Thursday, February 1, 2018
Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Thursday, February 1, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Today we’ll learn about a course on happiness at Yale, which the professor says that students should take a pass-fail. We’ll look at research indicating that adult happiness is linked to marriage in a way that it’s not linked to mere cohabitation. We’ll look at the difference between happiness and joy, and we’ll look at signs of the times of our society increasingly dabbing and dropping and doping.
Yale offers a course on happiness which the professor suggests students should take pass-fail
What would you think would be the subject of the most popular course ever taught in the history of Yale University? What if I told you that the subject matter of the class is happiness? That's what the New York Times tells us in an article by David Shimer. He tells us,
“On Jan. 12, a few days after registration opened at Yale for Psyc 157,” it’s known as psychology and the good life, “roughly 300 people had signed up. Within three days, the figure had more than doubled. After three more days, about 1,200 students,” that’s fully one quarter of the undergraduate enrollment in Yale University had enrolled.
The article tells us that the course is taught by Laurie Santos, a 42-year-old psychology professor. She's also the head of one of Yale's residential colleges, and according to the article in the class she is trying and I quote,
“to teach students how to lead a happier, more satisfying life in twice-weekly lectures.”
The professor is quoted as saying,
“Students want to change, to be happier themselves, and to change the culture here on campus,”
She's later quoted as saying,
“With one in four students at Yale taking it, if we see good habits, things like students showing more gratitude, procrastinating less, increasing social connections, we’re actually seeding change in the school’s culture.”
So here we have the third oldest academic institution of higher education in America. Founded in 1701, Yale is one of the most prestigious and competitive institutions of higher learning in America. It is a proud member of the Ivy League. And now we are told that the most popular course ever taught at Yale University, a course that right now is enrolling at least one quarter of the school's total undergraduate registration, the course is actually about happiness, and it’s being taught to 1200 students who are being reminded of good habits – things like showing more gratitude and procrastinating less. This is evidently the most popular course ever taught at Yale. It tells us a very great deal about Yale at the current moment. It tells us a lot about today's college students and beyond that it tells us a great deal about America.
The article in the Times tells us that the professor has speculated that the students at Yale are especially interested in the class because in high school they had to deprioritize their happiness in order to gain admission to Yale. They adopted according to the article,
“harmful life habits that have led to what,” the professor called and I quote, “the mental health crises we’re seeing at places like Yale.”
So we’ve become the kind of people who have the most elite academic institutions that enroll students at the undergraduate level who are emotionally and psychologically in need of help. Well the article says that in 2013 a report by the Yale College Council found that more than half of Yale's undergraduates had sought mental health care during the time they were enrolled. So that's who we have become. We have become a society in which it makes sense that half the undergraduate students at Yale in a given year needed to seek mental health care. We’ve become the kind of people where the most popular class at Yale University is a class about happiness that tells students to show more gratitude and to procrastinate less. We need this? This is what we’re about? One 19-year-old student in the class said and I quote,
“In reality, a lot of us are anxious, stressed, unhappy, numb. The fact that a class like this has such large interest speaks to how tired students are of numbing their emotions — both positive and negative — so they can focus on their work, the next step, the next accomplishment.”
Well America has become at this level an extreme meritocracy. There's more to it than that, but there's not less to it than that. We have become a society where worth is established on the basis of demonstrated merit, and there is no arena in our nation where that is demonstrated more clearly than in competitive admissions to our most elite academic institutions. Yale is just an example. But what has that produced? Evidently it has produced an emotional and psychological frustration and fragility unprecedented in the life of this nation and especially as we’re looking at college students. You're looking at 1200 college students at Yale signing up for a course which is explicitly about happiness, and you're also talking about someone paying a great deal of tuition in order for those students to consider happiness.
