Happiness and Higher Education

Marjorie Malpiede / January 11, 2019

Sociologist Corey Keyes connects the dots

There’s an intellectual curiosity taking hold on campuses across the country and it’s all about how to be happy. From Yale’s “Psychology and the Good Life” to Harvard’s “Positive Psychology,” the science of happiness is proving so popular among students that classes max out minutes after they’re posted.

Skeptics may view this as a pop psych fad, or, simply students reacting to the unhappiness that often permeates the high-pressure climates at top performing schools. But according to Dr. Corey Keyes, professor of Sociology at Emory University, teaching well-being may be the most important transfer of knowledge colleges can offer.

Keyes, regarded as a pioneer in this discipline, teaches his own seminar on happiness called “The Sociology of Happiness,” which, over the last seven years, has become one of the most sought-after classes at Emory. It is based on Keyes’ breakthrough work in social psychology and mental health, showing how the absence of mental illness does not translate into the presence of mental health. According to Keyes, we want students to be “flourishing”—a term he coined that means pursuing a life worth living, the opposite of which is “languishing.”

Keyes’ theory dictates that just as illness can be prevented and/or treated, well-being can be taught and nurtured. The growing number of adherents to this philosophy, among them Georgetown President John DeGioia, are taking the students’ unprecedented desire for these teachings seriously. The big question for these big thinkers is what changes need to be made in higher education for “flourishing” to become more than just a course.

Happiness 101
Corey Keyes almost became a Catholic priest, but instead, he decided to channel his passion for serving others through science. His interest in health led him to graduate work and the shocking realization that health is largely perceived as the absence of illness, not a positive state unto itself.

“I concluded that the world was stuck in a rut, trying to face death and just pushing it as far away as possible,” Keyes said. “I thought, ‘What if we reversed this thinking to truly examine what it means to live a life worth living?’ ”

Keyes’ class is a mixture of science, philosophy, spirituality, and religion. The first half of the seminar goes over the science of happiness, and the second is focused on the various pursuits that have occurred in this arena, starting with ancient wisdom traditions like Buddhism, which he later contrasts with a week of cognitive behavioral therapy.

Each week is devoted to a topic that students process through their journals, examining how it applies to their lives. One week, the topic may be happiness through non-violent resistance which, when internalized, is about “meaning as a facet of happiness,” or what Keyes calls “standing for something.”

“Students are thinking about these big questions: What’s the point of life? How can I make a difference? What am I going to do to be a good person?” he said.

In the Sociology of Happiness, Keyes talks to his students about authenticity, the absence of which is something Keyes believes is at the heart of much of the distress we see in today’s young people.

“One week of the seminar is on vulnerability and its necessity to connection, and that cracks them wide open because they’re hiding lots of stuff in their pursuit of perfection,” he said. “In one respect, they’re trying to avoid something that’s inevitably human. We’re all imperfect.”

Keyes points to the literature telling students they cannot live a meaningful life without adversity–without “responding to the cracks and crevices of life and making sense of it.” To demonstrate these concepts, he shares his own stories, sometimes raw and upsetting, like the PTSD and addiction issues he suffered as a result of his abandonment at birth and the abuse he experienced by his stepmother. He talks of a breakdown he went through mid-career that left him desolate at first, but ultimately redirected, focused, and more courageous.

Purpose in Action
It was around this time that Keyes says he began “teaching from the heart.” It is something he feels is missing in the way professors of higher education are taught to teach today. In fact, Keyes concluded then that higher education itself was part of the problem his course aims to correct.

“Young people are breaking down earlier and earlier – losing their childhoods to preparation and resumes that will get them into the best schools in the country. I tell my students, ‘I’m a first-generation college student who went to a little school in Wisconsin. It doesn’t matter where you start. It’s what you’re going to do with your life.”

Keyes believes when students come to college with a fixed mindset that failure is to be avoided, they will not grow. Grading systems that indicate degrees of success or failure, rather than points of time along a continuum of “getting there,” perpetuate the problem. He refers to the rigidity of curriculum as an example of how higher ed is ignoring what our economy is telling us.

“We think we are giving students the tools and skills to succeed in the modern workforce, but the skills people really need to succeed are things like autonomy, mastery, purpose in life, passion, and finding a way to serve. Our young people need to flourish, and to flourish you need to have purpose in life, a sense that you’re contributing worth and value, that you belong here and have a community; that you’re accepting of yourself and others. If higher education, or education in general, doesn’t create students like that, then I don’t know what we’re doing.”

Keyes considers a wide range of strategies for change: teaching young faculty how to better relate to students, tying courses of varying disciplines to students’ experiences in real life, and even developing a “happiness” major. Given the stress that emanates from the cost of college, he talks of creating an entirely new tier of higher ed that is less rigid, less expensive, and every bit as effective.

This is part of a larger national conversation about how flourishing can scale on college campuses, driven in part by the student mental health crisis. Innovative higher education leaders are talking with experts in mental health, public health, and sociology to examine how what’s taught in happiness courses can be applied broadly to the campus ecosystem.

“In order to deal with the problem of mental disorder, we can’t treat our way out of the problem,” said Keyes. “We are going to have to prevent illness by promoting the very things that go into flourishing.”

Keyes argues that, like depression, flourishing is heritable. And like other functions of the brain, it can be developed. He also notes that sadness and happiness can function in tandem, and that consistent flourishing is not the goal.

“Fear and anxiety have their functions, and there will be periods when you will be sad and it will be alright,” he said. “You can’t always be happy in a world where so much is wrong.”