Why Happiness Should be Taught at Our Universities
- Kamran Mofid, PhD
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Posted on: 12 January 2011 Updated on: 19 November 2019
‘The university has become an anxiety machine.’
The Common Good Happiness Project: A Spiritual Quest for the Good Life
1 - A Little Background
From the dawn of our creation, our ultimate desire has been to find happiness. This desire is in the nature of things; it is common to all of us, at all times, and in all places. Nature, the material of the universe, is modified by us to create wealth so that this desire may be satisfied.
Today, at the dawn of the Third Millennium, our civilisation has scored its greatest successes in the material sciences. Our glory is the willing application of these achievements to daily life: they have brought us enormous benefits. However, in our understanding of the forces governing the relations between people in society we have shown little aptitude. So tragic is this failure that we have turned the masterpieces of the material sciences into engines of destruction which threaten to annihilate the civilisation which produced them.
This is the challenge of our time: we must either find the way of truth in the government of our relations one with another, or succumb to the results of our ignorance.
Many prophets, sages and philosophers throughout history have reminded us that there are two forces at work in society: the material and the spiritual. If either of these two is neglected or ignored they will appear to be at odds with one another; society will inevitably become fragmented; divisions and rifts will manifest themselves with increasing force and frequency.
It is clear that this is exactly what has happened today. We have a situation of disequilibrium and disharmony. Only the reawakening of the human spirit, of love and compassion, will save us from our own worst extremes. Physical wealth must go hand in hand with spiritual, moral and ethical wealth.
2 - Focusing on the Bigger Picture: What are the Biggest Questions? Questions that are Deeply Spiritual
What is it for a human life to be going well and be happy? What is the value of happiness, and what is the relation between the value of happiness and other types of value, especially moral and ethical values? What is the source of true happiness and well-being? What is the good life? What is the purpose of economic life? What is true affluence? What is genuine wealth? Does money hold the secret to having a happy life? Should money be a means to an end or the goal itself? Other questions include: What is education? What is knowledge? What is wisdom? What is a University? What does it mean to be a human being living on a spaceship with finite resources? How can we contribute to creating the new civilisation for the common good?
3 - Why Happiness Matters Most
According to many wide-ranging international studies, depression is the most disabling disease in the world. Many millions of people across the globe experience some form of depression during their lifetime. Sadly, depression and anxiety are not adults-only problems.
A very large number of children experience a major depressive episode by the time they are 14 years old, and many more will experience a major depressive episode before graduating from high school, while still many suffer from serious depression whilst at university. However, there is much good news too.
Traditionally psychologists have focused their attentions on what makes depressed people depressed. Yet recently a small group of scientists has turned the question on its head. Now they are asking: “What makes happy people happy?” This Copernican shift in perspective has given rise to the new “science of happiness”.
4 - New Science and Ancient Wisdom
There is one thing that many observers agree upon: The pursuit of happiness is a deeply spiritual quest. The heart of spirituality is about the transcendent of one’s own self and the forming of deeply loving and compassionate relationships with others. In spite of powerful genetic and environmental influences, a sizeable chunk of our mental well-being depends on our actions and attitudes.
Moreover, by cultivating certain strengths and virtues, we are not escaping from the causes of depression. On the contrary, this strategy seems to generate a resilience that protects us from it. So now, a new science, which in fascinating ways is confirming ancient insights from East and West, is opening the door to an unprecedented opportunity. We can now analyze the growing mountain of studies on well-being and happiness, and separate the science from the hype.
Next, we need to show how the results can be applied to the real world. Then we need to integrate this new-found wisdom with existing curricula, both in high schools and universities.
5 - Lessons in Life: Why Teaching Happiness Matters
Helping to produce happy and contended students, ready to face the real world when they graduate, should be the highest priority of any committed academic and university. I have been saying this for the last many years and more, but only in the past couple of years have I begun to realise this isn't just an airy-fairy aspiration, but one can in fact learn happiness in classes. Indeed, happiness is understandable, obtainable, teachable, and there are already courses in Happiness and Well-being at a few universities including Harvard, Cambridge, the “Well-being Institute” and Oslo, the “Happiness Project”. Now I have realised what might be done. I recognised the duty to do something about it at Globalisation for the Common Good Initiative. My main aim is to create further interest in this subject and to inspire other universities to follow the examples of Harvard, Cambridge and Oslo, amongst others.
I believe that our education in universities is fundamentally ill-balanced. Of course exams matter greatly - they are the passport to an individual's future work and career. A university which fails to let every student achieve the best grades and results of which their students are capable is failing to do its job properly. But education is far more than this. It is far more than grades and percentages here and there.
