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Multicolored artwork depicting various symbolic representations of happiness.

Happiness is ...

Swarthmoreans share thoughts on what makes their day

Ever since July 4, 1776, citizens of the United States have been encouraged to engage in the “pursuit of happiness”—one of the three inalienable rights, along with life and liberty, deemed vital ingredients for the human condition and included in the country’s Declaration of Independence. 

But what does it mean—to pursue happiness?

Barry Schwartz, the Dorwin P. Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action, admits to having no idea what the framers had in mind when they formulated the phrase. “But at least it implicitly acknowledges that paths to happiness may be diverse so that people can pursue their own bliss, and you want to set up a society in which that’s possible,” he says. 

Scholarship on the topic, says Schwartz, who teaches a first-year seminar on happiness, focuses in large part on trying to define it. “We have a fairly good sense of what its critical components are and the factors that make the biggest contribution: Happy people experience high levels of positive and low levels of negative emotion, doing work that matters, feeling meaning and engagement in what they do, and having meaningful relationships.”

Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California–Riverside and author of the book The How of Happiness agrees, writing that “happy people are better partners and members of society, flexible and ingenious thinkers, productive employees, successful leaders and negotiators, and resilient when faced with hardship. They have stronger immune systems and are overall healthier with longer life expectancies,” she says. 

Wealth and material possessions are relatively minor factors in one’s happiness levels, say both Schwartz and Lyubomirsky. 

“Richer is happier,” says Schwartz, “ but not a whole lot happier, and once you get past about $70,000 a year, it doesn’t matter at all. There is actually enormous variation in happiness at every income level, with extremely happy societies where the gross domestic product per capita is quite low and really miserable societies where it’s high.”

What does matter, says Lyubomirsky, who uses the terms “happiness” and “well-being” interchangeably, is an individual’s level of intentional activity, the 40 percent of personal happiness that humans can control. Fifty percent is genetic. Only 10 percent is dependent on personal circumstances. 

Adaptation also plays a role in attaining, maintaining, and retaining a state of happiness, according to Lyubomirsky. Acquiring a desired object for a high price may make us happy, but after a while, the euphoria diminishes and the object becomes less interesting. Pursuing group activities, on the other hand, ensures a wide variety of responses, where adaptation is less likely and the group activity remains stimulating for a longer period of time. 

“We even adapt to adversity,” says Schwartz. “People who have chronic illnesses, such as kidney disease, and who are on dialysis twice a week, appear no less happy than the population at large.”

Much depends upon point of view. 

“People have a tremendous amount of control over how happy they are,” Schwartz says. “Consider the story you tell yourself about the B you got on your term paper. It could be a tragedy or a cause for celebration. The B has much less to do with the effect on happiness than your interpretation of it.”

Even William Shakespeare commented on man’s ability to put a positive or negative gloss on events through subjective interpretation. “There’s nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” says his tragic hero Hamlet. 


Faith Matters

Joyce Tompkins, Swarthmore’s religious and spiritual adviser, perceives happiness as having multiple levels, including community. “I think that religious congregations are one of the last places that have genuine intergenerational community, where you can be with someone who’s 90 and someone who’s 9 months old and really get to know people in a fairly intimate way, not just as an individual but as a family interacting with other families,” she says.

Tompkins regrets that modern culture has led people to distance themselves from discipline or ritual in the name of freedom of choice, thereby foregoing structure in their lives. “Religion provides that kind of structure. Whether through daily prayer, service, or scripture reading, it gives a shape to life that can create an important foundation when difficulties arise,” she says. “Then, there are the obvious benefits for those who are genuine believers in a sense of relationship with God or whatever one calls it—something larger than oneself. The changes and chances of mortal life are put into perspective with the sense of being part of a much greater and deeper reality.” 

Decrying what she calls “shallow versions of religion” as portrayed in radio and television shows with their “answer-book approach” to life, Tompkins says, “Those who take the time to go deeper and explore a tradition find that, actually, there’s a profound engagement with the big questions, including suffering and death and the apparent randomness of life and that there is in religion the opportunity to wrestle with those big questions. It isn’t all happiness but something deeper than happiness, maybe joy. It also includes suffering and darkness.”

Schwartz adds that research shows that religious people are not only happier than nonreligious people but live longer. Connection to a community and adherence to a belief that endows life with meaning connects you to something greater than yourself.


Imbued with Meaning

“That’s sort of what religion does,” Schwartz says, “and even if you don’t practice and you’re not part of a religious community, if you somehow internalize religious teachings, your activities are almost automatically imbued with meaning.”

On the other hand, he adds, those who become religious to find happiness will most likely not be successful. He mentions Aristotle, who, he says, argued that happiness is something that happens as a byproduct of leading a life that includes work that engages you. Working hard and achieving excellence brings happiness. 

Grace Ledbetter, associate professor of classics and philosophy and classics chair, confirms that for Aristotle, as well as Plato and the Hellenistic philosophers, happiness was the ultimate aim of human thought and action, attainable only by leading a virtuous life. In their case, though, virtue was not associated with religion. “It rather has to do with goodness, thoughtfulness, courage, temperance, and appropriate behavior—doing the right thing in the right situation. 

