Widgets Magazine


The Pressure to Be Happy and the Crisis of the Humanities

This column is the first in a two-part series examining the connections between happiness, pressure and the study of the humanities at Stanford.

There are worse things than being in a place of happy people. At times, the effect can even be contagious. But there are also (and I hate to be the gnat who puts a damper on the party) drawbacks to living in a utopia.

When I say utopia, I don’t mean it in the theoretical sense of the word, as in a place where bliss truly does exist endlessly, but in its concrete application: a term to describe places that aspire to be utopias by exclaiming that everyone there is happy, and through this myth, keeping everyone, through the corresponding fear of being left behind or isolated, “happy.”

And, yes, you may have guessed, I deem Stanford one of these places.

The myth that “everyone here is happy all the time” makes feeling unhappy abnormal and shameful. I am surely not the only one who, upon feeling a bout of sadness, retreats inward. When I come across an acquaintance in the bookstore, I plaster on my smile.

“How are you?” they ask. “Good,” I say. At times I say, “Okay,” for this is my most courageous euphemism for, “Life absolutely sucks at the moment.” Whenever I get beyond the superficial banter stage, I learn that everyone has insecurities, sad days and, most upsettingly for me, a sense of guilt and isolation for feeling these things; every time one of these “revelation” moments occurs, I feel surprised, strangely enough. To have come across another human being? Why should students feel ashamed of feeling what is perfectly normal?

This has created a crisis: CAPS (Vaden’s psychological services wing) is so flooded with demand that it can’t adequately accommodate the number of students seeking its services. When two student suicides occurred last year, there was silence on the part of the administration – not even a candlelit vigil in White Plaza. Are we afraid of what would happen to us if we voice our sadness and our confusion, or even worse, our grief? Are we afraid that other people will see something wrong with us, cast us off with the party-pooping crowd who can’t have fun? I believe that what we fear is excommunication, not of the official sort, but of the unspoken and insidious kind.

The weakest members of a utopia are the ones who can’t have fun. In a true community, the greatest threats are the ones who haven’t learned to empathize, practice humility, care for the injured. Sadness is not a character trait. It is a passing emotion that we are all wont to feel at some time or another. However, in a utopia, sadness and its many cousins (insecurity, self-doubt, confusion, grief, jealousy) are diagnosed as character flaws and prescribed one of two antidotes: suppress it in public and tend to it in private, or leave, lest you risk spoiling the fun for the rest.

The greatest, and most effective, medicine for this natural and inevitable recourse of the human mind is not “medicine,” but empathy. To compel students to emulate an aura of immaculate happiness is to deprive everyone of an open and caring community. It is to shut down meaningful communication between students (a blockade they must overcome through their own devices), depriving them of the guidance and sympathy of thousands of young adults going through the same trials and tribulations.

This brings me to the value of humanities. I will allow you a moment to groan, rightfully so, for I am not the first, nor will I be the last, to bemoan the dwindling presence of the liberal arts here. The argument I hear most often is that humanities are beneficial to one’s intellectual reasoning. Well, yes. All learning is. Yet the bigger grievance I have with this argument is that it assigns value to the humanities based on how successful they can make you. Law schools actually favor English degrees. Medical schools in fact prefer students with a solid, well-rounded liberal arts education. An art history minor will distinguish you from all those other Microsoft applicants. Philosophy is a great exercise for the mind, so you can tackle those tough-as-nails interviews (and dazzle your interviewers and colleagues with Sophocles quotes.

Thus, many students, I take it, interact with the humanities because they are compelled to or (if the goodwill campaign is a success) because they have been convinced it will help them out in their pursuit of a successful, practical career. What is missing is a discussion of why humanities are indispensable in and of themselves.

They deserve more than to simply be a means to an end. However much the sciences may reveal about the body or the world or the neurological origins of happiness, what they can never do is instruct you in how to live. For two millennia, the greatest minds have wrestled with the existential questions that we all inevitably encounter: who am I? What is my place, my purpose, in the world? They have produced an infinite amount of literature to help us along with this process. Mourning a loved one? Pining for the guy who dumped you? Envious of the girl who has it all? There is, if not an answer, then a guidebook for that.

A library can be seen as a medicine cabinet for your emotional ailments. A pharmacy may be able to prescribe you Prozac for the depression that stemmed from the break-up, but the pharmacist will not tell you about the awful break-up she had when she was your age, how she hated yet still loved him, how she got over him and what she learned about love from it. If the “classics major will get you into law school” argument is effective because it speaks, quite frankly, to our self-centered ambition, then why aren’t we selling humanities on the basis that studying them is an entirely self-serving experience?

