One of the courses I teach at Stevens Institute of Technology is a two-semester freshman seminar that serves as a space to build written and oral communication skills as well as introducing students to humanistic methods of inquiry. For students at a STEM school, these required classes sometimes represent the rough equivalent of getting a root canal over fifteen weeks. However, I have to say that I have had some fine groups of students in recent years and the two groups I had this semester (Spring 2020) will definitely stand out in my memory. It seems almost serendipitous that this semester we had been exploring the theme of “Understanding Happiness” when the pandemic hit and we had to scatter across the country and meet via online platforms.
It seemed ridiculous not to talk about the current crisis since it has impacted almost every area of our lives. And it seemed nearly impossible to close a course on happiness without considering how the idea of pursuing happiness has been altered by this virus. I know that my students are dealing with crowded houses that are ill equipped for engaging in thoughtful prose as well as all manner of stress inducing problems from unemployment to illness. Nevertheless, I was very moved recently by many of the responses to an online written reflection. We have studied happiness from many angles including philosophy and religion, history and the arts, psychology and economics. I asked the students if they could apply one of the strategies discussed this semester to the current crisis, what would it be and why.
Many of the students wrote about Epicureanism and its largely hedonic approach to sensory pleasure as a means of navigating through each day of sheltering in place. These responses included typical eighteen-year old perspectives like playing video games with friends around the country, reading memes, and posting to various social media platforms. But numerous students also wrote about more thoughtful activities like sewing masks, baking for neighbors, running errands for senior citizens, raising money for local health care workers, and creating platforms for musicians to share their art. These acts of kindness provided a sense of purpose and solidarity that John Stuart Mill or even Aristotle might appreciate.
Additionally, several students demonstrated a striking astuteness and wisdom beyond their years in reflecting on how one can pursue happiness in the midst of this global crisis. Here are three observations that inspired me.
1. This too shall pass
One student referenced the wisdom of Ecclesiastes (which we read at the beginning of the semester, in another lifetime) and said she took comfort in the notion that “life comes in seasons” and she knew that a time of difficulty will be followed by a different time. There will be celebrations in the future and life is never “always good or always bad.” Striking a similar cord, another student took a long, evolutionary view of the present quarantine. He ruminated, “isn’t adaptation what being human is really about?” Humans have survived for millenia, he continued, by overcoming obstacles and maybe the post-corona years will offer an opportunity to encourage people to stop and appreciate life.
2. Do Something Productive With This Time
While it is tempting to pass the time at home in largely thoughtless pursuits like passively watching videos, one student pointed out that when we all look back on this experience we aren’t going to remember the time spent zoning out in front of the computer. There still needs to be meaning in our lives and individual progress, he suggested. Find a balance between hedonia (fleeting pleasures of the senses) and eudaimonia (longer lasting well being and fulfillment of one’s potential). While dozing and watching Netflix probably won’t make a lasting or satisfying impact in our memories, creating art might. Start a new artistic hobby or pick up an old one, several students advised. Make something that you will be proud of when this is all over. And you might learn something new about yourself in the process. Isn’t that one of the foundations of pursuing happiness?
3. Go Inward
One student has used a quote from Artistotle’s Nichomachean Ethics as a compass through this uncertain time. Aristotle proposed, “For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too a day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy.” Realizing that this specific moment is only a small part of one’s lifetime can be a source of reassurance. Additionally, numerous students turned to the Stoics. If one understands that happiness ultimately comes from within the individual then one can learn how to help oneself through difficult external circumstances. Stay off the hedonic treadmill of the internet, one student advocates. Use this time instead to “look inside one’s self and consider how they can still take some sort of fulfilling action in their lives.” And, falling short of discovering fulfillment, one can always mindfully take comfort in appreciating the precious details of everyday life and making sure nothing is left out, kind of like the Japanese practice of shisa kanko.
It was pondering these insights that inspired me to write this post. I was debating about taking a nap this afternoon. Then I thought, I’ll probably get more lasting fulfillment if I write this blog and remember, perhaps years from now, how encouraged I was by the insights from this group of students. They not only transitioned beautifully to online learning in the middle of the semester, but they all helped themselves and me to find meaning in an uncertain time. Thank you to CAL 105 M and CAL 105 N. I will never forget you all.