True pursuit of happiness takes more than the techniques of positive thinking

Already two days past the deadline, I was struggling to finalize the courses I was going to teach in the coming spring semester. From experience, I knew to look for a sense of balance: introductory courses for general education versus upper-division courses for majors; courses driven by academic content versus skill-building (such as writing); discipline-specific versus interdisciplinary; and so on. There also must be something fun — not the kind one might expect from a trip to Disneyland, but a course that engages the intellectual curiosity of my students as well as my own. With the right mix, I can distribute my workload across a variety of tasks and ideas so that I’m not doing the same thing all the time, which in turn helps maintain my motivation for a long 15 weeks.

It was obvious that my original list of courses, put together by prioritizing the department’s curricular needs, was too lopsided. If I went along with it, my spring semester was going to be a disaster, not just for me, but more importantly, for my students, who would have to put up with a professor too burnt out to bring her best energy to every class. In a moment of desperation, I deleted the upper-division course on research methods and wrote in a new course title: “Questions of Happiness.”

Truth has a funny way of popping up when least expected, I realized once I pressed “send” and sealed my fate for the next semester. I have been experiencing some significant changes in my personal and professional life: the recent passing of my father, the retirement of many long-term colleagues, low morale at my workplace reflecting the mood in the higher education industry as a whole, students more anxious than ever about their future.

Not a day passes without the question of happiness passing through my mind. What is “happiness”? How do we become “happy” and know that we are “happy”? Is there anything in particular we do that makes us “happy”? And — here my anthropological mindset kicks in — how is “happiness” distributed across society and how can we “study” it?

If my questions of happiness were triggered by specific life events, it appears that the last 20 years of development in the study of happiness have been driven by a lot of chronically unhappy people in places like Europe, the United States and Japan, the wealthiest of countries where the basic needs of the people are met by and large, mortality rates are low, and life expectancy is well over 80 years. “Happiness Studies” has become a recognized and popular subject of study complete with its own peer-reviewed journal (which is considered the mark of a legitimate academic field), the Journal of Happiness Studies.

Why “happiness” now? There are a lot of people out there, who find their lives extremely stressful and their future provoking anxiety, seeking ways to feel happier. This may explain why a great deal of attention is focused on “positive psychology,” which, in contrast to traditional psychology, revolves around supporting human flourishing and nurturing a sense of well-being. It offers a wealth of tools and techniques for individuals to manipulate their brain into thinking and feeling more positively. Breathing exercises and meditation are perhaps the best-known examples; journaling and other daily activities to keep track of experiences of positive emotions are also common.

Among the internationally known advocates of positive psychology is Shawn Achor, the author of the best-selling book “Happiness Advantage,” and whose TED Talk has almost 25 million views. His method for achieving happiness relies on the idea of neuroplasticity — that human brains can be rewired throughout their life course. In essence, one needs to train their brain to think more positively, which increases the subjective feeling of happiness, which in turn brings success in personal and professional life.

Without knowing, I was introduced to positive psychology several years ago through a psychotherapist during a time of personal loss. Making a list of things in my life that I was grateful for, telling my family and friends how much I appreciated their presence in my life, practicing deep breathing and meditation — desperate for relief, I took to these tasks diligently for months.

Yes, deep breathing did slow down the heart rate; yes, seeing a list of positive things in my life consoled me to a degree. I can see the appeal of feeling a sense of control — if you aren’t happy, just learn to breathe right — over something as nebulous as a sense of happiness. However, a true pursuit of happiness, it seems to me, takes more than the techniques of positive thinking. Human beings are social animals, and, as Emile Durkheim noted over a century ago, our sense of fulfillment is inexplicably tied to our meaningful connection to other human beings. If deep breathing and a gratitude journal kept me from despair at a moment of personal loss, they can do little to address the social causes of alienation. Think, for example, of racism and other forms of systematic marginalization. Think of the value of teaching and learning being pushed to the side by economic priorities. We can’t — and shouldn’t — just rewire our brains to look past these injustices.

Now that I’m committed to teaching this complicated subject, I’m sure of one thing: It’ll make me a very happy teacher if I find a dozen or so students who brave the ambiguity and follow me into this rabbit hole.

Sawa Kurotani

Kurotani is a professor of anthropology at the University of Redlands.