What Is Happiness?

This is the first of two posts on the question of happiness.

Nestled within the opulence of Orange County, California, Concordia University Irvine has the distinct mission to develop “wise, honorable, and cultivated citizens.” To this end, the university has created a rich Core Curriculum focused on great works. Eight courses, paired with one another over the first four semesters of a college student’s experience, cover biology, history, theology, philosophy, literature, and mathematics. As students sit in classrooms, library, and dormitory rooms surrounded by professors and books, learning and reading about these subjects, it is tempting to naively believe that the students’ focus aligns with the historic mission of the university.

Encompassing the university, in fact, is the 3rd most populous county in the state, behind only Los Angeles and San Diego, with a median family income of $85,009 (the highest of the top 5 most populated counties in the state). Two of the top 10 richest neighborhoods in the US are minutes away from the university (US Census, 2010). Beaches, snowcapped mountains, Hollywood, and Disneyland are all within a short drive. There appears to be a stark contrast between the life of the student attempting to become wise, honorable and cultivated and the larger community of mansions, Mercedes, and Mickey Mouse.

In reality, however, these seemingly disparate cultures share a common motivation: happiness.

Whether through acquisition of real estate, trust funds, and other material good or through what Aristotle called the “contemplative life,” one of the primary motivations for both the university student and the Orange County resident is the pursuit of happiness. Students want a good education for jobs, money, and stability, often with the belief that this will make them happy. People buy cars and houses, visit Disneyland (self-advertised as “The Happiest Place on Earth!”), and go to the beach or mountains because they believe their lives will be happier with these goods or at these places.

Such motivation, however, is not just a regional quirk of life in Southern California or a peculiarity of the life of a student. The pursuit of happiness is embedded within the American dream, explicit from our nation’s founding to the present day, expressed in the Declaration of Independence, and more recently featured in the Time Magazine 2013 summer double-issue on the topic. Historically, Greek philosophers, Christian theologians, and Buddhist monks have all attempted to grasp the true nature of happiness and the proper routes to attaining it.

Clearly, the desire to understand and obtain happiness is not solely the quest of an Orange County resident or American citizen; it is part of the human condition that transcends particular histories and cultures.

It is within this context that I teach happiness, and more broadly psychology, at Concordia University. Psychology has been built upon the some of the same core questions that humans strive to answer (What is happiness? How can one achieve happiness?), but attempt to answer them in a different manner than philosophy or theology.  Advances in the field of psychology have found that the most common, current answers in America to these questions are often misguided, if not completely wrong.

So how does psychology define happiness and the means of attainment? That is the question I will be exploring with students in my new course on “The Philosophy and Psychology of Happiness,” and the subject of the next post.

John Lu is Associate Professor of Psychology at Concordia University Irvine