see the gorilla, after all it was there. This needs more thought.

Perhaps this odd little story will help: When I was teaching happiness a few years ago, this IT guy I know at Gonzaga was walking by me on one of the paths on campus. I asked him how he was and he said, "Oh, you know. Another day in paradise." It's not such an uncommon expression, but something about the context made me think it was the first time I'd heard it. It's really a remarkable thing to say. It's intended with irony, and his non-verbal behavior showed he'd had a difficult day. These are the technicians you see sometimes looking at network panels with hundreds of wires coming together, trying to figure out what went wrong or where the new wires go. Or they're shrugging at each other over instrument readings about the network that aren't expected. But we should also consider the literal reading. In a sense, this is paradise. Living in a wealthy developed country with rights and good prospects for creating a meaningful life is about as close as humans have gotten. And since that experience, I've had to admit that this is a sort of paradise, and while fortune, justice, and injustice play a huge role in determining who gets to enjoy it, we could also lack awareness that we are indeed enjoying many of the conditions people have associated with paradise. If you can lack awareness of that, you might be able to lack awareness of at least some aspects your happiness.


Happiness: February 22 (7)

Thanks for a great class and discussion. I think our readings helped us do justice to both the cultural and physical dimensions of attachment and love. With respect to attachment theory, the next step would be to figure out if your attachment style (and in relation to your partners') was "healthy" or allowed you to experience something like an ideal balance of security and development. That's obviously a personal matter, and while attachment theory has maintained its status and popularity among psychologists for quite a while, it's also just one theory. The more general goal of our inquiry was to ask what approaches to love and relationship allow us to realize the sorts of happiness that can come from this aspect of our lives. General theories like Attachment Theory and the idea of passionate vs. companionate love should help us find figure this out.

By introducing the distinction between "culture of love" and "physiology of love and attachment" I certainly don't mean for you to think that we can reduce one to the other in any pragmatic sense. This is a bigger topic than we were able to address. After all there's more than one way to be reductive. But at the practical level of making judgments about my experience, it just wouldn't make sense to try to govern my love life by my vital signs, yet seems unreasonable to deny that, whatever else is true, the "creature level" of description (Brooks and Haidt) is there and should not be ignored.

On the other hand, we don't just acquire cultural knowledge about love like baseball facts. We grow up in a variety of "cultures of love" (hopefully) starting perhaps with maternal/paternal attachments, family, neighborhood (maybe), ethnicity, religion, national culture, and even the "zeitgeist" or "spirit of the times". All of these levels of experience shape us and train us to various degrees, though we can exert self-conscious control (possibly through extensive reflection or therapy) over many of them if we feel they are unhealthy. Having a good Philosophy of Happiness may involve sorting through these cultural messages and figuring out which ones to own.

For me, studying the culture of love in relation to science and evolutionary conjectures about love doesn't make me want to favor "biology" over "culture." As I argued last night, the engagement with one's cultures is inescapable and defines both strategies of acceptance and rejection. But I do think recognizing the creaturely level helps encourage some humility and occasional healthy skcptisism about our own narrative about intimacy. As impressive as Romantic "sturm und drang" is, the real sorrow of young Werther is that anyone would get to the point of thinking that not having a relationship some particular person was grounds for suicide. Likewise, we need to figure out which popular romantic movies today are innocent (or helpful!) "idealizations" that fuel a couple's warm feelings for each other as they leave the theatre and which are promoting harmful (psychologically and in terms of happiness) models for relationship. (There's a movie reflection paper waiting to be written.) While I agree with Haidt that ideas like "caritas" and "agape" are not related to our creaturely needs, I think they can nonetheless be part of a healthy approach to love. I left class wishing that someone would write the "McMahon chapter" on your own generations' "cultures of love," if that's possible.

