Happiness class hooks students on more than a feeling

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Students in associate professor Ashby Butnor's first-year seminar do volunteer work on a local farm as part of a philosophy class on happiness. Photos by John Eisele

What is happiness? Philosophers have been asking that question for more than 2,500 years and now, a new class at Colorado State University is delving into it, too. 

The course is part of a Teagle Foundation/National Endowment for the Humanities planning grant, which allows CSU students to explore important questions centered around humanistic concerns, including justice, evil, war, goodness and happiness using transformational texts from renowned thinkers throughout history, as well as today. 

While a class devoted to the idea of happiness may seem odd, it’s an important building block in critical thinking, said Associate Professor of Philosophy Ashby Butnor, who teaches the class. 

“When many people think about happiness, they may only consider the feeling, for example, ‘I’m going to eat ice cream, and that will make me really happy,’” Butnor said. “But we’re looking at the foundation of a deep and robust sense of happiness needed to flourish as a human being to live a meaningful human life in this one opportunity that we have.” 

The class looks at happiness through the various lenses of philosophers such as Aristotle, Epictetus and Confucius, as well as a more contemporary framework of meaning and purpose. 

“I think today’s students struggle by seeking validation and happiness through external sources, especially entering college,” Butnor said. 

While the Stoics would say happiness comes from rational determination to free ourselves from external factors and find tranquility within, the Buddhists would say it’s about letting go of our attachments to the material and being mindful of the impermanence of it all, and Daoists would say it’s about getting in tune with the flow of nature and the world around us.

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Growing happiness

As part of the class, the students put these philosophies into practice through various exercises, including journaling, yoga, meditation and — farming. 

What does farming have to do with happiness? Turns out, quite a bit. 

Recently the students pitched in at Sunspot Urban Farm, helping prepare the Fort Collins farm for winter. The goal was to give them an opportunity to be in nature, to actively engage in an activity together and to compare how this activity might relate to philosophical explorations of the concept of happiness, Butnor said. 

For student Ryan Thompson, the repetitive nature of tilling the soil connected him to the idea of mindfulness, like the feeling he gets on the basketball court. 

“It’s really about finding flow,” said Thompson, a first-year exploratory studies student. “It’s about achieving this separate state of mind that brings about happiness, which is something I’ve experienced a lot doing sports as well. You just get so focused on a task that you lose track of time and sometimes it’s like you don’t really have to think about every action that you’re doing. You just do it, you’re completely in the zone, in the flow of the world. And I think that connects you really well to nature, which is a great way to bring about happiness in your life. And I feel like we’re doing a pretty good job of achieving that here.” 

By using some of the philosophies to gain a deeper understanding of what happiness means to him personally, Thompson has already found benefits to the class, particularly in his relationships.

Humans are naturally social animals and most of the philosophers tie happiness to following nature and natural instincts, he said. 

“I’ve been using it to think about how to go about my daily life and focus on my relationships,” Thompson said. “It’s gotten me closer to the people around me and brought me a lot of happiness along the way.” 

CSU philosophy instructor and owner of Sunspot Urban Farm Rod Adams can relate to that feeling. 

“We’ve been here for a few years on this land, growing food for the community – for a few restaurants and some grocery stores – and we see it as an opportunity to participate in something good that preceded us and hopefully something good that will succeed us, and all of that enriches our experience,” Adams said. “Hopefully when I’m at the end of my life, which I hope is a long time from now, I can look back and feel good about what we were doing here.” 

To Adams, classes like this that explore these larger questions through the lens of various critical thinkers are an essential element of a strong liberal arts education, allowing participation in a long-standing intellectual tradition. 

“We end up having conversations, so to speak, with the great minds of the past and trying to overlay those ideas with our current experiences and attempting to make sense of the world,” he said. “That’s an activity that’s been going on for thousands of years among individuals, and we get to participate in that. And yet we can be robbed of that experience if we don’t get certain kinds of training that classes like this can provide.”

Exploring their options

This innovative curriculum is specifically focused on exploratory students still deciding on a major to create interdisciplinary thinkers who can benefit society no matter what educational or career path the students follow. 

“The goal is that whatever major the students pursue, they’ll continue to be interested in the humanities and looking at these enduring human questions,” said Butnor, giving the example of medical schools encouraging students to get their undergraduate degrees in the humanities rather than the natural and social sciences that they’ll learn later. 

“It’s the idea that the humanities are valuable and they’re going to enhance whatever you do and enhance your life with that different way of thinking, a larger way of thinking,” Butnor said.