The College of Human Flourishing

University Design | David J. Staley

Paul Anand, Happiness Explained: What Human Flourishing Is and What We Can Do to Promote It (Oxford University Press, 2016).

Rather than “what do you want to do?” with your degree, I have taken to asking my students “what do you want to become?”  I want to disassociate in their minds who they will be as people versus what job classification will mark them.  I have gotten out of the habit, when at networking events or dinner parties, of asking people “what do you do?” because I have found, especially among younger colleagues, that they would rather talk about their side hustle or passion project. Their “job” pays the bills, but they would rather not define themselves so narrowly.

So in response to my question “what do you want to become?” a student visiting my office said “I want to be happy.” 

What a fascinating response!  I am not certain that my university or any university is set up to advise and educate this student.  Colleges and universities are good at inculcating skills that will help them succeed at a job or otherwise develop cognitive abilities.  But to pursue happiness, that would require another kind of educational institution. 

I’ve written recently about the end of human capital, or the end of the association between higher education and job-training in service to the needs of the economy. There has been an interesting development in economics that posits that a better measure of economic vitality is not GDP per capita but, instead, a happiness index.  Happiness—flourishing–is often ignored in official statistics, and thus rendered invisible and unimportant in determining the health of an economy.  Rather than tethering the university to the development of human capital, what if the university instead were in the business of developing happiness?

Paul Anand writes for this group of economists who think that human flourishing—rather than growth or enhanced shareholder value—is the central goal of economic life.  In this formulation, wealth is reconceptualized as happiness. 

Higher education in its current form is well developed at generating human capital to satisfy the needs of a knowledge economy.  What if we placed human flourishing as the mission and purpose of a college education?  How might a college be redesigned to help my student achieve happiness?  Thinking of the purpose of a college education in this way is important, especially given that a greater number of students arrive at college today with mental health challenges.  It is a vast oversimplification to say that many of these students are unhappy. 

At my university we have a well-apportioned fitness center (actually, quite a few scattered about campus).  I often find students running on treadmills, lifting weights, swimming and playing basketball as I walk to the squash courts.  There are cafes serving healthy snacks and drinks after their workouts.  Critics often decry these as unnecessary frills, the “climbing wall” often held up as an example of the gratuitous luxuries that contribute to the rising costs of higher education. But another way of seeing the fitness center is that it is encouraging exercise and the care of the body a regular habit for students, just as we would hope that good communications skills or the ability to write code is a valuable outcome of a college education.  Looked at in this way, fitness becomes a “life skill” that contributes to happiness, well-being and flourishing. 

Can the pursuit of happiness be considered “higher learning?”  What would the curriculum for such a college look like?  Anand describes a school in the south of England that has introduced a curriculum on happiness.  “This new wellbeing programme comprises six strands—physical health, positive relationships, perspective (related particularly to resilience and thinking for coping with adversity), engagement, the world (particularly sustainability and personal relations to a materialistic world), and finally meaning and purpose.” (122) Imagine a college whose core curriculum were organized around these six strands. 

Outside of a formal curriculum, the space of the “College of Human Flourishing” would also need to contribute to developing happiness.  It would need to be designed to incubate social capital.  Anand defines social capital (and especially community social capital) as the quality of the environment in which an individual lives, the context that facilitates (or hinders) individual well-being.  Anand says that “if we are concerned about the mechanisms by which people achieve their own life quality, or the kinds of societies we wish to foster, then we need to recognize that a variety of social factors, such as norms, behaviours, and social ties do make a significant contribution to how wellbeing is produced and distributed.”  (16-17) How might a college be designed as a context of social factors that unleashes well-being and flourishing?

“It is difficult to be exact about the causality in all of this as involvements with communities grow over time,” concludes Ananad, “but it is clear that environments have some impacts on life quality and that the rise of online environments is likely to complicate substantially the ways in which social environments contribute to life quality.” (34) Although he was not directly describing it, one wonders if an online educational experience is a poor conductor of well-being, and that if we are to build the College of Human Flourishing it will have to be a residential, in-person experience.  Actual social connection is the only means of reliably cultivating human flourishing. 

David J. Staley is a higher education philosopher, strategist, futurist and designer, and is an Honorary Faculty Fellow in Innovation at CHELIP.  He is the author of Alternative Universities: Speculative Design for Innovation in Higher Education and the forthcoming Knowledge Towns: Colleges and Universities as Talent Magnets.

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