Beloit College Magazine

Beloit College Magazine

Summer 2011 (August 4, 2011 at 12:00 am)

Pursuing Happiness


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July 22, 2011 at 12:00 am

Smiley FaceA battered electric teapot sputtered in one corner of Diane Lichtenstein’s classroom last spring. The old, but serviceable appliance was laboring with a purpose—to make green tea for students in “Pursuing Happiness,” a course the professor of English was teaching.

Green tea is popularly believed to make people happy, Lichtenstein announced with a wry smile on this last day of class, and ditto for cupcakes, which she also shared with students.

Lichtenstein first offered Pursuing Happiness as a higher-level literature class. A champion of interdisciplinary studies at Beloit, she decided to tweak the course after recognizing happiness as a perfect subject for teaching students about academic disciplines and their particular perspectives.

What exactly is happiness? How does an individual pursue it? Can it be measured? Can it be sustained? Students pondered these questions after learning about the values and methods of academic disciplines and the aims of interdisciplinary studies.

Featured readings examined happiness from the perspectives of economics, psychology, life sciences, history, feminist studies, poetry, literature, politics, and religion. The Art of Happiness, by the Dalai Lama, was on the reading list, as was Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself and Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, by Ed Diener.

In addition to analyzing the literature, students were required to lead class themselves at least once, conduct an individual research project or produce an individual creative work, write two short papers—one from the perspective of their own major and another that reflected on the multidisciplinary nature of the class—and complete a substantial essay that analyzed the course texts.

Students’ individual “happiness projects” ranged from Freudian theories on happiness to the effects of music on emotional well-being; from knitting and its correlation to happiness and fulfillment to how individuals react emotionally to different foods: think broccoli versus chocolate.

Ariane Frosh’11 (Centennial, Colo.) considered presidential campaigns and their links to happiness, focusing specifically on the promises of hope and happiness that were central to Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. Amanda Sullivan’11 (Saukville, Wis.) questioned whether reading certain poetry could make individuals feel happier and whether poetry that focuses on happiness is perceived as lacking intellectual weight. Odin Grina’11 (Minneapolis, Minn.) developed and administered a survey about Beloit College football that assessed players’ motivations for participating in the sport. He found that most students were on the team for personal satisfaction and that the connections and relationships players built among the group were most strongly linked to their happiness.

Briana Berkowitz’11 (Madison, Wis.) “took the course on a whim” in its first incarnation as an advanced English class. She later wrote about it in the Round Table where she said that Pursuing Happiness offered some of the most valuable and practical information of any class she had taken at Beloit. “Through happiness self-evaluations, various happiness projects, and different philosophies on happiness, we learned how to deal with happiness both as an academic subject and a personal goal.” Her individual project focused on the relationship between cupcakes and happiness, a project which, as she wrote of the class, “didn’t hurt its greatness.”  

 

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Selected readings from the Pursuing Happiness syllabus:  

The Politics of Happiness by Derek Bok Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky

Happiness: A History by Darrin McMahon

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

“The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas,” by Ursula Le Guin (short story from the Wind’s Twelve Quarters)

“The Birthmark,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman

Happiness Around the World by Carol Graham

Happiness: Lessons from a New Science by Richard Layard

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

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