The famous “Happiness Professor” at Yale, cognitive scientist Laurie Santos, was interviewed in the New York Times Magazine last week. She teaches a class called “Psychology and the Good Life,” and has a podcast called “The Happiness Lab.” There is a version of the class on offer at Coursera. Though Santos’s advice seems innocuous enough, like something you could get from a refrigerator magnet, there is real harm in approaching the subject of human happiness as if there were a “science” to it.
In the Times, for example, Santos points to evidence suggesting that by increasing your income from $100,000 per year to $600,000 per year, “your happiness goes up from, like, a 64 out of 100 to a 65.” Money doesn’t buy happiness?! wow thank you, Yale Happiness Professor!
Here’s the end of the interview:
So what’s the answer? What’s the purpose of life?
It’s smelling your coffee in the morning. [Laughs.] Loving your kids. Having sex and daisies and springtime. It’s all the good things in life. That’s what it is.
If you want to learn whether life has meaning, the smell of good coffee won’t take you far, unfortunately. Or to put this another way, it might make you feel really good, in an animal way—and I’m not about to knock that, per se—but there is no ethics in the scent of coffee, no compassion, no learning, no history, no humor, no human feeling or connection. Raw animal pleasure is great, and we are animals for sure, but that is only a minutely small part of all we are. Coffee 100% cannot address existential anxiety of the kind Santos describes her students to be feeling (“If everything you said is true, and I’m not just working for grades and trying to get into college, then what’s the purpose of life?”)
Santos’s is a staggeringly bleak and shallow approach to finding a reason to live, and it really made me panic for her readers and listeners. She is a scientist who studies “what makes people happy,” as if this could be quantified. It can’t! Scientists, even nice, well-meaning ones, have virtually no track record of providing insight into the question of what life is, or what happiness is.
Fortunately, though, for many centuries those questions have been far better addressed, and usefully addressed, by novelists, philosophers, dramatists, artists and musicians.
It’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that the barrenness of imagination indicated by this Santos profile is the degraded result of privileging STEM education over humanities for decades on end. It seems like highway robbery to me to make Yale students pay that kind of money for such a superficial preparation for adult life. Without some grounding in philosophy, literature, history, art, music, without developing a sense of onself as existing in a larger whole, in communities, in history, in an incalculable and weirdly magnificent and terrifying universe, there can be no meaningful human happiness.
It’s not too much to say that this was the original point of what used to be called “a liberal education,” the education of free people; to make life more bearable, to open new vistas, new dimensions of understanding, compassion, and reason, and to promote the deep satisfactions that come with that enlargement of the mind. But today it’s as if the soul of learning has slowly bled out, leaving Yale’s undergraduates to the tender mercies of scientists who think sex and daisies equals happiness.
We are self-aware, absurd, tragically temporary beings. In the face of which, a whiff of coffee can only bring contentment for so long.
Obviously it suits the Man for us to be just animals, unquestioningly enjoying, consuming, feeling (and buying), with no thought for the why of it, or the rightness or wrongness of our circumstances and our world. Santos is indeed the ideal philosopher for the consumer society, a capitalist-friendly self help guru for our sad, hollow times.
We older people were taught a lot of wrong things, unfortunately, but not all we were taught was wrong. Understandably-alienated undergraduates, please read Dostoevsky and Chekhov, and Cecil Woodham-Smith and Oscar Wilde, read George Saunders, Virginia Woolf, Okakura Kakuzo, Octavia Butler, Ernest Becker, R.D. Laing, Alexander Pope and Sei Shonagon!! Read the Republic, read Descarte’s Bones and The Selfish Gene (a really good book even if Dawkins later became a big jerk). Read Wodehouse and Jane Austen. Books can be helpful for making better sense of the world and its beauties and terrors, they can increase your humanity and make you feel more centered and real, in short, happier, in the deeper sense of providing powerful and satisfying responses to existential anxiety. Also please listen to Beethoven’s Op. 132 movement III. (I know you are already listening to Kendrick Lamar.)