“The life that would make you happiest and count as virtuous,” says Ledbetter, “is a matter of having a certain amount of wisdom and experience so that you can do the right thing, the virtuous thing.”

At the same time, she adds, everything is an opportunity for happiness. “I often joke with my students that classics is the only field that has virtuous students.”


The State of Happiness

Professor Emeritus of Economics Frederic Pryor wrote in a 2009 article on “Happiness and Economic Systems” about the relationship of nations’ political and economic institutions to the subjective well-being (SWB) of their citizens. He concluded that national SWB is influenced more by political than economic institutions, because people can change their political systems through election, reform, or revolution. 

“Economic standing is one of the measures used to calculate gross domestic happiness, and normally poorer countries have lower levels of happiness, which is not surprising, but at some point it levels off,” Pryor says. 

In 1972, Bhutan’s Dragon King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, committed to creating an economy that could serve Bhutan’s Buddhism-based values, coined the term “gross national happiness,” indicating that happiness is more important than economic development. Bhutan became the first country to use gross national happiness as its main development indicator. By 2007, despite having one of the smallest economies, Bhutan’s was the second-fastest–growing economy in the world.

 In the meantime, using measures of wellness in the domains of economics, environment, mental health, the workplace, and the social and political arenas, a global Gross National Happiness Index was created, considering happiness as a socioeconomic development metric. 

In the recently published 2014 World Happiness Report, using the variables of GDP per capita, healthy years of life expectancy, social support, trust, perceived freedom to make life decisions, and generosity, the top five countries are Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, and Canada. 

According to sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild ’62, “The citizens of these countries are rich in public-sector support, and they have a big middle class—with less of a gap than Americans have between rich and poor. Research shows that those two facts vastly improve the lives of children. And chances are if the kids are thriving, the parents are happy.”

Leadership coach, consultant, and author Gloria Chan ’02 identifies five themes that are repeatedly named as essential ingredients for a happy and productive employee. “The first,” she says, “is a sense of purpose that’s meaningful to you—not just being a part of any mission-driven organization, but something that resonates with your greater sense of purpose.” 


Oh, Happy (Work) Day! 

Chan stresses the importance of using your gifts and talents, not only for the good of the organization but also for your own satisfaction and happiness. “If you are hired into the organization that you dreamed of working for as a student, but your employer fails to tap into what most excites you, or if you love working with people but must sit behind your desk all day, you might not feel a sense of engagement or that your talents are being used to the fullest extent,” Chan says. 

Creating opportunities for growth and learning, whether in your job, your family, or whatever group you belong to, and really being intentional about who you’re in the process of becoming, Chan says, are essential for happiness. 

“As members of humanity, we seek to grow, to not be stagnant. Even when using your talents, using them in the same way over and over can become boring,” she says. 

Feeling valued and appreciated in your workplace is important. This includes not only receiving a respectable salary, and being supported by your boss, but also receiving respect for your talents from your peers. “If you’re being bullied or receiving no respect, your work life can be miserable,” Chan says. 

Finally, she stresses the necessity to honor the whole person. This includes maintaining a good work-life balance, “not driving yourself into the ground by working crazy hours but allowing for sufficient family time, time to recharge, and maintaining balance in your life.” 

These five themes apply to not only employers and employees but to everyone, says Chan. “They’re important to expanding one’s spirit at work. While these are universal themes, they are very much aligned with Swarthmore’s values of learning, growth, contribution, and purpose.” Chan says that because of this alignment, Swarthmore graduates are uniquely positioned to change the world, one happy workplace at a time.   

Swarthmoreans share their magic moments ...

... and the happiness of a liberal arts education

Happiness is…

“The shout of joy coming through the front door with my four great-grandchildren.
Getting into bed at night next to the same man even after 68 years.
Sitting in my rocking chair in the kitchen, the sun pouring through the window, and reading a good book.
Eating Richardson’s coffee-almond-fudge ice cream out of a quart container.
Walking in my bare feet through the early morning wet grass in August.
Winning a game of Mine Sweep on the computer (I have played 28,179 games and won only 144 over the years.).”
—Verdi Hoag Johnson, ’45

“Middle school and high school were difficult, so I took a gap year last year and traveled on my own to Singapore. I was lost for five hours but told myself, “You can make this into an ordeal, or you can focus on the positive and enjoy seeing a part of the city you never saw before.” That was empowering. For me, happiness is the ability to keep your gaze on the bigger picture despite temporary misfortunes.”
—Sophia Zaia ’18

“Happiness is discovering the world three times: through your own eyes, your children’s eyes, and your grandchildren’s eyes.”
—Susan Goodman Jolles ’62

“What makes me happy is when I honor my current top values of family, connection, teaching, energy, and inspiration. Happiness is my son’s smile; quality time with my husband; meaningful friendships; sharing knowledge, experience, and wisdom as a leadership and coaching trainer; recharging and self-care after long days; and partnering with others to create a life they love.”  
—Gloria Chan ’02

“Happiness for me is an ineffable feeling inside me that is so wonderful that I have to try to explain it. This is the very rarest, highest form of happiness. It can also be a feeling of contentment, ease, relief from anxiety.”
—Benjamin Roebuck ’17