As a university lecturer with many years of experience, I have seen far too many tortured and unhappy students who have achieved very high grades. If they can achieve these grades while leading balanced lives, taking part in a wide variety of activities which will develop different facets of their character, and if they blossom as happy and contented human beings, then all is well and good. But as any teacher will know, this isn't always the case with high achievers. Neither is it with high achievers in life. These driven people see their lives flash by in fast living and fast cars, and most fail to realise they are missing the point of life. Is it more important to be highly “successful”, or to be a respected colleague and a valued friend, and a loving parent whose children grow up in a secure environment in which they know they are valued and treasured? I have had to learn the hard way myself; the answers are obvious. Hence the need to teach happiness while at schools and universities.
Universities should seriously consider developing courses and modules which are about emotional learning and emotional intelligence, which by definition are far more reflective activities than traditional classes. Students should learn about how to form healthy and sustaining relationships. They should gain understanding about the goals they should want to set in life, which should be realistic and appropriate for their own talents and interests. The negative emotions which are an inevitable part of life should be explored: students should be able to learn more about what it is that causes them pain and unhappiness, how they might be able to avoid or minimise these emotions and how to deal with them when they do occur. So the essence is that students learn more about themselves, which will be information that they will be able to use for the rest of their lives.
Today university students lead very destructively competitive lives, which are all about the highest grades, finding the best jobs, the ones that give them more, the best position, highest bonuses, etc. It is all about the best, the most, the highest, and all measured in monetary terms. This is for all practical reasons a rat race. Here we can, if we ever needed to, see why we need courses in happiness and well-being, inner peace and contentment. A pertinent question at this time is: “How can we dampen the impact of the rat race?”. We have to start from human nature as it is, but we can also affect values and behaviour through the signals our institutions send out. An explicit focus on happiness would change attitudes to many aspects of policy, including in education and training, regional policy and performance-related pay, the dreaded and destructive bonus-inspired culture that has made money the main measurement of success and happiness.
The goal should be to help our students lead happier lives, not in the sense of experiencing pleasure - of moving from one immediate gratification to the next - but in the sense of leading a meaningful and fulfilling life, of flourishing emotionally, spiritually and intellectually.
Education can be informative or transformative. Information may “educate” the students, but to transform, in contrast, is all about changing the way students perceive the world and interpret the “information” that they receive in their lectures. Today our universities by-and-large are all about the information and not much about transformation. This must change. To help students lead fulfilling lives, information is necessary, but not sufficient.
These courses should remind the students that “Attaining lasting happiness requires that we enjoy the journey on our way toward a destination we deem valuable. Happiness, therefore, is not about making it to the peak of the mountain, nor is it about climbing aimlessly around the mountain: happiness is the experience of climbing toward the peak.” They should be encouraged to discover the beauty and the wisdom of happiness, self-esteem, empathy, sympathy, friendship, humility, love, kindness, generosity, tolerance, service, altruism, creativity, nature, music, literature, poetry, spirituality, and humour.
What is the purpose of university if not to prepare its graduates for a life beyond? It is not only at university that personal difficulties arise. Most of us have had to cope in our lives with professional rejections, breakdowns of relationships, bereavements and periods of depression. These are all part of life. I wish our universities could communicate more effectively with the students that money, fame and worldly success do not necessarily lead to happy and fulfilled lives.
I would like to see all universities within the next few years begin to teach courses on happiness and what it means to be happy. I do believe that by taking the subject seriously, universities will not only be doing a much better job morally for their students, but they will also help produce young men and women who will help to build a far better society than their parents did. This is a real challenge and it is one to which I believe all universities should rise.
6 - The Common Good Happiness Project: A Spiritual Quest for the Good Life
In this project we seek to identify and bring forward the main ancient concepts of happiness and their relation to morality, ethics, business, economics, finance, management, media and environment, amongst others. The guiding theoretical principle of this undertaking is to clarify and characterize the essential constituents of the concept of happiness as these are reflected in the ancient writings and debates, and to consider their enduring validity within the context of the study of socio-economic well-being and happiness, both at individual and societal levels. At the same time — as politicians, governments and economists and others seek to identify the key components of happiness and how to measure it as an essential dimension of economic policies and planning behaviour — we will examine whether these ancient concepts may facilitate and provide workable platforms for developing a view, or views, on the nature of well-being and happiness that are viable today.
Spiritual Aspects of Happiness
As we all know, there are many facets to happiness. However, I very much believe that happiness, first and foremost, has a spiritual component. When I say this, I do not in any way mean to imply that you need to practise any particular religion in order to be happy. What I mean is that in order to be a truly happy person we need to live our lives in harmony with certain spiritual truths. I have come to conclude that there are certain universal spiritual truths that are applicable to people of all faiths, cultures and civilisations. I discovered these universal spiritual truths as a result of my own religious exploration, and life journey which has led me to conclude that: “The greatest spiritual challenge for our times is to develop a loving relationship with all life on earth and to resolve to do our utmost for the good of humanity and the entire web of life.” I find this idea to be the pillar of my spirituality no matter what spiritual orientation I approach life from.
