This is the second part of a post I wrote last week about being asked to talk about poetry in a philosophy of happiness summer class at Yale. I have to admit that I’ve never taken a philosophy course. My own cognitive style is fuzzy, associative. The idea of weaving together many disparate theories seems daunting. Besides, poetry’s where the money is. Still, I felt that I—that poetry-- could add something to the discussion. I drafted a lecture and indulged my sense of curiosity about the students by making up a brief questionnaire about their own views of happiness throughout the lifespan and across cultures. This was, after all, a group of extremely intelligent undergraduates from across the US, Mexico, and a number of Asian countries.
What role, if any, might culture play in what each student takes away from a course like this? How much influence might exposure to these theories in early adulthood have on the lives of these students over the next 70 years? Though we’ll never know the answer to the second question, I believe that simply asking questions has an impact on people’s thought processes. Call it seeding the clouds.
My questionnaire was optional and anonymous. All students chose to participate and all agreed to my writing about their replies here on Best American Poetry’s blog. Their answers were varied and fascinating. I’ll post a couple of the most interesting replies to each question.
What made you happiest as a child?
“The first moment I realized I was truly alive, that I was part of a vast network of relationships and people. “
“Three pictures in a photo album remind me I spent most of the time naked, wearing a belt and nothing else, playing w/ a brother in the woods. Or pounding nails into a stump my dad gave me.”
What things do you think will make you happy in your eighties?
“Happy children; having striven, stressed and stumbled all my life without regrets of missed opportunity.”
“Continence.” (There’s one in every class.)
Are people with university degrees happier than people without them?
“Yes. They have fewer regrets.”
“No. Actually, people who get higher education are more easily depressed.”
Which is the happiest nation on earth?
“Socialist Western Europe—many natural human fears are mitigated by government aid.”
“I’m a patriot, so the United States. It’s the most secure and tolerant. It also has so much pride and vigor. The “American Dream” will never die out.”
“Don’t think it’s likely there’s a happiest nation. If it is so problematic to understand happiness in individuals, what can we say about collectivities?”
Is there anything you learned in the course which might make you a happier person in the future?
“Interestingly, I might not see a significant change in my life after the course. But I feel more assured, after having done through the entire deliberative process.”
“Knowing that not everyone will achieve happiness in their lives—it’s not a given. If I fail to find what society denotes as ‘happiness’, I don’t have to feel guilty about it.”
Reading through these responses left me feeling both reassured by the subtle and complex thinking of the students as well as impressed by what a course in philosophy can do for one’s world-view. It turned out that Professor Vogel had also filled out a questionnaire. On the back of the sheet he wrote something that clarified much of my confusion about philosophy—something which sounded familiar:
“Philosophy is first of all about opening oneself to the complexities and ambiguities, not about ‘nailing things down.’ Still, there is pleasure in feeling you’ve gotten a sense of the lay of the land, that you appreciate what the issues and the interesting questions are.”
It occurred to me that this is what I believe poetry aims to do: it helps us know the world better by giving resonance to its shadows and mysteries. It allows us to give meaning to events; it allows us to sit with a sense of the unknowable.
My profound gratitude to Professor Lawrence Vogel and his students in the philosophy of happiness course.