Students at a one-week seminar on happiness I co-taught recently at Yale University made a proposal so simple that I was mystified: they wanted to organize a conversation table in every dining hall.
During my days as a student at Yale, I always looked forward to dinner as it was a time when I could share my ideas and adventures with my friends. So I naively asked my students, “What do you do at dinner if you aren’t having conversations?” “Texting and checking social media on our phones,” they replied. And even when they put down their devices, they told me, conversations center on how stressed they are by work and extracurricular activities. By contrast, at the proposed conversation tables, students would be asked to disengage from technology and to discuss a variety of meaningful topics.
Such proposals indicate that although students today are connected to others electronically, they aren’t always creating connections with the people around them. By the time I started using Facebook and other social media, I had been out of college for more than a decade. By then, my identity was firmly rooted in strong friendships, family ties, and moral commitments guiding my life projects. But today’s college students began navigating social media more than a decade before entering college.
During the seminar, students asked: In a society where we spend so much time on Facebook bragging about ourselves and getting envious of others, how do we build strong friendships where we can express our vulnerabilities? If we are constantly measuring the worth of a person by GPAs and résumés, how do we learn to give and receive unconditional love? What would communities of friendships oriented toward the common good look like on college campuses?
Their questions—and their answers—reinforced my belief that college students need guided reflection on happiness. It’s natural and good to want to be happy. Some critics allege that college courses on happiness represent one more step in a self-centered, hedonistic, achievement-obsessed treadmill. But numerous scholarly resources exist that ground courses about happiness in solid philosophy and virtues.