Finally, I thought the fictional scientist quoted in the Brooks article had some insight, and while it's a bit pop, it's also a nice antidote to reductionism: "I believe we inherit a great river of knowledge, a flow of patterns coming from many sources. The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past we call genetics. The information passed along from hundreds of years ago we call culture. The information passed along from decades ago we call family, and the information offered months ago we call education. But it is all information that flows through us. The brain is adapted to the river of knowledge and exists only as a creature in that river. Our thoughts are profoundly molded by this long historic flow, and none of us exists, self-made, in isolation from it."

Finally, please feel free to email for an appointment if the office hours don't work for you. I'm usually around in the afternoons. This is a good time for reading groups to get their book choices made and for some of you to check in on course work and projects.

Have a great week. Class next week will meet at the regular time, but will get out a bit early to make room for the mid-term takers.


Happiness: March 15 (9)

Our goal last night was to use both the Gilbert and Csiksenmihalyi readings to generate positive advice about the cultivation of pleasures in your life. That's a strange discussion, partly because most conversations about pleasure (at least the sort you might have in a college class) are likely to cautionary and frought with a little anxiety about the dangers of hedonism, including addiction. In this case we're actually trying to develop some of the possibilities of hedonism.

Gilbert's contribution to the project seems primarily negative. He's telling us about some of the ways that we go wrong in thinking about future satisfactions. By introducing the idea of a "ritual pleasure," I wanted to suggest that some of the same dynamics that bias and limit our understanding of future pleasures can be used to "invest in" or "cultivate" simple pleasures. Also, the coffee ritual story was intended to show some of the limits of Gilbert's analysis. When you experiment with pleasures like this, you find that in "real life" they are complex. It's not really so much about the coffee as the anticipation, the walk, the social interactions, etc. And the variation matters. Unlike yesterday, today the sun is out, so the walk will feel different. After some concentrated work (writing this blog and prepping for my class today), the affective power of the walk, the sun, and the coffee increases significantly (I can hardly wait!). I don't mean to use this as a model for all pleasures, since many pleasures have a spontaneity to them. But I do think some of factors Gilbert identifies as limiting our prospection can actually be used in an advisory way to manage the "diet" of our pleasures.

With Csiksentmihalyi and the study of the "structures of everyday life" there is a similar opportunity to ask about strategies for heightening our experience of even mundane activities like chores by thinking about the approach we take to them. By itself, getting you to think about how much fun cleaning the dishes can be is neither a promising nor particularly lofty goal. But if we're primed, conditioned, and biased in our thinking about satisfactions, maybe we also miss opportunities to enjoy very simple things. Maybe we dread chore because we're not "mindblind" to their affective potential. Once again, building positive rituals around neutral or even negative life activities and reframing activities to appreciate their simplicity (laundry vs. calculus) or outcomes (having clean laundry, meal planning, etc.) can help us become outliers on the ESM data on maintenance activities.

To take a less trivial example, consider flow. I think Csiksentmihalyi is right in claiming that flow is one of the things that makes life excellent (even if it's not a direct happiness maker). So then it's important to notice that flow experiences are typically constructed and chosen self-consciously (enrolling in a degree program, taking up a hobby, developing a capacity or aptitude). In other words, you don't typically stumble across flow experiences; they are often the product of lots of structure and activity. Also, we get better at experiencing flow through practice and attention. Many of you, for example, have made the transition from treating studying like doing a chore to experiencing flow from specific study and course experiences. Or maybe you've cultivated flow in sports, work, or a volunteering experience. Wherever you find it, the obvious advice from "Finding Flow" so far is to manage the structures of our everyday life to heighten our affective experience of daily life. I wasn't completely serious about saying that self-care and self-training required treating yourself like a dog, but there's a point to it.

People might call you a no-good hedonist if you pay too much attention to affect in everyday life. But recall Epicurus' point about the importance of virtue to the cultivation of pleasure. The cultivation of everyday pleasure can be a wonderful source of self-experimentation and self-discovery when anchored by virtue (roughly having and following a view of human good in your life). I've got more defenses against this charge, but it's time for this breakfast I've been looking forward to since I got up. I'm three years into making these great muffins and pairing them with a navel orange when available (an exquisite taste combination). The oranges have been a little inconsistent lately, but we'll see.