But it turns out this isn't just about Yale on the campuses of other elite academic institutions. Similar courses addressing emotional issues have attracted burgeoning enrollments. As we look at this article, there is so much that is interesting here. For one thing the Times acknowledges that one of the reasons why so many of these undergraduates that Yale may have signed up for this course is because the course requirements aren't all that significant. In other words you might have a lot of Yale students signing up for this course because it's not all that demanding. And how in the world could you have a course about happiness that would keep students happy if it were demanding? A 22-year-old student acknowledged this when he said,
“I wouldn’t have known about the course if not for word of mouth, but it’s low-pressure, and maybe I’ll learn a few tricks to having a less stressful life,”
The Times tells us that some students admitted that they see the course is an opportunity to take a relaxed lecture with few requirements. Professor Santos is having nothing of that. She insists that her course is actually the hardest class at Yale. Why? Because these students in order to make themselves happy have to make changes in their lives, and they have to hold themselves accountable. The Times tells us,
“She hopes that the social pressures associated with taking a lecture with friends will push students to work hard without provoking anxiety about grades.”
The article continues that,
“Dr. Santos has encouraged all students to enroll in the course on a pass-fail basis, tying into her argument that the things Yale undergraduates often connect with life satisfaction — a high grade, a prestigious internship, a good-paying job — do not increase happiness at all.”
Now shocker for me was the fact that Yale students could actually opt to take a class on a pass-fail basis. I didn’t really think of that when I thought of Yale University. But then again I didn't think about Yale offering a class on happiness. As we think of the worldview behind this class, you won't be surprised to know that the professor tells us that the course focuses on two things – positive psychology and behavioral change. Now positive psychology, well as we think about this it's just another dimension of humanistic psychology, and what I really think is going on here – it’s pretty evident in the article – is that a lot of this comes down to pop psychology like the self-help books you can buy in the local bookstore now relabeled as personal growth. It all comes down to what we’re looking at here as positive psychology.
Now the problem I want to offer from a Christian argument with much of what’s styled positive psychology is that it turns out neither to be positive nor psychology. It turns out to be a set of maxims and promises about the goodness of human psychology, and that's one of the reasons I would argue why many people are unhappy. It is because something that is labeled positive psychology isn't likely really to have that much of a positive impact on people. But in keeping with the aims and the purposes of the course and in keeping with the approach taken by the professor, perhaps we also shouldn't be shocked that students are to take quizzes, complete a midterm exam. They are in their final assessment to do what the professor refers to as a “Hack Yo’Self Project,” a personal self-improvement project. Now remember we’re talking about Yale.
It's also symbolic thinking about the worldview implications of the article tells us that at one point the lectures were delivered in the historic Battell Chapel. It's identified in the article as,
“a historic place of worship on campus.”
Now you'll forgive me if I go on to say during the time that course was taught there it still was a place of worship. Just not the worship of God. The worship of something else, including our contemporary worship of happiness. The modern cult of the self promises happiness, positive psychology and fulfillment, but you won’t be surprised and I won’t be surprised if these students are disappointed that taking this class on positive psychology and happiness at Yale doesn't turn out to be transformative nor actually to give them happiness.
But it's also revealed in this article that some people aren't happy about this very popular class on happiness at Yale, and the people specifically who are unhappy are other professors whose classrooms are empty because this professor’s classroom is full. Yale has promised those other professors that they need not worry because this class will never be taught again, and Professor Santos is acknowledged in the article that a part of this was the jealousy of her colleagues who must've been doing something other than teaching classes on happiness and may have been requiring something a bit more stringent than a “Hack Yo’Self Project.” Another professor in the psychology department at Yale said and I quote,
“Large courses can be amazing every once in a while, but it wouldn’t be fair to other courses and departments to take all of their students away.”
Well I guess that’s somewhat undebatable, but Professor Santos has the last word in the article. She says and I quote,
“We have this moment where we can make a difference in Yale’s culture, where students feel like they are part of a movement and fighting the good fight,”
Well I guess we should give her credit for believing what she's teaching. But if you're defining a psychology course that is promising students that they just might be able to find happiness in little things such as expressing gratitude more and procrastinating less, if you call that fighting the good fight and you define it as a major social movement, well we’ve certainly redefined higher education in America, starting at Yale.
But before we dismiss this as some kind of wacky story from the Ivy League, and I’m not saying it isn't that, what it tells us in the bigger frame is the fact that Americans apparently are desperately hungry to be happy and to define their lives in happier terms. It tells us something very troubling when we find out that in 2013 fully half of the undergraduates at Yale University sought mental health care. It tells us that in America the meritocracy isn't delivering on its promises, and furthermore it warns us that any approach to happiness which takes happiness itself as its aim is likely to end in frustration. The Christian worldview notably doesn't promise happiness not happiness as may be defined here in emotional terms. The Christian worldview as we see in the Gospel of Jesus Christ promises us joy rather than happiness, and joy is a very different reality than mere happiness.
