This essay is part of our collection on liberal education in the modern world. See the full collection here. 

Students at a one-week seminar on happiness I co-taught recently at Yale University made a proposal so simple that I was mystified: they wanted to organize a conversation table in every dining hall.

During my days as a student at Yale, I always looked forward to dinner as it was a time when I could share my ideas and adventures with my friends. So I naively asked my students, “What do you do at dinner if you aren’t having conversations?” “Texting and checking social media on our phones,” they replied. And even when they put down their devices, they told me, conversations center on how stressed they are by work and extracurricular activities. By contrast, at the proposed conversation tables, students would be asked to disengage from technology and to discuss a variety of meaningful topics.

Such proposals indicate that although students today are connected to others electronically, they aren’t always creating connections with the people around them. By the time I started using Facebook and other social media, I had been out of college for more than a decade. By then, my identity was firmly rooted in strong friendships, family ties, and moral commitments guiding my life projects. But today’s college students began navigating social media more than a decade before entering college.

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During the seminar, students asked: In a society where we spend so much time on Facebook bragging about ourselves and getting envious of others, how do we build strong friendships where we can express our vulnerabilities? If we are constantly measuring the worth of a person by GPAs and résumés, how do we learn to give and receive unconditional love? What would communities of friendships oriented toward the common good look like on college campuses?

Their questions—and their answers—reinforced my belief that college students need guided reflection on happiness. It’s natural and good to want to be happy. Some critics allege that college courses on happiness represent one more step in a self-centered, hedonistic, achievement-obsessed treadmill. But numerous scholarly resources exist that ground courses about happiness in solid philosophy and virtues.

Learning about Happiness, Growing in Virtue

The seminar framed the question of happiness by using Aristotle’s classic definition in the Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle argues that happiness—human flourishing—is the highest aim (the telos or purpose) of human life, the only end that is not a means to some other end. Aristotle defines happiness as “an action of the soul in accordance with virtue.” Virtues are habits we have to practice daily. According to Aristotle, to be happy, we should reflect on the purpose of our lives and strive toward virtues such as justice, courage, wisdom, and prudence.

Before the seminar, students read Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. Because virtues are habits made up of repeated actions, I asked them to keep a journal reflecting on one act of kindness they performed each day. These ambitious Yale students, accustomed to adorning their résumés with big accomplishments, initially wondered what effect daily acts of kindness could have. But by practicing the daily disciplines of reflection and intention, they learned just how hard and how transformative small acts of kindness can be.

One student stopped in the middle of a road in New York City to help a drunken young woman who had fallen over. Her date was so moved by her care for a stranger that he began to wonder how he could be kinder. When visiting her family at home, another student got up early to have coffee and quality conversation with her mother. The day she was to return to Yale, her family couldn’t get things organized to leave on time, so instead of criticizing her family, she smiled and tried to smooth things over.Through these acts of kindness, students learned how important it is for our happiness to build social connections throughout the day with both family and strangers.

To grow in virtue, we need to live in a well-ordered society. So we also read Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic Democracy in America. Students were struck by Tocqueville’s observation that Americans’ drive for wealth could become disordered if material things become their ultimate ends. They also discussed the threat to ordered liberty posed by a retreat from social obligations into hyper-individualism, which is particularly characteristic of Americans. Many students were inspired by Tocqueville’s notion that the antidote to individualism is Americans’ love of virtue and their penchant for forming voluntary associations.

The Little Platoons Project: Cultivating Compassion

We concluded the seminar with a practical exercise called The Little Platoons Project. The project title comes from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.

To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind. The interest of that portion of social arrangement is a trust in the hands of all those who compose it; and as none but bad men would justify it in abuse, none but traitors would barter it away for their own personal advantage.

Although it is easy for students to propose macro-level social changes that would increase happiness, in the Little Platoons Project, students had to design a project they could carry out with ten to twelve people that could increase their happiness. We divided students into pairs, and instructed them to define an issue they wish to address, and to propose a way to address their issue of concern while also consciously building strong ties among platoon members. The conversations table was one such little platoons project. Other project ideas included training Yale students about how to become long-term foster care parents, and doing arts workshops that would bring together Yale students and New Haven community members.