“Having an office up on the third floor of Parrish keeps me happy. I live in a retirement home. People who live in retirement homes live on average five years longer than those who don’t.”
—Frederic Pryor, professor emeritus of economics

“When I heard our son, David [’93], give a talk on the California climb to 50 percent reliance on alternative energy by 2030, I had a private flash: Was he that little boy who once poured gooey, healthful cereal on his head? Joy!
Or when I had my 8-year-old granddaughter sitting on my lap, dictating a long story—“The Rescue of the Redwood Wisdom”—that I was typing on my computer. It had a Queen Octopus, who ate eight courses for dinner—one for each tentacle—and water soup and seaweed salad, brought by squid waiters. A chorus of angelfish sang to her. Typing that in, not believing my ears, I was utterly happy.”
—Arlie Russell Hochschild ’62

“I don’t think there’s any guarantee that a liberal arts education will contribute to happiness. At its best, it may do so by making students aware of the many ways that one can find meaning and engagement in activities that are challenging but deeply rewarding.”
—Barry Schwartz

“By providing an education that values and promotes thinking about more than just how to jump through the next hoop, liberal arts colleges give students the time and the environment they need to determine what they most value in life and how they might pursue that as their life’s work. In this way the liberal arts can expand our capacity for happiness tremendously.”  
—Grace Ledbetter

“I think a liberal arts education is great for lots of things, like learning how to learn, how to express ideas, how to synthesize seemingly different thoughts, how to read critically, and write well. It probably promotes self-knowledge, as well as external knowledge. These traits and skills don’t seem to me to be the same as happiness, though they may contribute to happiness in indirect ways.”
—Peter Jaquette ’74

“A liberal arts education can expand one’s capacity in that it emphasizes the development of the whole person. Many of our educational institutions are becoming narrower and emphasizing a more focused and practical approach to life. At a place like Swarthmore, we have the privilege of a broader emphasis that engages mind, heart, body, and spirit in an intense community.”
—Joyce Tompkins

“My liberal arts education contributed to my general happiness by encouraging me to cultivate a wide range of interests, pursue satisfying work, and communicate effectively about the things that matter to me. It also helped teach me what is the source of strong and mutually fulfilling relationships.”
—Lucy Lang ’03

Educating For Happiness

Martin Seligman P’95, pioneer of positive psychology, has been promoting happiness through this branch of his discipline for years. 

“The high prevalence worldwide of depression among young people, the small rise in life satisfaction, and the synergy between learning and positive emotion all argue that the skills for happiness should be taught in school,” says the Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. 

“Until relatively recently, psychological research, particularly in the area of clinical psychology, was typically focused on problems such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, dropping out of school, failed marriages—the negative side of human experience,” says Jane Gillham, associate professor and chair of psychology at Swarthmore. She and Seligman have been research colleagues for the past 20 years.

“All that is important,” Gillham adds, “but the positive side of psychology—the idea that thriving, feeling fulfilled in your life, may be quite different from just not being depressed or not being anxious—has been neglected. Moving people out of psychological difficulty or preventing it might be very different from really helping people to live their best lives.”

Positive psychology, Gillham says, “focuses on our strengths, recognizing what we’re doing well and trying to figure out how to encourage and promote that.” 

 In 2004, a group of psychologists including Seligman and Gillham, collaborated with teachers at Strath Haven High School in Wallingford, Pa., in designing a program for ninth-graders, based on principles of positive psychology. 

“Over three years, ninth-grade language-arts students who signed up for the project attended classes where teachers used as many positive psychology techniques as they could, while others attended control classes,” Gillham says.     

Teachers delivered 25 to 30 lessons on positive psychology during a school year, integrating positive psychology concepts into other lessons, for example when teaching The Odyssey and other works of literature, whose content lends itself to the examination of different forms of strength, both physical and emotional. 

The students also each wrote a letter to a person who had deeply affected the life of the writer in a positive way, then they met with and read their letters to the recipient. A further exercise required each student to nominate an individual who exemplified positive strengths and who was then invited to participate in a panel discussion. They also did savoring activities: savoring a good meal, a musical work, a good conversation with a friend; and exercises in identifying strengths—in themselves and others—such as kindness, integrity, creativity, love of learning—and developed plans for daily use of their strengths.

“We saw two major areas of benefit to the students,” says Gillham. “One was in positive social skills. Teachers who had not been involved in the study completed a standard measure of social skills questionnaire, with no knowledge of which students had been in the study or not. 

Typically, social skills improve from ninth to 11th grade anyway, Gillham says, “but the results from the group focusing on positive psychology indicated that social skills improved more in the positive psychology condition than in the control condition. Students in the positive psychology classes also reported a higher level of enjoyment in school and demonstrated higher levels of learning strengths like curiosity and love of learning—all behaviors that showed engagement—than the control group.    

“A lot of psychology relates to how we think about stressors and responding to stress in our lives,” Gillham says. “Positive psychology is more ‘How do you respond to life? How do you live every day? How do you weave that fabric of a happy life?’”