We can find remarkable similarities between the insights of the psychological and philosophical pursuit of happiness from the ancient wisdom and the modern “Science of Happiness.” Therefore, this project will explore the ideas of major thinkers, from East and West, North and South, ancient and modern, who devoted much of their lives to the pursuit of happiness. On a monthly basis, we will cover the art of happiness from the following list of sages, prophets and philosophers of love: Buddha, Confucius, Aristotle, Mencius, Zhuangzi, Epicurus, Seneca, St Augustine of Hippo, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, Shams-ud-din Mohammad Hafez Shirazi, Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell, Dalai Lama, William James, Viktor Frankl, Abraham Maslow, Martin Seligman, Richard Layard and Tal Ben-Shahar. We will also look at happiness from the indigenous spiritual traditions.
For me, an important way we can manifest the spiritual goal of developing a loving relationship with humanity and the entire web of life is to recognize the connection between economics and spirituality, and begin addressing the gross economic disparities of this world. I believe this is our greatest spiritual challenge.
We live in an age of unprecedented individualism. The highest obligation many people feel is to make the most of and for themselves, to realise their potential. This is a terrifying and lonely objective. Of course they feel obligations to other people too, but these are not based on any clear set of ideas. The old religious worldview is gone; so too is the post-war religion of social and national solidarity. We are left with no concept of the common good or collective meaning.
Therefore, in this era of divisions, disparity and polarisation what should be our concept of the common good? During the 18th-century Enlightenment, Jeremy Bentham and others argued that a good society was one where its members were as happy as possible. Here Bentham’s wise words ring true as never before:
“Create all the happiness you are able to create: remove all the misery you are able to remove. Every day will allow you to add something to the pleasure of others, or to diminish something of their pains. And for every grain of enjoyment you sow in the bosom of another, you shall find harvest in your own bosom; while every sorrow which you pluck out from the thoughts and feelings of a fellow creature shall be replaced by beautiful peace and joy in the sanctuary of your soul.”
This is why a further important objective of this project is to appeal to our universities world-wide to introduce courses, programmes on: The Economics of Happiness to get the students to seriously address the following topics, amongst others: What can we do to combat the dominance of materialism, and how can our economic system be reformed so that it promotes well-being and happiness rather than economic growth as the only main objective? As Andrew Oswald for example has remarked, “happiness, not economic growth, ought to be the next and more sensible target for the next and more sensible generation”.
We must reorient economics, business and the world of education and work towards a truly meaningful and values-based development of human well-being, in balance with the well-being of nature, not simply the pursuit of unbridled economic growth, consumerism and materialism. The world of autistic economics and business must change and only then we can claim that we are genuinely pursuing a wealth creation model that is providing for the happiness and the good life for the good of all. Not to stand back and question the status quo would be to compound failure with failure: failure of vision with failure of responsibility.
In conclusion, paraphrasing the wise words of Richard Layard, so my hope is that in this new century we can finally adopt the greatest happiness of humankind as our concept of the common good. This would have two results. It would serve as a clear guide to policy. But, even more important, it would inspire us in our daily lives to take more pleasure in the happiness of others, and to promote it. In this way we might all become less self-absorbed and happier.
I do hope that you may join me in this journey transforming our education and universities to be more for well-being and happiness, more for the common good.
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Fromm, E. (1957) The Art of Loving 1995 edn. London: Thorsons
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Haidt, Jonathan (2007) The Happiness Hypothesis-finding modern truth in ancient wisdom, New York: Basic Books
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_____________”Happiness is back” in Prospect, 17th March 2005-Issue 108
Luks, Allan with Peggy Payne (1991) The Healing Power of Doing Good- The Health and Spiritual Benefits of Helping Others, New York: Fawcett Columbine
Milward, Peter (2006) What is a University? London: Shepheard-Walwyn
Oswald, Andrew “The Hippies were Right all Along about Happiness” in the Financial Times, 19 January 2006
Nelson, Melissa K. (2008) Original Instructions: Indigenous Teachings for a Sustainable Future, Rochester, VT: Bear
The Pursuit of Happiness, http://www.pursuit-of-happiness.org/
Seldon, Anthony “Lessons in Life: Why I’m teaching happiness” in The Independent, Wednesday, 19 April 2006
Be Inspired: The Wisdom Corner
The links noted below are amongst my Blog postings which are there to provide ideas for inspirational stories for everyone, encouraging contemplation, soul searching and spiritual enrichment.
Whenever you get a chance, please take a few minutes to watch, listen and read some of the amazing narratives below: They are some examples of the many gems I have discovered in my life journey from the wisdom of others. They have opened new horizons in my life. Here, by sharing their wisdom with you, I hope they will do the same for you.