|In search of happiness
By Lisa Strandberg
|Leanne Kent (Philosophy)
Striving for happiness? The research of Leanne Kent (Philosophy) in the
interdisciplinary realm of eudaimonia, or human flourishing, suggests that doing so is a lifelong endeavor.
Mention that you’re happy within earshot of Michael Okray ’10 and you’re
in for an intellectual exercise. As a student in a happiness course
taught by Kent, he thought long and hard about the subject and has been
known to challenge others to do the same.
Says Okray: “When someone would say that they were feeling happy on any
given day, I would ask them, ‘Oh, really? So you know what happiness is?
Could you explain it to me, then? Because I feel that you’re confusing
it with something else – maybe pleasure?’ ”
Leanne Kent lectures on happiness. >>MORE
Eye-rolling ensued when he raised questions like these with his college classmates, but the queries continued to truly dog him. “Especially that semester, that was honestly all I thought about,” Okray says.
Kent would be pleased – happy, even – to hear it. She doesn’t set out to define happiness for her students but rather encourages them, in the manner of Socrates, to examine it for themselves.
“This is arguably one of the most important things they can think about,” she says. “They’re 18, 19. They’re in college.They’re thinking about how it is they’re going to live their lives.”
She and her research provide plenty of food for that thought and illustrate that finding happiness is far from a simple pursuit.
A virtuous inquiry
As Kent prepared to enter the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, her mother gave her a bit of advice: “Whatever you do, don’t take philosophy your first semester.”
Naturally, she immediately signed up.
“I loved the questions. I loved being able to come up with your own response. It wasn’t just rote memorization and regurgitation. It was how well you developed your position and how well you developed your argument,” she says.
After receiving her master’s degree from the University of Alberta, she defended her doctoral thesis on tragic dilemmas at Bowling Green State University.
“Tragic dilemmas are these situations where whatever you do, you’re going to end up doing something wrong,” Kent says. She cites the titular plot element of “Sophie’s Choice” as an example: When Sophie and her two children arrive at Auschwitz, a Nazi officer forces her to choose one of her children to die.
Though tragic dilemmas seem far removed from happiness, there’s a connection in the concept of eudaimonia, Kent’s current research topic.
“The eudaimonist framework says happiness is the end or the goal that all of our actions are aiming for,” Kent says. “Within that framework, we understand happiness not to be this kind of subjective state of mind. It’s more being well as a human being, living well and flourishing as a human being.”
In this context, being happy doesn’t mean feeling content. (Sophie surely didn’t.) It means living virtuously, which relates to right, ethical action.
Says Kent of eudaimonists like herself: “We conceive ethics broadly as what it means to live well as a human being. It’s not just about whether I want to kill the neighbor who made me angry. It’s not about these discrete ‘oughts.’ It’s about how to live life as a whole.”
As Kent hones her take on ethical terms like “ought” and “right” – deontic concepts, in philosophy parlance – she stands on the shoulders of scholarly giants. “This was the framework that Aristotle and many of the other ancients used, and it had sort of fallen out of favor in contemporary ethical theory. In the last 50 years or so, people have been going back and considering what resources it might have to offer,” Kent says.
Happiness past, present and future
In Kent’s field, scholarly methodology is adversarial, even with happiness as a subject. As she puts it: “We challenge each other. You write something, you put it out there, it gets torn apart.That’s mostly the way of it with philosophy.”
That quickly becomes clear to students in Kent’s happiness class, some of whom anticipated a step-by-step guide to finding satisfaction. “I signed up for it in hopes of truly figuring out what [happiness] meant, and boy, was I way off on that one,” Okray says.
Instead, Kent presents a survey of circuitous thought on happiness, from that of Plato around 400 B.C. to the scholarship of the mid-1990s.The philosophical viewpoints covered include eudaimonist accounts as well as hedonist ones that characterize happiness as either pleasure or the absence of pain.
Brittany Mazemke ’13, another happiness class alum, says, “Each approach argued that it was better than the others, making us decide what we believed and agreed with, and then challenging us to find supporting research and evidence to back our ideas and opinion.”
Complicating matters for Kent’s students is the contemporary understanding of happiness as something that comes and goes from hour to hour. “That is contrasted with the eudaimonist conception, where happiness isn’t a mental state, it’s a state of life. So we’re looking at a life as a whole, whether you’re faring well, whether you’re being well as a human being,” Kent says. “So it’s not as though you can be happy one moment and unhappy the next. That’s incoherent.”
It’s also what makes the intersection between her research and the field of positive psychology – the psychology of happiness – so compelling.That intersection was explored at a February conference, “Eudaimonia and Virtue: Rethinking the Good Life 2011,” at which Kent presented a paper on deontic concepts. The University of Miami conference brought together philosophers and psychologists from across the country.
Though psychologists’ typical understanding of happiness as a mental state puts them at odds with her particular view, she sees meaningful confluence of the research in both fields.
“What’s really interesting is that some of the things [psychologists] come up with seem to be very similar to the sorts of virtues that are constituents of eudaimonia,” Kent says. “They find that people who are generous, people who are grateful tend to have more positive life satisfaction. And [those traits] seem to be related to some of the virtues of Aristotle.
“I don’t know if that’s just a happy accident or if there’s something more going on, that even though we think we mean different things by the same term, maybe it’s no accident that we’re using the same term. I have no idea what to make of that yet. I keep reading and keep looking and keep thinking about it.”
Does all this thinking about happiness mean Kent is always happy herself? In a word, no. But of pondering human virtue for a living, she says, “Some days I think I have the best job in the world.”
You can’t help but wonder whether Aristotle felt the same.