Amid global uncertainty, U of T course asks undergraduate students to ponder: What is happiness?

What is happiness? Are you happy? Do you even want to be happy?

These are the fundamental questions that the University of Toronto Kevin Lewis O’Neill poses in her popular — appropriately enough — named undergraduate class “Joy.”

“We are bombarded with this expectation of being happy, and happiness acts as a measure of life,” says O’Neill, a professor in the Department of Religious Studies and director of the Center for Diaspora & Transnational Studies. “So the intent of this course is to provide conceptual literacy in happiness.”

Kevin Lewis O’Neill

The course examines the study of happiness from its earliest roots thousands of years ago through religions like Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

The class then explores religion-related theories of happiness through philosophers such as Émile Durkheim, a French sociologist considered one of the main architects of modern social science. He believed that happiness came from the joy of belonging to a group, regardless of faith, ideology or activity.

Karl Marx believed that religion was the main source of happiness. But he also worried about the impacts of religious belief, comparing it to an addictive drug: “the opium of the people”.

The class also studies Sigmund Freud, who suggested that happiness is found in the pursuit of something. Getting lost in artistic creativity or intellectual work is the path to higher contentment, as opposed to things like sex, revelry, or even religion.

The class also explores other models of happiness, including happiness through solitude, controlling one’s desires, or cultivating virtues, as promoted by Mohamed al-Ghazali – one of the world’s most influential theologians. Islamic tradition.

O’Neill’s course also covers more contemporary approaches to happiness, including the rise of cognitive and behavioral science, new age spirituality, and famous happiness gurus, such as Oprah Winfrey and Tony Robbins, who created billion-dollar empires by inspiring people to lead happier lives.

Regardless of the thinker, scholar, scientist or entrepreneur, most theories of happiness can be traced back to religious roots. “You might think that this interest in having a minimalist aesthetic or being mindful or following your breath are recent recommendations from psychologists. But no, it goes back much further,” O’Neill says.

Is O’Neill’s course a sure way for students to find happiness? Maybe not, but he thinks it will give them the opportunity – and the ability – to think about what will make them happy.

“There are a lot of courses here at the university that teach skills, whether it’s engineering, hard science or math – and that’s great,” he says.

“But I designed this course as an intellectual event for students to pause and reflect on what they want out of life. And in the classic tradition of the humanities, it’s a time for real reflection – not in the hope that they will become more marketable – but ideally better citizens of the world, and have a deeper appreciation for life and their place in it. ”

O’Neill says the course is particularly timely given concerns surrounding the war in Ukraine and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“Everyone takes a moment to think about what they’re doing in the world, how they exist now, how they lived before the pandemic, and what the future holds,” O’Neill says.

“And those kind of reflective moments that happen when you’re an undergrad are even more important right now — it’s not just ‘Do I want to go to law school?’ but ‘Where do I want to live? How do I want to live?’ So the course comes at a good time for the students.

Julia Shokeira sophomore majoring in anthropology and religion as a fellow at Trinity College, says the class “was one of the best courses I’ve ever taken in my college career.”

“This course provided me with the philosophical, religious and psychological tools to be happy. Yet, as an individual, I have to make the decision to use them,” she said.

Shokeir’s classmate and member of Trinity College, Katie Jonesalso enjoyed the course.

“I didn’t go to class thinking Professor O’Neill was going to teach me how to be happier,” says Jones, a sophomore in religion and a double minor in Philosophy and Diaspora and Transnational Studies.

“But I intend to continue my study of happiness and pursue the open questions that Professor O’Neill has provided us with: what is happiness? Are you happy? Do you even want to be happy? These three questions are of critical importance to us as undergraduates as we determine what kind of life, career and future we want to create for ourselves,” she said.

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