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ISSUE 119 VOL 14 PUBLISHED 3/17/2006

Happiness at Harvard hoax

By Jean Mullins
News Editor

Friday, March 17, 2006 features a video clip from a Saturday interview with Tal Ben-Shahar, a professor at Harvard University who teaches a course on happiness. Apparently, Harvard students are not happy. Oh, wait: no one in this modern era is happy. We all focus too much on material possessions; have lost personal contact thanks to the digital age; are eating more junk food; and work too many hours.

There is irony: The clip was preceded by a MasterCard commercial, one where we are supposed to fill in the blanks for the junk we would buy with our MasterCard to make us happy. At the end, of course, we hear: “There are some things money can’t buy; for everything else, there’s MasterCard.” If money is not going to make me happy, why are you marketing happiness, MasterCard?

As I watched this video clip, I was struck by how hackneyed the whole bit was. We have all heard this stuff before: the pressure to be happy and succeed, the emphasis on the internal rather than the external, the lessons from our failures. Do students at Harvard honestly need to take a class to get this stuff browbeaten into them? Furthermore, will grading students on their happiness honestly help them to become successful and happy?

After all, is it not grades that make students unhappy? From personal experience and observation, I feel that nothing stresses students out more than big tests and the fear of failure. Pop quiz, class – what makes you happy? What is the right answer? If I say, “Turkey sandwiches,” will I fail?

Is happiness an aspect of life that we truly think can be taught in the classroom? Is happiness not one of those practicum things?

Other places are offering classes on happiness as well, including the University of Chicago, affectionately known as “the place where fun comes to die.” This course takes a philosophical look at happiness and reads such tomes as Plato. Now there is happiness.

And everyone knows that happiness is not going to come from material goods. Nor is it going to come from the approval of others. Nor is it going to come from forcing oneself to be happy.

Happiness is elusive for many people at some point. We all struggle with the ebbs and flows of life. And we are all trying to pick a hobby, a major, a career that makes us happy. As Ben-Shahar said of his students, “They are human beings. We all want to be happy.”

The truth is that sometimes we are happy, and sometimes we are not.

If we are lucky, we are happy more than we are not. That’s life. Individually, we need to assess what will make us happy. For some of us, happiness is as easy as taking a break from homework and reading the lastest issue of Vogue. For others, happiness may involve treating an illness.

The bottom line is that happiness is unique to every individual, something that a cookie-cutter lecture class is not going to inspire with readings of Plato and the same stuff we have heard before. It is certainly not going to come from MasterCard, no matter how touching their commercials are.

Deciding what makes us happy may be where the true disconnection between ourselves and our happiness lies. Whom are we really pleasing with our choices? How are we dividing our time? We have to take care of ourselves first and foremost – if we are not happy, we cannot make anyone else happy.

So delve. As Ben-Shahar said, happiness does not come from external source (like a class), but from within.

News Editor Jean Mullins is a junior from Portland, Ore. She majors in English with a concentration in biomedical studies.

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