The little platoons project taught students the principle that our own happiness cannot be separated from the good of the community where we live. Furthermore, as Burke suggests, our obligations to our community do not stop at doing only what is just. Rather, as philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre explains in Dependent, Rational Animals, the common good requires that we go beyond fulfilling the strict duties we have to others out of justice. The common good requires helping anyone who needs our help—not just our own kin, our own community members, or those who help us. Beyond just helping others, MacIntyre and Burke both argue that we also need to cultivate love, affection, and attachment for others.

Contrary to the illusion of self-sufficiency that underlines much political philosophy and happiness literature, MacIntyre argues that all human beings are vulnerable, not just infants or the elderly and infirm. To achieve happiness in the Aristotelian sense—leading a flourishing life that follows a purpose within a well-ordered society—we must acknowledge our dependence on others. Thus, according to MacIntyre, the virtue of misericordia, or a compassionate heart that reaches out to help others, is the key to the common good. By learning to see our own vulnerabilities in those who need our help, we can break the contractual view of personal relationships and social groups so deeply embedded in our consumerist and individualist society.

Justice, Love, and Vulnerability

College students are very familiar with the virtue of justice. But the students were intrigued when I said that to contribute the common good, we need not only justice but also unconditional love for others. How do you experience unconditional love if you didn’t have it in your family? How do you share unconditional love with others?

Those of us gifted with good educations and valuable skills should certainly share our gifts. But if, in serving others, you don’t see your own vulnerability in their neediness, you may be doing justice but it can’t be called love. One student told me she was met with distrust when she tried to do a service project on a Native American reservation. “Did you love them?” I asked her. I explained how my own work with vulnerable populations in the US, Haiti, and Central America taught me that people are very perceptive about what is in our hearts. For example, in Haiti, people didn’t just want the money I brought. They wanted to touch my hands, feel my hair, and stare into my eyes. The Haitians wanted to see me and for me to see them, for us to embrace one another body and soul.

Love requires rejoicing that another person is alive and celebrating that he or she is who he or she is. If you open yourself to receive the love of those you help, you will learn, as I did in the farms of Central America, the urban housing projects of Washington, DC, and the mountains of Haiti, that what people value most is not the things you give them but the connection they make with you. If you can let yourself be loved just because you exist—not because of your money, your power, or your knowledge—then you can transform your own heart and that of others. If they are rooted in the virtue of misericordia, our little platoons and small acts of love really can transform our hedonistic, success-crazed society.

Why Students Should Study Happiness

Humanities and social science students have told me that studying happiness gave them a rare chance to move from academic critique to personal reflection, from discussions about utility to ones about virtue, truth, and beauty. But it’s not only the poets and the philosophers who are interested: half of the students in our one week-seminar were STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) majors. Many of these students said that, toward the end of college, they realized how much the humanities and social sciences could contribute to designing good collaborative engineering labs, or developing applications of their medical findings for poor communities in the US and abroad.

One graduate student in biomedical engineering even used some of our seminar material in a recent presentation in her field of immunology. Our immune system, she explained, may be under attack from many microscopic viruses that we don’t know about until they hurt us. But we can build up a stronger immune system through the lifestyle choices we make. Strong friendships and serving others can actually stimulate a robust immune system.

Another reason college students seek courses on happiness is because they desire more meaningful friendships. Pondering virtues and the common good thus provides an alternative way of viewing friendships that differs from groups of people just coming together to enhance their personal utility or pleasure. Students raved about how our lively classroom discussions carried over into meals and social outings. Friendship, learning, and doing things for others can go hand in hand.

Teaching students about happiness has been the most fulfilling part of my academic career. Perhaps students flock to classes on happiness because Aristotle was right: happiness is a universal end that all seek because it is good in and of itself. As educators, it is our job to ground this desire for happiness in acts of virtue and the pursuit of the common good. This is also what students seek. They are eager to learn about happiness, to grow in virtue, to collaborate with each other for the common good, and to develop meaningful friendships. Wouldn’t it be great if more educators worked with our students to generate richer intellectual experiences—both in our classrooms and in our dining halls?