Happiness: Pursuit of the Good Life

Happiness is considered by many to be the ultimate goal in life; indeed, virtually everyone wants to be happy. The American Colonies’ Declaration of Independence takes it as a self-evident truth that the “pursuit of happiness” is an “inalienable right” comparable to life and liberty. In the late 1980’s, the fourth king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, proclaimed “Gross National Happiness” the principle guiding force in his country.

All at once, happiness is an individual experience and a societal aspiration. However, there is a paradox at the heart of our lives. Most people want to be materially prosperous and orient their lives around striving for it. This goal permeates every stage of one’s personal and professional choices. The desire for income security drives students to outperform their peers in school. The assumed benefits of a prosperous society inspire policies aiming to create wealth. And yet scientific research has shown that as Western societies have become richer, their people are no happier for it. The philosophical roots and intercultural relativity of happiness reveal a diversity of sources deviating from the material. Are we missing something? This Complex Problems course explores what makes happiness so elusive, a problem as true in the age of antiquities as it is today. The course content first presents diverse perspectives aiming to define happiness, then examines individual practices designed to bring happiness to one’s life, and lastly assesses larger scale initiatives, such as social policies, behavioral incentives, and the role of institutions in supplying the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Students of this course will engage with these aspects through the prism of their own personal experiences, and along the way confronting and reassessing their assumptions about “the good life”.