Happiness is many times described as elusive and fleeting, but could the feeling of joy be taught? Afifah Darke explores how several institutions approach this topic and why learning how to be happy could be an important life-long skill.
“Don’t worry, be happy”, Bobby McFerrin’s whistling song, which can usually get every person in a room up for a little jig, is deceptively simple. Just be happy. The rest of the song, however, doesn’t provide much insight on the “hows”, but tips on happiness seldom provide further wisdom behind them.
For Dr Jaime Kurtz, Associate Professor of Psychology at James Madison University (JMU) in Virginia, approaching happiness and mental wellbeing from the position of simply willing it can cause harm. A common misconception about being a happy person, for example, is that one should be cheerful all the time, she observes.
“That just makes people more stressed and puts more pressure on them. I hear a lot of ‘I should be happier. My life is so good. My family’s healthy,’,” she points out. “That’s toxic positivity… and a recipe for unhappiness.” Dr Kurtz is the director of JMU’s summer programme, Exploring the Good Life in Scandinavia, where she leads college students on a tour of two of the world’s happiest countries: Denmark and Sweden. In the two-week course, students observe and conduct interviews on cross-cultural differences in well-being, as well as carry out “happiness-boosting” exercises of their own.
I believe that university is really an opportunity for children to develop into adults, to discover what they are, who they are, what they really enjoy.
“If there are ways to teach students scientifically-backed strategies for how to reap all the benefits out of life, I think that that’s a really worthwhile thing,” she tells QS-GEN. “Why do [students] go to college? It’s not just about training them for jobs, it’s teaching them, hopefully, how to think and how to live well, which benefits them.”
More than just the A, B, Cs
While Dr Kurtz believes university should prepare students for all facets of life, more often than not, the pressures of being a college student mean happiness and well-being may not always be a top priority. In the UK, a study by the Prince’s Trust in 2022 revealed that 46 percent of young people have experienced feelings of self-loathing, and almost a quarter agree they will never recover from the emotional impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. College students in the US are also struggling, according to the Healthy Minds Study in the fall of 2020. Around 39 percent of American college students reported experiencing depression, and 29 percent have gone through mental health therapy or counselling in the previous year.
Dr Ties Van der Werff, who teaches Eternal Pursuit of Happiness at the University of Amsterdam, tells QS-GEN he has noticed how his students are increasingly living on their phones, which he says, is not helping them to become any happier. With the rampant use of social media, the idea of “the good life”, if without any critical reflection, makes it seem like happiness is gained through consumption, says Dr Ties. “What I see with my students is that they’re sometimes so anxious and pressured. The pressure… to look good, and the pressure to get a boyfriend or girlfriend,” he adds.
This is where universities, and classes like the one led by Dr Ties, play a role, as they guide students to reflect on the concept of happiness, relate technological developments to happiness, as well as apply insights to their daily lives.
For lecturers like Professor of Developmental Psychology in Society Bruce Hood at the University of Bristol in the UK, teaching was becoming increasingly difficult because students were so concerned about their performance. “It really took away the joy of learning,” says Professor Hood. “Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I believe that university is really an opportunity for children to develop into adults, to discover what they are, who they are, what they really enjoy. It shouldn’t be a continuation of school,” he states.
The fluffy stuff
There are always naysayers who think that happiness cannot be taught, and Professor Hood confesses that even he was initially sceptical about positive psychology courses. He used to ask himself: “To what extent do they make a lasting impression?”.
“Now, I call myself a cautious convert in that I do believe that [the class] does leave a lasting impression on not all, but some individuals.”
With a focus on positive psychology, the class prepares students with resilience, he says, and “to deal with life a bit better”. “It’s about reframing negative events and thinking about them in context and proportionally and responding in that way.”
Dr Ties also believes such classes are essential for students to flourish. “It might be a fluffy subject in the sense that it doesn’t give you certainty, but this is exactly what we need right now because the world is not certain,” Dr Ties says firmly. “We need to train students to face uncertainty, ambiguity, and how to cope in a world of change.”
Canadian-based Dr Catherine O’Brien, the founder of Dawson College’s Sustainable Happiness programme, believes in a world of so much “apocalyptic storytelling”, classes like this can let people focus on solutions. “[These problems] can feel too big, we can feel start to feel hopeless in face of how catastrophic it is… part of what we can find with sustainable happiness is helping people to feel more resilient because they maybe have not understood exactly how to take care of their own well-being,” she says.
“We need to train students to face uncertainty, ambiguity, and how to cope in a world of change.”
Feeling on top of the Earth
Dr John Zelenski, Professor of Psychology at Carleton University in Canada, believes that the Earth is so intimately interconnected with people that “when nature suffers, humans are likely to suffer too”. Therefore, when people connect with nature and appreciate it, they also seem to treat it better, he says. Dr Zelenski, who is a researcher and director of the Carleton University Happiness Laboratory, constantly encourages his students to go out into nature. “Putting people in nature pretty reliably puts them in a good mood,” he says. “If the weather is very bad, even nature videos can be a little mood boost,” he laughs.
While there may be some parts of nature, like snakes or spiders, that are unlikely to make people happy, putting people in nature reliably puts them in good moods, he says. “As we face things like climate change, and other environmental problems, I think getting people into nature is both good for their wellbeing and potentially good for the environment.”
Sustainable happiness is happiness that contributes to individual, community, or global well-being without exploiting other people, the environment, or future generations.
Happiness is also intrinsically linked to nature and the environment for Dr O’Brien and Chris Adam, Manager of Dawson College’s Sustainability Office. “Sustainable happiness is happiness that contributes to individual, community, or global well-being without exploiting other people, the environment, or future generations,” according to Dr O’Brien. As part of the programme, students learn how the choices they make in their personal life affect the environment, what they could do to live in a more sustainable manner, and how to use nature as “a mentor”. “If we can use nature, and positive experiences in nature to bring down the stress that so many students feel, that would release the creativity and imagination problem solving that we need in our institutions,” says Adam.
Describing the programme as a “magical” 20-hour certificate, students can celebrate what it is to be human and explore their capacity for wanting to be a good person, to live a good life, and to help others, says Adam. He reminds students, “If we want to be good people, if we want to do good for the world, that’s a skill. We need to take the time to reflect on it, support each other, and then do something that that takes our words into action.”
This article was abridged from 2022 QS World University Rankings by Subject. Download the full edition.