At Yale Well event, professors serve up the pursuit of happiness three ways

Jennifer A. Herdt, Laurie Santos, Kimberly Goff-Crews, Shelly Kagan posing with ‘Happiness and the Good Life’ poster
Left to right: Jennifer A. Herdt, Laurie Santos, Kimberly Goff-Crews, Shelly Kagan

The good life is hard to define and even harder to attain, but three Yale professors came together in a panel discussion on April 2 to propose their own answers to the question: What is the good life, and how do we live it?

Professors Jennifer Herdt (religious studies) and Shelly Kagan (philosophy) joined Yale psychology professor Laurie Santos to debate the very premise of Santos’ popular course, “Psychology and the Good Life.” The experts used their own discipline’s way of thinking to come to different conclusions about “the good life.”

The event, “Happiness and/or the Good Life,” was held at the Yale School of Management as part of the Yale Well initiative sponsored by Secretary and Vice President for Student Life Kim Goff-Crews.

Santos: Nudge your way towards the better life

Santos said she intentionally left “happiness” off the syllabus for her class and instead used two working definitions of the concept from social science, which she acknowledged are “completely crude measures for an incredibly rich thing.”

First, there’s “a cognitive definition of well-being,” said Santos, which looks at people’s satisfaction with their life generally at any given time. A question like “How are things going?” gets that answer, she said. The other definition is “happiness in the moment,” and to measure that, psychologists have individuals mark their positive and negative emotions over the course of a day. At the end of the day, those ratings are totaled up to get a sort of “happiness in the moment” score.

Santos said the purpose of “Psychology and the Good Life” is therefore two-fold: It uses science to answer “What actually makes us happy?” and then looks at how to use that knowledge to recalibrate our expectations and ask “What can we do to achieve the good life?”

Social science studies debunk the assumptions that good grades, big houses, high salaries, and nice stuff make us happy, she noted. “We forecast those things will make us happy, but they don’t make us as happy as we think,” said Santos about the phenomenon she refers to as “mis-wanting.” 

Throughout Santos’ class, students participate in “rewirements,” a play on the traditional course “requirements.” These are consistent, assigned activities like meditation, reducing time on social media, and daily gratitude journaling. Santos said she’s surprised by how religiously students have kept up with their rewirements. Some even deleted their social media accounts, she noted.

The whole second half of course, which hasn’t been talked about as much,” said Santos, “is focused on behavioral change — where we use a playbook from behavioral economics and social psychology about how we create habits, use situations to our advantage, and nudge our behavior.”

During the Q&A, a student in the audience asked Santos if she was concerned that her class would make her students see happiness reductively, as if her class was oversimplifying the problem.

Thinkers have been thinking about this stuff for forever, and these are rich and complicated issues that my course is not going to solve,” said Santos. “The flip side is that, as head of Silliman College, I also see that college students are not sleeping enough and that if they actually just slept even seven hours a night like they're supposed to, we actually could reduce the mental health crisis on campus. Part of me is very utilitarian about this. I want students to be doing these good practices that are going to make them healthier, and if that comes through the form of social science, then great.”

Herdt: Happiness will find you — not the other way around

Herdt, the Gilbert L. Stark Professor of Christian Ethics and senior associate dean of academic affairs at the Yale Divinity School, drew upon her expertise as a scholar of religion and value systems to discuss happiness.

Herdt argued that discussion of happiness is difficult because different things make different people happy, that the meaning of happiness is contested, and its very pursuit can be self-defeating.

Happiness is subjective. One person may love to reading by a fire and another person may be bored by it,” she said. “Or what makes you happy can change over time. As an adult, I don’t enjoy thickly frosted birthday cake anymore.”

Regarding the multiple meanings of happiness, Herdt noted that ancient Greeks drew a distinction between “hedonic” happiness (feeling good) versus “eudaimonic” happiness (finding a sense of purpose or higher-order meaning).

Eudaimonic happiness, she said, seems to avoid our ever-changing ideas about what makes us simply “feel good” in the moment. Herdt mentioned that there are social science studies that are able to show that people who practice religions and who have dogs for pets have higher levels of eudaimonic happiness.

If I know that people who serve others attend worship exercise regularly and have a dog are happier reporting higher levels of satisfaction with their lives and a deeper sense of meaning and connection,” said Herdt, “then I’ll do those things.”

But there is a catch, she said.

The meaning of things will slip through your grasp if you’re pursuing them only for instrumental reasons,” she said. “Is friendship that is cultivated just for the sake of improving one’s own well-being really friendship?” Similarly, she noted, if you buy a dog or start practicing a religion in order to make you happy, will that make you happy?

For Herdt, the answer is no — “that would be “putting the cart before the horse,” she said. One must care about and find meaning in the things, ideas, and people themselves, not in the meaning or purpose committing to them might give you.

Just as life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans, so happiness is what comes to you while you are engaged in intrinsically meaningful activities and relationships,” said Herdt. “That is why you're doing for their own sake things that are significant and worth doing. Philosophers would say that ‘happiness supervenes,’ meaning that comes to rest on these intrinsically meaningful activities.”

Kagan: But happiness isn’t everything

According to Kagan, happiness is actually not much — at least in terms of answering the question “What makes a good life?” Therefore, when Kagan, the Clark Professor of Philosophy, took the stage, he dispensed quickly with the task of defining what happiness is.

He said that the happiness both Santos and Herdt discussed could largely be thought of as “positive feeling tones,” be they hedonic or eudaimonic. Whether it is about feeling good at any given moment or feeling like your life has meaning overall, happiness is a feeling, plain and simple, he said.

Kagan said while he agreed with Herdt’s conclusion that happiness comes when an individual pursues something else — something apart from happiness — he disagreed with her way of making that argument. He said he thought Herdt was still too focused on happiness being the ultimate goal of having a meaningful life, even if that happiness only fully “supervened,” or landed, once the life was already lived.

Then Kagan told a story — a tried-and-true thought experiment, which he calls “the deceived professor” — about a person who’s just died “happy.”

Imagine, he said, an art historian who has discovered certain overlooked paintings or the painter’s diaries that revolutionize our interpretation of that famous painter’s work and its place in history. The professor also seems to have a family who loves him, an adoring spouse and kids who really admire, love, and respect him. He dies happy.

Kagan continued: But after his death, it is discovered that the paintings and diaries on which he based his discoveries were – unknown to him – forgeries, and it is revealed that his wife was cheating on him, his kids just wanted his money, and his academic peers really despised him.

Kagan asked the audience, “Did this person die happy?” — or better yet, he said, “What if this were your life – would that be okay with you?”

By thinking about situations like this, we will discover that happiness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” Kagan said. “It’s not really the bottom line for us.” This person, the deceived professor, had really wanted accomplishment, love and respect but really had none, he added.

What thought experiments like this one teach us is that what’s genuinely, bottom-line, most valuable isn’t happiness: It’s these other things,” he said.

Happy resources

To learn more about what psychology has to say about the good life, check out the free version of Santos’ course, “The Science of Well-Being,” available online at Coursera. You can also attend the next Yale Well event on Tuesday, April 10 at 4 p.m. in Battell Chapel, when the initiative hosts a talk by Dan Harris, ABC News anchor and New York Times best-selling author of “10% Happier.

Yale Well is a three-year-old initiative launched by Goff-Crews and her office that serves as an umbrella for the wide array of programming Yale offers to promote the many facets of well-being: physical, mental, social, spiritual, financial, academic, etc. Visit Yale Well’s landing page for myriad links to wellness resources both on and off campus at yalewell.yale.edu. 

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Media Contact

Kendall Teare: kendall.teare@yale.edu,