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The University and the Pursuit of Happiness

PUBLISHED: October 12, 2015

Her skin was dryer than usual. Her eyes had deeper bags than a student in her twenties should have. Her hair was pulled back severely in a way that demanded the least possible care. And she was speaking at a rapid rate about how she needed to take eighteen credits—six courses—to fulfill her plan to complete a double major in chemistry and French. 

This was supposed to be an advising session to help a second-year student choose her major and courses for the next semester. Instead, it became something more urgent.

I stopped her. I paused for a moment. And then I asked her how much sleep she’d had the past week. She laughed. “Very little,” she said. 

I asked her what her motivation was to pursue both majors. “Everyone does a double major these days,” she replied. When I assured her that everyone does not, although in my experience too many students at the University of Virginia do, she relented and explained that all her friends have double majors. And all her friends are premed. And all her friends take eighteen credits per semester—one more course than most students need to graduate in four years. “How are you doing in your courses?” I asked. She paused and looked at her feet. “Not so well.”

Then I asked her about Ritalin. Yes. She takes it sometimes. And I asked her about water. “I know I should drink more.” What about social stuff, parties or road trips? “Who has the time?” And if she had to choose between majors? “French is what I love. But chemistry is what I tell my friends.”

When I started university teaching in 1997 I expected to hear from students that their parents push them to overwork and pursue majors that do not fit their passions or talents. I prepared to give them stern lectures about the importance of attendance and keeping up on the reading—the same lectures professors gave me back in the day. I do have to offer that sort of advice on occasion, but it soon turns to the observation that the student is slipping because of depression—an all-too-common affliction among American youth. 

More often than the anti-slacker lecture, and much more often than I would have ever predicted, I find myself talking a young person into taking it easy. I suggest breathing deeply, walking alertly, doing less, reading for fun, drinking water, relaxing under one of the gorgeous trees that line every walk on Thomas Jefferson’s university grounds. 

This young woman had been swept up in the achievement mill that push talented, driven students into the most competitive universities. My students overwhelmingly understand how to play the game: exams; letters of recommendation; networking; discipline; grades; portfolios; internships; and the all-important “informational interview.” And who could blame them? All of society’s signals drive them to achieve at all costs, including their mental health. The result has been a spike in success (which in turn benefits the university as its high-achieving alumni write big checks) and self-medication, in the forms of stimulants for studying and binge-drinking alcohol for stress release. 

About the time that the United States started dismantling its welfare systems, its progressive taxation, and its labor protections, thus subjecting most Americans to the harsh winds of fluctuating global economies, children of the well-off and the almost well-off began clamoring to attend a handful of elite institutions, most of them private and expensive, all of them chock-full of overachievers. Somehow these families got the mistaken impression that failure to enroll in one of these selective schools would doom a child to mediocrity. This madness enabled private universities to raise the sticker price of a year in residence while offering severe discounts to most students, giving many families the impression that they were getting a great deal and a shot at the “good life.” 

But the good life is not so simple. Professors often devote their lives to getting young people to examine what might make their lives good. It turns out the trappings of achievement are not necessarily the best way. But a university offers other paths to a good life. Wisdom, camaraderie, and pleasure are some of those paths.

“Take the time to enjoy your days here,” I said to her. “Every alumnus tells me how much he or she misses this place dearly. Treasure the moments and your good friends. Your life will be fine as long as you do well at whatever you do. If you don’t do well, and if you harm your health, it does not matter what you choose.”

Jefferson’s spirit infuses this place and all who walk its grounds. Students, faculty, and staff encounter his quotes during most every major university event and speech. The Jefferson we most often meet is the wily statesman, the stirring polemical writer, the amateur philosopher, the inventor, the hypocrite about slavery, and the failed businessman. 

I fear my students at this university—the highest of achievers—miss the most valuable of Jefferson’s lessons, and perhaps the greatest influence on his decision to put this state university so far from a big city and in such a pristine spot. 

“I too am an Epicurean,” Jefferson wrote his friend William Short in 1819, as the University of Virginia was nearing completion on the former plantation of another friend, James Monroe. The letter went on to declare the Greek philosopher Epicurus the source of “everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us.” Jefferson had little use for the thought of Socrates or the writings of Plato. He thought a lot of the Stoics but hated that they pitted themselves so critically (and unnecessarily) against Epicureans. Pleasure, to the Epicureans, or “the pursuit of happiness,” as Jefferson put it in his most famous polemical work (significantly departing from John Locke’s celebration of “Life, liberty, and property”), is the primary desire underlying all human action. The essence of wisdom is discriminating the good pleasures from the bad.

Ideal Epicureans do not, as many incorrectly believe, indulge themselves in rich foods, barrels of fine wines, and other worldly and carnal pleasures. The common twenty-first-century usage of “hedonism” does not apply to real Epicureans. “The pleasant life is not the product of one drinking party after another or of sexual intercourse with women and boys or of the sea food and other delicacies afforded by a luxurious table,” wrote Epicurus in his “Letter to Menoeceus” (excerpted by Diogenes Laertius). “On the contrary, it is the result of sober thinking—namely, investigation of the reasons for every act of choice and aversion and elimination of those false ideas about the gods and death which are the chief source of mental disturbance.” 

Of course, Jefferson engaged in carnal pleasure and drank wine with some frequency. He was more often hedonistic in the modern sense than the ancient. Many of my students understand all too well the temptations of bacchanalia and carnal indulgence. Nobody is a perfect Epicurean—nor should one be. But while a young person studies at an institution like this one, striving for Epicurean wisdom is well worth the effort. 

