The Happiness Class was a first-year, undergraduate course I taught at the University of British Columbia a total of three times, in the fall of 2013, winter/spring of 2014 and summer 2014. The aim of the course was to teach scholarly research and writing skills from a “genre theoretical perspective.” What that means is, we were interested in things like research proposals and abstracts for their generic qualities—their form and the situation that gave rise to them—inasmuch as we were also extremely interested in the ideas presented by the scholarly papers we read. Here is the textbook we used. Here are the papers we read.
I chose the theme for the course: “On Perceiving Happiness.” At the time, I was thinking quite a lot about disappointment, since I was also finishing my dissertation, “Romantic Descent: Poetry and the Aesthetics of Disappointment, 1790-1820.” Happiness is sometimes the opposite of disappointment, and this connection gets activated quite often in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries, such as in the novels of Jane Austen. Actually, Austen gets quoted on happiness rather a lot; the very form of the marriage plot making happiness both fraught and inevitable. Yet when Elinor Dashwood, who is the “sense” in Sense and Sensibility, tells Edward Ferrars he should “know [his] own happiness,” what Internet memes circulate as a readily quotable phrase is actually neither singular nor of principal importance to Elinor. Diagnosing Edward’s disappointment, Elinor recommends a moderate dose of optimism:
“Come, come; this is all an effusion of immediate want of spirits, Edward. You are in a melancholy humour, and fancy that any one unlike yourself must be happy. But remember that the pain of parting from friends will be felt by every body at times, whatever be their education or state. Know your own happiness. You want nothing but patience–or give it a more fascinating name, call it hope”
“Know your own happiness” has less of the gravitas of a stand alone proclamation and more of the “calm down, be sensible and patient, as I am,” quality when we read it slipped into the middle of a long passage. For Elinor, knowing your own happiness means understanding that you are not the centre of the universe. What is privileged here is the knowing: knowing to engage enough fellow-feeling to know that you are not, by rights, in a position to be unhappy.
These are the kinds of quandaries and questions that the happiness class approached. How are we happy and what is our relationship to the happiness of others? How does the pursuit of happiness shape our social and political expectations, our relation to the natural environment, our habits of consumption and even our friendships and lifestyles? What is happiness and what do related terms like flourishing, flow, resilience and optimism offer to scholarly debates about personal fulfillment? Reaching across disciplines, the course was designed to teach academic research and writing through an exploration of our personal relationships with (and sense of entitlement to) happiness.
For Elinor’s “fascinating name” for happiness has, in our contemporary moment, become deeply embedded in views of happiness as a “future promise” (Sara Ahmed) or a “cruelly optimistic attachment” (Lauren Berlant). Hope as happiness has transformed. It has become a normative expectation, the opposite of which is failure. Approaching this conundrum in myriad discourses and disciplinary perspectives, the final papers that the Summer 2014 version of the happiness class generated were each variously concerned with this central dilemma: what do we expect of happiness? From papers questioning how economists measure happiness to an investigation of the effect of relocation on adolescents’ happiness, each paper is a unique expression of students’ interests. In asking them to share their work here, my aim was to encourage revision (we went through multiple drafts with peer-review and editorial commentary from me) as well as to allow them to share work that is meaningful to them and the larger scholarly community. I hope you’ll take a moment to discover how they have truly exceeded the expectations of a first-year composition course.
Carmen Faye Mathes is an Instructor in the Arts Research and Writing Program at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada. She currently teaches WRDS 150: “Life After Death,” a newer version of the course outlined above. In “Life After Death” students ask what it means to live, and to live well or fully, when we are inevitably, as Heidegger puts it, being-towards death.