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Christian Union: The Magazine
August 23, 2021

Catholic Author Weighs In on Students' Pursuit of Happiness 

Cognitive scientist Laurie Santos has a thought question for you: if you could live in a simulated reality where you are perfectly happy, would you knowingly choose it over a less-happy real life? Santos, who is a psychology professor at Yale, has been studying the nature of happiness—how we get it, what makes us happy, and how psychology directly impacts our happiness—for years.

Santos' research is featured in a course at Yale entitled “Psychology and the Good Life,” in which she teaches students how humans can live happier lives with “scientific, evidence-based tricks.” 

Multiracial friends girls and guys having fun laughing drinking coffee tea in coffeehouse, happy diverse young people talking joking sitting together at cafe table, multicultural friendship concept

These “tricks” might be referred to as “life-hacks,” small adjustments that can make us feel good, be more efficient, or change our physical experience of a situation. Santos preaches to a rapt audience as she acknowledges that, in spite of their position at a prestigious university and infinite opportunities ahead of them, Yale students are “anxious, depressed, lonely, and adrift.” These top-notch students need her life-hacks to hack their way into a better life. 

As a cognitive psychologist, Santos believes that happiness is about feeling good, “experiencing more positive than negative psychological states over a period of time.” This means that our experience of life being good or bad is determined by how we feel about any given situation or moment in our day. To achieve happiness in your life, therefore, we must merely find ways to log more happy or good moments in our lives than upsetting or negative moments. 

Santos’ life-hacks are designed to ensure that the individual maintains a positive psychological perspective while admitting that “it makes no difference whether the objects that make you feel happy are even real, let alone tethered in some way to the demands of morality.” Happiness is personal, private, and without a moral framework, and it should be achieved at all costs. In fact, Santos believes that our pursuit of happiness is so important that if we could create a virtual-reality machine in which we couldn’t tell the difference between reality and the virtual world to achieve the happy life, she would absolutely choose the virtual reality over real life. 

This article by Jennifer Frey examines the modern pursuit of happiness and the ancient purpose of the university. Frey argues that the university was originally created to train individuals in the way of pursuing a “good life” - a life that pursues a kind of balance between our subjective experience of the world and the objective good. Considering her Catholic faith, Frey addresses the value of happiness that is found not in one's own accomplishments or personal feelings or emotions, but rather in something outside of ourselves: God. 

Students at the universities Christian Union ministers to are hungry for the good life, and many believe they can find it apart from the saving grace of Christ. Courses like Santos’ lead students down a never-ending path of “self-betterment” that will never give them what they need. The ministries of Christian Union aim to meet students precisely in these intellectual and fast-paced environments with the good news of Christ: the happiest news of His atoning work, our redemption, and the joy that comes from abiding in His presence.

Read the full article here.