Brown is widely known for its unusually happy community, but research has struggled to capture and understand what makes students happy.
In the Herald’s fall poll, 87.6 percent of University undergraduates reported that they were somewhat or very happy, taking all things into consideration. These results may seem to corroborate the common trope that the University is the “happy Ivy,” but this statistic also raises questions about what actually constitutes happiness and which factors cause and explain this state of being.
Joachim Krueger, professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences, hesitated to call The Herald’s results definitive given the various ways people interpret happiness. Based on The Herald’s data, if all of the students who took the poll were placed on a scale of happiness ranging from one to five, most of them would land on the four-out-of-five, he said. So “(we) conclude that nothing seems to be obviously wrong but can’t conclude that everything is great,” especially because some students might feel pressured to respond that they are happy or may be in denial about their own unhappiness.
But in general, the poll data suggest that a majority of students saw themselves as happy in the moment when they took The Herald’s poll.
The poll question’s wording was derived from the World Values Survey, a global research project which has been collecting data on people’s values since 1981. Along with The Herald’s data, the Princeton Review recently ranked Brown 13th out of all 385 schools on its “happiest students” 2020 ranking. These rankings are created from online student surveys comprised of both open-ended and five-point scale questions.
But defining happiness is not as easy as answering a question or ranking a school on a list. And while the meaning of happiness is widely debated in academia, happiness is a word and feeling colloquially used and unquestioningly accepted on a daily basis.
What is happiness?
In academia, researchers turn to the theories of Martin Seligman, the director of the Positive Psychology Center at Penn, to understand happiness. Seligman has suggested that happiness is born from three different feelings: positivity and satisfaction, a sense of engagement in the world and a perception of having achieved a meaningful life.
From a philosophical perspective, the idea of happiness can be equated with someone’s well-being, said Bernard Reginster, professor of philosophy. Reginster has co-taught CLPS 0710: “The Psychology and Philosophy of Happiness.” But well-being can also be compromised in the pursuit of happiness and a morally “good life” because someone’s achievements or pursuits may benefit others but come at the expense of their own well-being.
Potential indicators of happiness can include students’ social lives and whether they have someone in their lives that they can confide in. Indicators of and contributors to unhappiness include the level of stress students experience and feelings of boredom or pain, Kreuger said. He has also taught CLPS 0710 with Reginster.
The modern world challenges general happiness in several ways. Research has suggested that social media may adversely affect happiness by limiting interpersonal contact, Krueger added. And innate human characteristics limit people’s overall ability to be happy because human bodies are not evolutionarily developed to be content in today’s world, Reginster said.
“Psychologically, we are not well suited to live in the conditions in which we now live, and so that makes the prospect of our achieving happiness dimmer,” Reginster added. Humans still have the same desires that they had in ancient times — such as for fatty foods, now unhealthy in excess — but life today requires people to fight these tendencies in a way that reduces happiness.
In some ways, happiness can also be viewed as a cultural value, said psychologist and Director of Counseling and Psychological Services Will Meek. But “from a psychologist and psychotherapist perspective … when people can live as much of their true identity and self in a validating and healthy environment, that fosters happiness,” Meek added. And promoting diversity and acceptance further allows people to live in accordance with their values, which consequently enables people to live happier.
Understanding happiness at Brown
The Princeton Review report illustrates how Brown’s campus nurtures unique identities in a way that helps create Brown’s reputation as the “happy Ivy.” In the report, Brown students said that their peers are “constantly questioning what could make the world and our school a better place” and have “their own interests and (pursue them) without any push from others.”
Kiera Peltz ’16 graduated with an independent concentration in happiness and a concentration in political science, and both her research and personal experience at Brown have led her to an understanding of happiness as a feeling and as a cultural phenomenon. Researchers can describe what makes people happy, but studies are lacking when it comes to understanding the specific demographic of undergraduate students, Peltz said. This makes it difficult to explain exactly why The Herald’s poll data found almost 90 percent of students to be happy or explain why Brown is widely known as a happy place. To promote and understand happiness among students, academic institutions like Brown should consider happiness when structuring school environments and designing policies, Peltz said.
Limitations to polling on happiness
Even small details of the environment in which a poll like The Herald’s is administered can greatly affect how students respond to questions about their happiness. For example, in studies assessing life satisfaction on a scale of one to ten, sunlight can elevate someone’s reported level of satisfaction by two levels, Reginster said.
While there are many ways to measure happiness — such as through reflection on past memories — some of these methods can actually have an adverse effect on subjects, making them unhappy. If you measure the same person’s happiness in different ways, the results could be different, Krueger said.
“We live in a country that prioritizes individual happiness … My research suggests that there’s a lot of components of happiness that are out of our control,” Peltz said. “Not being happy is not a personal failure, and I think, for both the Brown community and larger American society, if people realize that sometimes their unhappiness isn’t caused by themselves, they can actually be a lot happier and a lot more open in terms of that unhappiness.”