Happiness is an effective emotional state. Joy is an assurance, the knowledge of who God is and what he has done for us in Christ, the knowledge that nothing can separate us from the love of God. There is a joy in the Christian life even in the absence of what the world would define as happiness or any reasonable expectation of happiness. I'm not saying that Christians shouldn’t be concerned about happiness and shouldn't allow themselves at times to feel happy. But we can't allow ourselves to set happiness as our ultimate goal, and furthermore in an age well described in this article just seeing it as an illustration, we can't fall into the false promise of believing that if we just made some minor tweaks in our life or just adopted some principles of positive psychology we can all of a sudden find happiness. It's not going to come that way. Ultimately, any happiness that human beings will know is not going to last in emotional terms. That's not reality, but joy and Christian assurance and confidence, yes. That is the promise of the Gospel, and it's something infinitely more real than mere happiness.
Adult happiness linked to Research indicates adult happiness is linked to marriage in a way it is not linked to cohabitation
But at roughly the same time, we next turn to an article in the Wall Street Journal. It's also about happiness, and this one's also really important to Christians because this article in the Wall Street Journal by Susan Pinker tells us that happiness, now buckle your seatbelts, is tied very demonstrably to marriage, not to hookup culture, not to merely cohabitating and living together, but to marriage. The headline of this article in the Wall Street Journal,
“'For Happiness That Lasts, Take Those Vows.'”
Pinker cites research recently published in the academic journal, the Journal of Happiness Studies. Yes, evidently that is an academic journal, but we move on. And in that journal research was recently published in which the researchers demonstrated that the happiness effect of marriage is not merely short in duration. It's long. Measured over a lifetime. Interestingly in the research we are told that over an adult lifespan happiness is something of a U-curve. It's U-shaped over duration. It's very happy as young adults marry, and it's very happy in older adulthood. It's less happy in the middle. Why?
Well, the researchers say it's less happy in the middle because of the stress and responsibilities of having and raising children and of making one's way in career. The heavy responsibilities in the middle of adulthood mean that people are less happy. Now remember that just points to the definition of happiness and the problem with it. But it’s still revealing, and we shouldn’t be surprised that people may reflect their lives to have more moments of happiness if that’s defined as less responsibility in the beginning and the end of the adult life spectrum. That just tells us something that we should already know. But what we might not have known is that this academic research demonstrates the difference that marriage makes. One professor cited in the research said, speaking of marriage and the satisfactions of marriage,
“It’s good to know that someone has your back. That level of commitment, formalized by a ritual and a legal document, may be one reason,” says Pinker, “why the advantages of marriage trump those of just living together. Along with chocolate,” she says, “it’s all food for thought as we approach Valentine’s Day.”
We’re also told along these lines that as adults reflected on happiness those who identified their spouse as their best friend turned out to have roughly twice the happiness of others. So it turns out the marriage makes a long-term difference in increasing happiness in the lives of adults. It turns out that marriage does so in a way that hookup cultures and cohabitation actually don't produce. So then we simply have to ask the question, who knew? And then we have to answer the question, we knew.
On this topic finally I want to turn to an article that appeared just this month in Prospect. That's a generally leftward British Journal, and in this article Lynne Segal, the author the book entitled Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy, writes about her perplexity that so many people say they're unhappy when as she notes they take into their lives a daily deluge of dystopia. She refers to both headlines in this kind of entertainment as a “daily diet of gloom.” So it’s something of a perplexity as so many Americans say that they aren't happy, and evidently those in the United Kingdom, too. But when they talk about their own lives and how they entertain themselves, it's really no wonder they're unhappy. They take in this “daily diet of gloom.” In the subhead of Segal’s article in Prospect, there's a reference to what is called the happiness industry, which is described as a symptom of the sad state of society. Well the fact that there is a happiness industry probably explains where we began in that classroom at Yale, and yes, I will affirm it does relate to a symptom of the sad state of society.
