The Calhoun Happiness Project at Yale

How can Yale undergraduates learn and apply principles from positive psychology and positive sociology? More than 20 students jointed the Calhoun Happiness Project which I started in one of Yale’s 12 residential colleges, Calhoun College. The group gained so much interest so fast that the Yale Herald published an article raving about the group, calling it a “Lyceum here in New Haven.”

I read the amazing resources Gretchen Rubin has posted on her blog about happiness, and defined the goals of the Calhoun Happiness Project as having 3 components: Reading, Resolutions, and Relationships.

1) Reading Rubin’s book The Happiness Project;

2) Making Resolutions to improve your happiness during our 4 fall semester meetings;

3) Building Relationships with others by discussing how you are doing in your happiness project and learning about others’ journeys to authentic well-being.

I provide snacks for the meetings and offer both intellectual and personal reflections on what authentic well-being is and what we can do to improve it. Students created a Calhoun Happiness Project Facebook group where we can share our progress on our resolutions and encourage each other. I hope to teach a semester-long class on “The Happy Society” here at Yale, and students in The Calhoun Happiness Project are already giving me some ideas about where to focus that class.We will finish off the semester by watching a movie on happiness in the Calhoun common areas and invite other Yalies to come join us and reflect on what we learned this semester.

Calhoun College shield

At our inaugural meeting in early September 2013, 20 students packed into my faculty resident fellow suite in Calhoun to learn about the project and make their own happiness resolutions, such as sleeping 8 hours a night, putting down their cell phones and talking to people face-to-face more, writing a daily gratitude journal, and many more. To keep ourselves accountable, students picked a “buddy” who will text them daily to remind them of their resolutions. What surprised me was that students wanted to pick a “buddy” who was a stranger, not a friend they already had. Their reasoning was that one of the objectives of the Calhoun Happiness Project at Yale was to make a new friend. I got paired up with an 18-year old  Yale freshmen from Michigan who now sends me cheerful texts every day reminding me to exercise and write in my gratitude journal. I remind her to get enough sleep and practice the viola. I’m thrilled with my happiness buddy!

At our second meeting, I first lectured for about 15 minutes on the question: “How Did Aristotle Understand Happiness?” The Yale Herald article beautifully captures both the ethos and content of the meeting. To my delight, attendance did not drop off like I had feared. I now regularly hear students around Calhoun College at Yale talking about their own “happiness projects” and several students have asked to meet with me one-on-one to find out how to study and live positive psychology and positive sociology more. I was pleased to see upperclassmen connecting with freshmen during our meetings, such as by discussing classes on philosophy and cognitive science that address happiness, and informing each other about student groups that promote elements of happiness, such as a Yale student group dedicated to meditation.

Nicholas Christakis

The students have taught me thus far that they joined the Calhoun Happiness Project at Yale because as achievement-oriented Yale students, they know there is more to life than good grades and accolades, but they are not sure how to best use their free time to build strong relationships and foster authentic well-being. As I mentioned, the students are also teaching me about the numerous resources on campus dedicated to promoting well-being. As  a sociologist, I know that good resources often go unused unless social groups inform people about those resources and also motivate people to invest the time and energy needed to take advantage of those resources. As Yale sociology professor Nicholas Christakis recently told me, we have had more improvements in health outcomes due to changes in social behavior–namely reducing smoking and improving diet–than by all our advances in understanding the genetic basis of our health. As Professor Christakis’s work shows, just as people are always in relationship to other people, our social behaviors profoundly influence our health behaviors. Similarly, authentic well-being is not an individual pursuit, it is a collective pursuit.

Why not start your own happiness project with a friend or a group? You will benefit yourself, those closest to you, and those you interact with even in casual ways.

Stay tuned for developments of the Calhoun Happiness Project at Yale. I can assure you I have exercised more than I ever would have without my happiness buddy, and I have a very long gratitude journal, in part thanks to her daily reminders.

Robert Bellah Memorial at the American Sociological Association

Robert Bellah

Robert Bellah, the famous sociologist of religion who passed away last week, received a thoughtful obituary today in the New York Times.

He also be remembered at this year’s annual meetings of the American Sociological Association on Saturday, August 10, 2013, at 7 pm. The event is being organized by Jeffrey Alexander of Yale’s Department of Sociology. It will be held in the Regent Room on the 2nd floor of the Hilton New York Midtown.