The life lessons of Epicurus, who lived in Athens between 341 and 270 BCE, inspire us to seek happiness or pleasure in moderation and in the absence of pain and mental and emotional turbulence. Pain comes from longing, from excess, from shortsighted flights of intense pleasure that merely drain us of our spirit and balance. Pain can also come from anxiety and obsession, guilt and ambition. True pleasure is a release from anxiety and discomfort. Epicurus, like Jefferson, founded a school. Like Jefferson, Epicurus hoped his school would spark empirical pursuits of knowledge and host debates on the nature of truth, wisdom, and virtue. It would also work to dispel superstition. Unlike Jefferson, Epicurus allowed women to study at his institution, which he called “the Garden.” The University of Virginia did not accept women into its undergraduate ranks until 1970.

Epicurus taught that pleasure and thus happiness come from time spent in deep contemplation, in conversation with friends, and in appreciation of simple tastes and sweet moments. If my students would take the time to stroll sans smartphone or even watch among the garden walls that Jefferson designed here, they might get a sense of the rewards of Epicureanism without having to read a book about it. Over time and with practice and deliberation a person can develop the wisdom to distinguish a deep, lasting, healthy pleasure over a fleeting, shallow, and self-destructive one. 

If this guidance seems to you like the lessons of a Hindu ascetic or Buddhist monk, you are not far off. Similar prescriptions emerged all over the ancient world in various forms. And they are still with us. Some Epicurean notions live on in distorted, commercialized forms like New Age practices and Americanized yoga. The spirit of Epicureanism also influenced utilitarians such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, who built on the Epicurean “calculation” of pleasure over pain to design a system of social ethics that ultimately influenced more than two centuries of political thought and public policy. Bentham’s famous saying, “It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong,” can be viewed as a social and political expansion—yet a philosophical reduction—of Epicurean ethics. The Epicurean commitment to empiricism and the notions that the universe lacks purposeful design and is composed of atoms have inspired Enlightenment scientists like Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. 

I urge university students to consider themselves temporary Epicureans—not that Epicurus had all the answers or even came close. Importantly, Epicurean thought lacks an ethic of citizenship, leadership, or the public good. Nonetheless, for a short period of time (much longer, if one pursues the academic calling, of course), young people who have the means and opportunity should commit their time at a university to reading, talking, flirting, thinking, playing sports and games, and experimenting with strange ideas, identities, and even substances (within the boundaries of legality and moderation, of course). Let their pursuits of pleasures (those things that alleviate anxiety and thus clear the easiest paths to excellence) guide their study, career, and life choices. 

This might be the only time in their lives when young people can float just beyond the frenzied stimuli, material temptations, and financial responsibilities of modern adult life. Life to come will be full of seemingly intractable anxieties. Taking time now to practice how to quell them will pay off grandly later.

And while there is no single path toward such wisdom, the particular choices one makes for one’s life don’t make the Epicurean perspective less valuable or less possible. For some students, a chemistry degree, an early marriage, and a firm career path of sober, rewarding work will emerge as the combination that yields the deepest pleasure. For others, perhaps a French degree, the single life, and multiple short careers will lead the way toward wisdom and serenity. Students are as diverse as they are driven.

I would never expect a twenty-one-year-old to practice hard-core Epicureanism. I don’t. Jefferson didn’t. But we desperately need a different, richer account of the value of higher education and its role in generating a good life. It can’t just be about the trappings of achievement: the admission letter; the scholarship; the job offer; the promotion; the Mercedes; the yoga retreat to reset and relieve. 

As more high achievers wait in line outside my office for degree advice, hyperventilating from latte days and Ritalin nights, I sense a deep need for a different way of framing their experience, one that would inspire them to be healthier, happier, wiser, calmer, and ultimately more successful whole people. 

At its most cynical, higher education in America is a way we license those who have become acculturated to the upper-middle class and are thus deemed worthy of membership in certain social and professional circles. But it should and could be so much more. Universities are distinct from the rest of society by design. One should not enter a university for the chief purpose of getting minor-league experience in commerce, work flows, politics, or all the stress that accompanies all of that. One should enter this phase of life expecting something different than the days before or the days after. That’s why it’s special. That’s why it’s both expensive and priceless. 

Jefferson placed his university in a bucolic spot, far enough from the teeming metropolis of Richmond, Virginia, and the swamp that grew into Washington, DC, because he saw it as a garden. He knew that Epicurus and his followers treasured a life spent in the garden. So Jefferson built one for students to experience, if only for a moment.

As I told the young woman visiting my office, who eventually chose one of those areas of study and forwent the double major, these days at the university offer so much more than a track to a goal. This place is a garden. It has tendrils and branches, thorns and flowers. It has deep roots. It’s filled with the best people you will ever know. It’s worth exploring deeply because you might find a better sense of yourself among the branches.


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Anonymous UVA Student's picture
Anonymous UVA S... · 8 years ago

Awesome article, really nails a lot of the ways that happiness can fall to the wayside in the name of academic achievements

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous · 8 years ago

Loved the article. Yes, university is supposed to be different and that's exactly why these few years are so special and priceless. I missed my college years.....However, until the "real world" has some fundamental changes about how we see success and a good life, most students will continue to be sucked in that system no matter how much they are aware of their desperate need of sleep...


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