The course focuses on the psychological aspects of a fulfilling and flourishing life. Topics include happiness, self-esteem, empathy, friendship, love, achievement, creativity, music, spirituality, and humor.
According to the account of the course in the Boston Globe on-line, Harvard's crowded course to happiness, the course seems to attempt to combine some scholarly research (although there are no links to any peer reviewed research articles and a cursory search dd not bring any such articles through Google) and personal exploration by the students. One student is quoted as saying:
''Positive Psych may be the one class at Harvard that every student needs to take," said Nancy Cheng, a junior majoring in biology. ''In this fast-paced, competitive environment, it is especially crucial that people take time to stop and breathe. A self-help class? Maybe. . . . But from what I've seen and experienced at Harvard, I think we could all use a little self-help like this."
In the same article, a Professor at the University of Kansas adds:
In the last several years, positive psychology classes have cropped up on more than 100 campuses around the country, said Shane Lopez, an associate professor at the University of Kansas, who recently co-wrote a positive psychology textbook. But with such an enormous course enrollment, Tal D. Ben-Shahar, the lecturer who teaches Harvard's course, ''is the leader of the pack right now," Lopez said.
The courses can change how you see yourself and your life, Lopez says. ''A lot of people are just not accustomed to asking, 'What do I have going for me?' and 'What did I do right today?' "
NPR recently did a story about Professor Ben-Shahar and included his 6 point list of Tips to Happiness:
1. Give yourself permission to be human.
2. Happiness lies at the intersection between pleasure and meaning.
3. Keep in mind that happiness is mostly dependent on our state of mind, not on our status or the state of our bank account.
5. Remember the mind-body connection.
6. Express gratitude, whenever possible.
[The link brings up the list of 6 Tips with additional details.]
There is nothing wrong with this list and the advise is all quite reasonable but there is something troubling about the course being offered for credit at Harvard. It is apparently an easy course, and some students are likely taking it for that reason. It certainly sounds like the kind of self-help "wisdom" that in the hands of a charismatic leader can be highly affecting to unhappy people searching for relief of their distress. (The web page of Dr. Martin Seligman, Reflective Happiness, who is the father of Positive Psychology, appears to be well within the tradition of other self-help gurus who have always been a fixture of the American scene.)
My curiosity is what this course's popularity might be telling us about "the best and the brightest" of our young.
Now, bear with me as I switch gears a bit. Douglas Mulhall has a fascinating article posted at KurweilAI.net in which he addresses the question of superhuman intelligence, predicted to arrive via our rapidly accelerating technology in the next 20 years:
Thanks in part to molecular manufacturing, accelerated developments in AI and brain reverse-engineering could lead to the emergence of superintelligence in just 18 years. Are we ready for the implications -- like possible annihilation of Homo sapiens? And will we seem to superintelligence what our ape-like ancestors seem to us: primitive?
Among the many interesting points he brings up, one set of ideas caught my attention. He seems to think that it would be in our best interests to show any future super-intelligence that we have been good guardians of those people and life forms less fortunate than us (since once the super-intelligent arrive, we will be the ones in the less fortunate category). He may well be correct in this, but his comments left me uncomfortable:
Until we do the blatantly positive things such as eliminate widespread diseases, feed the starving, house the homeless, disenfranchise dictators, stop torture, stop inhumane treatment of less intelligent species, and other do-good things that are treated today like platitudes, we will not get rid of violently disaffected groups.
By doing things that are blatantly humane, (despite the efforts of despots and their extremist anti-terrorist counterparts to belittle them as wimpy) we might accomplish two things at once: greatly reduce the numbers of violently disaffected groups, and present ourselves to super-intelligence as being enlightened guardians.
Both Positive Psychology and Mulhall make suggestions that are perfectly reasonable. Presumably if everyone could follow the 6 Tips, we wouldn't have to worry about Mulhall's "blatantly positive things" since those problems would be resolved as more and more people find themselves doing good and feeling happy. In both cases, however, the suggestion that our luxurious abundance will allow us the time and space for happiness is implicitly accepted and misses the point in the most fundamental of ways. So many Harvard students, children of abundance, wealth and leisure, are flocking to a course on happiness precisely because they do not know what they are missing and how to obtain it. The 6 Tips should be obvious; it is our inability to do such obvious things that suggests there is an internal problem. Similarly, simply curing poverty and disease and injustice will never stop people from being disaffected, unless there is a commensurate internal change in the people who are angry and disaffected.
One prediction that accompanies much of the thinking about The Singularity is that at some point well before we reach it, we will have effectively attained material Utopia; with nanomolecular manufacturing, all "things" will be so inexpensive as to be effectively free. Everyone will be able to have all the toys and technological gadgets, all the finery, all the material goods their hearts would desire. It will be the end of material deprivation. And it is perhaps at that moment that the human race will be most in despair unless we can find some deeper meaning to our existence.
The Anchoress, a deeply religious human being, in all the best senses of the words, offers an interesting and profound take on the subject in her reflections on a prayer that she received recently, The Dangerous Prayer of Blessing. She is facing yet another very difficult family situation and, like most of us, searches for a way to make sense of her tribulations. At such a time she responds to a prayer to be frustrated.
May all your expectations be frustrated.
May all your plans be thwarted.
May all your desires be withered into nothingness.
That you may experience the powerlessness and the poverty of a child and sing and dance in the love of God the Father, the Son and the Spirit.
[I do not think she would object if anyone were to leave off the last 11 words, or substitute simply the love of God and left off the last 5, or7 words; she strikes me as having a fairly generous spirit.]
The Anchoress understands that we will never be happy if we get everything we want.
In our material success we have neglected our pursuit of meaning. This is not a surprise or a reason to disdain what we have accomplished. For much of human history and pre-history, life was always a desperate struggle to survive and thrive. "Meaning" was a necessity which modern Western man, in his Narcissistic and egotistical pretension, blessed with abundance, thought was no longer necessary; perhaps the message the Harvard students are trying to show us is that without meaning, and without the pursuit of happiness, there can be no happiness. It may be that our greatest task in the next 20-30 years will be to find meaning, despite our material abundance, wealth, and leisure; the alternative (with thanks to Simon and Garfunkel) is despair:
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich - yes, richer than a king -
And admirably schooled in every grace;
In fine we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
- Edwin Arlington Robinson -
" The Children Of The Night "