In next week’s column, Alex will discuss the links between the pressure to be happy and  the in-depth study of the humanities. Email her with ideas at abayer@stanford.edu.

  • former undergrad

    I always enjoy reading your thoughtful columns. I’m going to disagree with just about everything you wrote in today’s piece, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it.

    First, I’m curious what the evidence is for the existence of the myth that “everyone here is happy all the time”. Sometimes an observer points to the weather (ignoring, evidently, the purgatorial summers we have) and the beautiful architecture; but these are superficial and surely cannot be the foundations of happiness. I think an objective, or at least outsider’s, analysis of what college is like suggests in fact very much the opposite: happiness is at best fleeting, and the standard emotions are nervousness, frustration, anxiety, being overwhelmed, uncertainty, occasional pride, occasional satisfaction, and hopefully a sense of growing competence.

    Indeed, looking more broadly than at the college experience, the *engaged person’s* experience in the world at large is surely not dominated by happiness, for the world as it is offers little reason for a continuous state of contentment and joy. Rather, happiness is to be found in fleeting moments with loved ones, frolics in nature, or similarly transitory states.

    College, then, has nothing to do with happiness. I think college is best thought of as an extremely compressed time of rapid increase in competence and awareness: new abilities to do, and greater knowledge of, things that matter. The compressed and so stressful nature of college in my view makes happiness harder to achieve than at any subsequent time in one’s life.

    Second, and in line with my first point, I disagree strongly with your statement: “However much the sciences may reveal about the body or the world or the neurological origins of happiness, what they can never do is instruct you in how to live.” (Let me again emphasize that I enjoy your writing; that you give the reader something to disagree with is a good thing and not a bad one.) College is a time when one learns *to do*, and *doing* is *living*. I learned a lot as an undergrad engineering major, and that knowledge was just the beginning of all the technical know-how I have acquired in the course of my career. And every day that I work as an engineer, I am living as a productive, well-meaning person; I am being part of the large group of people working on solving the problems of our time. I believe whenever an observer dismisses engineering and science in favor of the humanities as a way of understanding how to live, the observer is implicitly and incorrectly assuming that the STEM student is *unreflective*. This is not so. No matter one’s major, one can be reflective or shallow. For the reflective learner, the good major is the one that will best serve his life-long purpose of being productive and aware.

    tl;dr version: 1. Being happy at Stanford is even harder than being happy in the real world; we should banish once and for all the idea that the default real or even just intended emotion here is happiness. 2. Doing is living, so use college as a time to learn to do something you want to do.

  • Alex Bayer

    Thanks for your thoughtful response, “former undergrad!” You bring up a lot of well-reasoned points, and it’s important for me to get the perspective of someone in the sciences. You’re right to point out that the statement “However much…how to live” reads as a bit too general and biased. I suppose what I meant is that the humanities give you the tools to reason with the natural “fuzziness” of life: the emotional turbulence, deaths, certanties, unexplained calamities, etc etc. With the sciences, there is typically a correct answer; uncertainty is that which one means to overcome, so in this sense, I do think the humanities are valuable in that they can inform you how to deal with life events that have no explanation nor rationale. I have no doubt that you are living a fulfilling, meaningful life doing work that you truly enjoy amongst people that are equally passionate and in pursuit of a larger purpose. My intent was not to criticize the sciences as a discipline, but rather, point out how the sciences at Stanford are being increasingly funneled into lucrative career pathways and valued for their earning & prestige potential. I would hope that people pursuing any career, whether in the humanities or sciences, are doing so out of true passion, like you.

    To address what you said about the happiness side of things, I think that in popular and cultural imagination, there is a sense that college is full of anxieties and periods of unhappiness, etc etc. I just think that at Stanford, where the floating duck syndrome is widely prevalent, this isn’t given the same acknowledgement. A lot of students I know feel like everyone around them is happy (even though this is not the case at all), and I think Stanford contributes to this misinformation by selling to prospective students the vision of a sunny paradise and being dead silent on realistic matters like depression and suicide with its current students. College is not synonymous with happiness by any means, and I don’t believe students, realistically, can or should strive to be happy all the time. I also don’t think Stanford has a responsibility to make students happy. Rather, I think it is irresponsible of the university to propagate the idea that happiness is endemic when this is clearly not true (of any college), as it leads to students feeling alienated when they don’t fit this mold.