The Pressure to Be Happy and the Crisis of the Humanities

Opinion by Alex Bayer
Jan. 18, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

This column is the first in a two-part series examining the connections between happiness, pressure and the study of the humanities at Stanford.

There are worse things than being in a place of happy people. At times, the effect can even be contagious. But there are also (and I hate to be the gnat who puts a damper on the party) drawbacks to living in a utopia.

When I say utopia, I don’t mean it in the theoretical sense of the word, as in a place where bliss truly does exist endlessly, but in its concrete application: a term to describe places that aspire to be utopias by exclaiming that everyone there is happy, and through this myth, keeping everyone, through the corresponding fear of being left behind or isolated, “happy.”

And, yes, you may have guessed, I deem Stanford one of these places.

The myth that “everyone here is happy all the time” makes feeling unhappy abnormal and shameful. I am surely not the only one who, upon feeling a bout of sadness, retreats inward. When I come across an acquaintance in the bookstore, I plaster on my smile.

“How are you?” they ask. “Good,” I say. At times I say, “Okay,” for this is my most courageous euphemism for, “Life absolutely sucks at the moment.” Whenever I get beyond the superficial banter stage, I learn that everyone has insecurities, sad days and, most upsettingly for me, a sense of guilt and isolation for feeling these things; every time one of these “revelation” moments occurs, I feel surprised, strangely enough. To have come across another human being? Why should students feel ashamed of feeling what is perfectly normal?

This has created a crisis: CAPS (Vaden’s psychological services wing) is so flooded with demand that it can’t adequately accommodate the number of students seeking its services. When two student suicides occurred last year, there was silence on the part of the administration – not even a candlelit vigil in White Plaza. Are we afraid of what would happen to us if we voice our sadness and our confusion, or even worse, our grief? Are we afraid that other people will see something wrong with us, cast us off with the party-pooping crowd who can’t have fun? I believe that what we fear is excommunication, not of the official sort, but of the unspoken and insidious kind.

The weakest members of a utopia are the ones who can’t have fun. In a true community, the greatest threats are the ones who haven’t learned to empathize, practice humility, care for the injured. Sadness is not a character trait. It is a passing emotion that we are all wont to feel at some time or another. However, in a utopia, sadness and its many cousins (insecurity, self-doubt, confusion, grief, jealousy) are diagnosed as character flaws and prescribed one of two antidotes: suppress it in public and tend to it in private, or leave, lest you risk spoiling the fun for the rest.

The greatest, and most effective, medicine for this natural and inevitable recourse of the human mind is not “medicine,” but empathy. To compel students to emulate an aura of immaculate happiness is to deprive everyone of an open and caring community. It is to shut down meaningful communication between students (a blockade they must overcome through their own devices), depriving them of the guidance and sympathy of thousands of young adults going through the same trials and tribulations.

This brings me to the value of humanities. I will allow you a moment to groan, rightfully so, for I am not the first, nor will I be the last, to bemoan the dwindling presence of the liberal arts here. The argument I hear most often is that humanities are beneficial to one’s intellectual reasoning. Well, yes. All learning is. Yet the bigger grievance I have with this argument is that it assigns value to the humanities based on how successful they can make you. Law schools actually favor English degrees. Medical schools in fact prefer students with a solid, well-rounded liberal arts education. An art history minor will distinguish you from all those other Microsoft applicants. Philosophy is a great exercise for the mind, so you can tackle those tough-as-nails interviews (and dazzle your interviewers and colleagues with Sophocles quotes.

Thus, many students, I take it, interact with the humanities because they are compelled to or (if the goodwill campaign is a success) because they have been convinced it will help them out in their pursuit of a successful, practical career. What is missing is a discussion of why humanities are indispensable in and of themselves.

They deserve more than to simply be a means to an end. However much the sciences may reveal about the body or the world or the neurological origins of happiness, what they can never do is instruct you in how to live. For two millennia, the greatest minds have wrestled with the existential questions that we all inevitably encounter: who am I? What is my place, my purpose, in the world? They have produced an infinite amount of literature to help us along with this process. Mourning a loved one? Pining for the guy who dumped you? Envious of the girl who has it all? There is, if not an answer, then a guidebook for that.

A library can be seen as a medicine cabinet for your emotional ailments. A pharmacy may be able to prescribe you Prozac for the depression that stemmed from the break-up, but the pharmacist will not tell you about the awful break-up she had when she was your age, how she hated yet still loved him, how she got over him and what she learned about love from it. If the “classics major will get you into law school” argument is effective because it speaks, quite frankly, to our self-centered ambition, then why aren’t we selling humanities on the basis that studying them is an entirely self-serving experience?

In next week’s column, Alex will discuss the links between the pressure to be happy and  the in-depth study of the humanities. Email her with ideas at [email protected].

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