Goodbye, Robert Bellah

Robert Bellah

Robert Bellah once wrote: “Because good social science is always morally serious, we can transpose Weber’s saying that only a mature man can have the calling for politics into the statement that only a mature person can have the calling for sociology. Moral vacuity creates cognitively trivial work.” (The Robert Bellah Reader, p. 400)

One of the greatest American sociologists, Robert Bellah has passed away in these finals days of July. I got the email from my graduate school mentor Robert Wuthnow of Princeton while I sat in a coffee shop at Yale with Phil Gorski preparing for this morning’s philosophy of social science seminar. We were both shocked. The email only said his death was caused by  complications following surgery. 

I wrote about my conversations with Bellah previously on Black, White and Gray, and I’m immensely glad I got to meet a living legend just months before he passed away. At that meeting, Bellah spent as much time talking about how much he loved his recently deceased wife of more than 60 years as he did telling me about his latest book, Religion in Human Evolution, and we chatted about his new interest Catholic social teaching. Aristotle said that often we can’t tell if a person’s life has been flourishing until after they have died. May Bellah’s flourishing intellectual legacy and his example passion for people, ideas and the truth live on long after his death.


How Can We Be A Good Samaritan When The “Mission” Is Over?

This summer, thousands of high school and college students across the country will go on service trips, some of them with faith-based groups like the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and Dominican Volunteers, and others with do important service work with secular groups. Going out from one’s normal environment to help others is like an institutionalized version of the Good Samaritan parable.

But what do we do when the “mission” is over? While in college, I personally had intense mission experiences in Mexico and Cuba with faith-based groups. Then I worked full-time for three years in a secular organization, the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, that tried to help rebuild war-torn communities in Central American in the mid-1990s.

Perhaps harder than doing mission or social justice work is adjusting to your normal life after it’s over. Your heart and mind are blown wide open by the sadness, poverty and destruction you see, and you see your see your own economic privilege like never before.

In a thoughtful blog I read this week, Yale sociology graduate student Jeffrey Guhin reflects on how he understands what it means to work for peace and justice now that he’s no longer fully immersed in what could be called social justice work.

“How do you be a Good Samaritan when the volunteer year is over, when you have a job, a rent payment, bills, a spouse, and kids?  I think there are answers here if we work together to uncover them, and I’d like to think about them by taking a few positions in the story…”

Jeff and I discussed our experiences about working for justice, first as volunteers and then as young professionals over pizza and beer recently in New Haven (and we celebrated a few days pre-emptively Jeff’s Ph.D. final approval). Jeff is an eloquent writer and an engaging speaker, so I encourage you to read his full post here, as I can’t say it any better than he did.

But I will point out a few treasures in his words. Referring to the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jeff wrote:

“Remember that we should have died on that road. Everything from that moment on is a gift.  Don’t feel upset you can’t help everyone; feel grateful you can help anyone at all.  What can we do in a spirit of gratitude, in celebration for the wonder of our existence?  It’s an important question for us to remember, especially as we move forward in our commitments to justice and peace.  This is where the Dominican commitment to relationship is so central, and why it has to be paired with a sense of gratitude: it is our relationships that make us feel the need to act for justice, and it is our gratitude that helps us do so with patience, non-attachment, and a calm and loving awareness of our own limitations (and the limitations of those we’re serving).”

As intellectuals who can drown ourselves in reading sociology, philosophy and theology and debate which ideas from the Enlightenment enhance human flourishing and which serve the cult of individualism, Jeff and I laughed at how easy it is for us to forget that being a Christian comes down to having a contemplative outlook on life and a deep commitment to charity for all. As Jeff points out, we can forget that we didn’t create ourselves, and we certainly didn’t make ourselves into the brilliant intellectuals and virtuous young professionals we can so easily (and self-righteously) pride ourselves in being. Jeff reminds us that, if we acknowledge our own lives and our own talents for what they are–a gift–then that gratitude opens us up to developing relationships that foster our on-going commitments to justice.

It took me years of reflection to reach many of the same conclusions as Jeff. Mission and service work is a vitally important part of young adult formation. But most of us will spend the rest of our lives in lawyer’s offices, teaching students in middle school, or at home with children. It can easily seem that such work doesn’t have a service or a mission component, at least not one as important as helping the poor in a foreign country. But as I learned from mentors in a few mission groups I worked with as a graduate student, Amor en Acción (who organizes mission trips from  Miami to Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and Exodus Youth Services (who works with the homeless and poor in Washington, DC), the purpose of a mission is inner transformation and building relationships.

If our hearts are changed, then every day becomes a chance to serve others. But let’s not forget Jeff’s words of wisdom: our lives are a gift, our relationships are the most important things in our lives, and literally everyone who passes us by on the street is someone we are called to love and serve.