Signs of the times as our society is increasingly dabbing, dropping, and doping
While thinking about the state of society and the revolution and morality we are experiencing, we think again today next of the illustrative example of marijuana and the legalization and normalization of marijuana. Just in the last few days another kind of deluge, a deluge of news articles about marijuana. The first of them appears in the New York Times, Paul Sullivan tells us that investors are discovering big returns in cannabis. This is about both so-called medical marijuana and what's now termed recreational marijuana. We’re told that the new liberal governor of New Jersey, Phil Murphy, is moving as fast as he possibly can to legalize marijuana there because he wants the income and he wants the business. In the article we are also told that America and specific American states are in danger of losing out in the profits and the big business of cannabis because Canada our neighbor to the north is moving more quickly to legalize marijuana and investment money is going to head in that direction.
The article by the way tells us that the legal cannabis market in the United States was estimated to have grown last year by fully a third to $9.7 billion. But once again we have an honest report that the legal marijuana business is dwarfed still by the illegal marijuana business. The most interesting fact in this article is the claim that currently some 44 million people in the United States consume marijuana products in a given year. Now that's 44 million people out of a population of just over 300 million people. If true, that's a pretty stunning statistic.
Meanwhile, National Public Radio ran a report indicating concerns in especially areas where marijuana has been newly legalized that pregnant women who smoke marijuana may be causing harm to their babies. You would think that this would be an uncontroversial news story, but it turns out it isn’t. We’re also told that at least 10% of the hallucinogenic impact of marijuana is passed from the smoking pregnant mother to her unborn child. We are also reminded that there are educators in America who are concerned that students, children and teenagers, are being affected by secondhand marijuana smoke. And even as there are claims and scientific claims that that that long-term use of marijuana doesn't have an impact on the brains of adults, there is a widespread consensus among scientists and doctors that exposure to marijuana does have an adverse effect upon the minds of children, teenagers and young adults.
Meanwhile Farhad Manjoo writing in the state-of-the-art column for the New York Times tells us that smoking marijuana might be becoming less popular, both publicly and privately. But other means of gaining the high or the effect of marijuana, well other means are being devised. He says it’s not true that nobody’s smoking marijuana anymore, but he points to an uptick of using marijuana and taking cannabis by eating, drinking, sipping, dabbing. He goes on,
“sucking on lozenges, chewing on gum, applying unguents or administering a drop or two of a cannabis-infused tincture under one’s tongue, where it is absorbed into the sublingual artery, within minutes producing an invisible, odorless, private high.”
So of course one of the inevitable implications of this article is that the high school student in the desk next to yours could be using this sublingual marijuana, and no one could tell except by the hallucinogenic effect. But by that time of course, it’s too late. And it’s going to be very difficult to trace this. This is not only the normalization of marijuana. It’s not only the legalization of marijuana. It's the mainstreaming, the mainlining of marijuana into the culture in ways that are not even allowed for beverage alcohol. And keeping all of this in mind, at the end of this article one authority on the cannabis market says and I quote,
“since 2008, there had been a steep decline in the number of 18- to 25-year-olds who reported consuming alcohol in the past year but a steep increase in the number who said they had consumed cannabis.”
The article continues,
“The trend is driven by a shift in risk perception. Young people used to think of smoking pot as riskier than alcohol, but in the last decade that idea has flipped.”
One of the claims in this New York Times article by the way is put in the voice of another analyst of the business who said,
“The story here is that the average cannabis consumer is becoming the average American”
The article concludes,
“Today’s young people are on the vanguard. Cannabis could be on the way to becoming the drug of choice for tomorrow’s America — a future in which lots of us get high, but no one smokes.”
Finally in an extremely telling sign of the times, in the last week the deputy managing editor of the Associated Press outlined plans in a statement from the AP for a reporting team that will cover issues related to the legalization of marijuana. It is a massive journalistic team. The point is very clear. The Associated Press now sees marijuana as such a big issue, the legalization of marijuana specifically, that it is establishing a permanent journalistic team, a very expensive and extensive journalistic team, in order to be devoted just to covering the exploding marijuana and cannabis business in the United States. As we’re thinking about fundamental moral change, a change in American morality, it’s hard to come up with the sign of the times more graphic and powerful than this. No doubt this news will bring happiness to some people, and if it brings unhappiness, well I know a course at Yale you can take. But that takes us back to the beginning.