Kevin O'Neill's “Happiness” course couldn't be timelier in today's unsettled world.
What is happiness? Are you happy? Do you even want to be happy?
These are the fundamental questions Kevin Lewis O’Neill poses in his popular course aptly named Happiness that he believes might be one of the most important courses an undergraduate student can take.
“We’re bombarded with this expectation to be happy, and happiness acts as a metric for one's life,” says O’Neill, a professor in the Department for the Study of Religion and the director of the Centre for Diaspora & Transnational Studies. “So the intention of this course is to provide a conceptual literacy when it comes to happiness.”
The course examines the study of happiness from its earliest roots thousands of years ago, through religions like Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism.
Building on this, the class explores happiness theories connected to religion by philosophers such as Émile Durkheim — a French sociologist regarded as one of the principal architects of modern social science. He believed happiness came from the joy of belonging to a group, regardless of faith, ideology or activity.
The German philosopher, Karl Marx, believed that religion was a primary source of happiness. But he was also anxious about the impacts of religious belief, comparing it to an addictive drug, going so far as to calling religion “the opium of the people.”
And then the focus shifts to psychologists like Sigmund Freud, who suggested that happiness is found in the pursuit of something. Losing oneself in artistic creativity or intellectual work is the path to higher contentment, compared to other quick fixes like sex, revelry and even religion.
The class also explores other models of happiness, such as happiness through solitude, and happiness through the control of one’s desires and the cultivation of virtues, as promoted by Mohamed Al-Ghazzali — one of the Islamic tradition’s most influential theologians.
O’Neill later shifts to more contemporary approaches to happiness such as the rise of cognitive and behavioral sciences, new age spirituality and famous happiness gurus such as Oprah Winfrey and Tony Robbins who have created billion-dollar empires inspiring people to pursue happier lives.
I’ve framed this course as an intellectual event for students to take pause and think about what they want from their lives. And in the classic tradition of the humanities, this is a moment of real reflection — not in the hopes that they'll become more marketable —but ideally better citizens of the world, and have a deeper appreciation for life and their place in it.
Regardless of the thinker, scholar, scientist or entrepreneur, most happiness theories can be traced back to religious roots. “You may think this interest in having a minimalist aesthetic or being mindful or following your breath are recent recommendations of psychologists. But no, it goes back much farther,” says O’Neill.
Is O’Neill hoping his students walk out of his classroom bursting with joy? No, but he does believe his course is giving students an important opportunity to look in the mirror.
“There are a lot of courses here at the University that teach skills, whether it's engineering or the hard sciences or mathematics — and that's great,” he says.
“But I’ve framed this course as an intellectual event for students to take pause and think about what they want from their lives. And in the classic tradition of the humanities, this is a moment of real reflection — not in the hopes that they'll become more marketable — but ideally better citizens of the world, and have a deeper appreciation for life and their place in it.”
And with the COVID-19 pandemic and the unsettled state of the world with the war in Ukraine, O’Neill believes this course couldn’t be more timely.
“Everyone is taking a moment to reflect on what they're doing in the world, how they're existing now, how they were living prior to the pandemic and what the future holds,” says O’Neill.
“And those kind of moments of reflection that take place when one's an undergraduate are even more important in this moment — it's not just ‘Do I want to go to law school?’ but ‘Where do I want to live? How do I want to live?’ So the course comes at a good moment for students.”
Julia Shokeir, a second-year student double majoring in anthropology and religion as a member of Trinity College, agrees the course’s timing was perfect.
This was one of the best courses I have ever taken in my university career.
“This was one of the best courses I have ever taken in my university career,” she says.
“This course has provided me with the philosophical, religious and psychological tools to be happy. Yet, as an individual, I have to make the decision to use them. I suppose I’m happier because I’m finally taking courses that I find interesting and make me feel fulfilled. Nevertheless, I still must make the choice to be happy and Professor O’Neill has helped provide a layout of how to do it.”
Shokeir’s classmate and fellow Trinity College member, Katie Jones, also felt this was her favourite course this year.
“I didn’t go into the class thinking that Professor O’Neill was going to teach me how to be happier,” says Jones, a second-year student majoring in religion and double minoring in philosophy and diaspora and transnational studies.
“But I plan to continue my study on happiness and pursue the open-ended questions that Professor O’Neill provided us: What is happiness? Are you happy? Do you even want to be happy? These three questions are of paramount importance to us as undergraduates as we figure out what kind of life, career and future we want to create for ourselves.”
Reproduced in full, with kind permission, from the original article by Sean McNeely, Arts & Science News at the University of Toronto