One of the lovely traditions at the Faculty of Music is that, prior to the start of classes each fall, second-year students organize a gathering with first-year students and their instructors.

When I learned that this year’s forum would address emotional well-being, my reaction was “I’m a musicologist, not a psychologist. What do I know about the health of the soul?” But then I reread Western University's Student Mental Health and Wellness Strategic Plan and saw that it drew on the work of Martin Seligman, a proponent of “Positive Psychology.”

Seligman is most famous for devising the “Happiness Equation,” by which he hoped to show that positive thinking can promote prosperity and even improve your health. But when Barbara Ehrenreich, in her book Bright-sided, asked Seligman what his units of measure were, he couldn’t answer. Indeed, how can you quantify human happiness?

As snake oil rather than science, Positive Psychology undermines not just the first part of Western’s motto — veritas — but its second one, too — utilitas. Global warming got you down? Are you or someone you love really ill? Are you worried about making ends meet, even as the richest Canadians keep getting richer? Just think happy thoughts.

It is one thing to feel anxious or sorrowful or unsure of one’s self. Those are all normal parts of being human. The harm comes from thinking that there is something wrong with you for feeling that way. From that follows depression, the feeling of separation from yourself.

Notice, too, the politics of this ideology. If you’ve gotten really rich by exploiting your fellow human beings, then the happiness equation is for you, because it not only absolves you of responsibility for harm you have done, but it isolates people who might otherwise organize to fight for justice and decency.

I think that’s the instinctive appeal of Seligman’s formula to Western’s administration. It fits like a glove in its remaking of public education into for-profit business. “Leadership centres,” “stake-holders,” “learning outcomes,” the “Success Centre,” “knowledge mobilization”: all of these slogans belong to an institutional vision that risks contorting you into a thing instead of enlarging you as a person, where the aim is less to make you happy than to render you docile.

Where to find a richer, less cartoonish vision of what it means to be human? Even in some cartoons, as it turns out. If you have seen the movie Inside Out, you may recall that it’s the sad character who winds up as the hero, because sorrow binds her to other humans. Or check out the opening of The Merchant of Venice: “In sooth I know not why I am so sad…. / But how I caught it, found it, or came by it, / What stuff ‘tis made of, whereof it is born, / I am to learn.” Antonio concludes his rumination with the realization “that I have much ado to know myself.”

Discovering who you are is no easy thing, it takes much ado. And that’s what an education can do for you: expand that sense of mystery and wonder.

It does this not by peddling Peter Pan-like wisdom about happiness, but by confronting you with what others have said and done, sometimes to your joy, sometimes to your vexation. But they will be your joy and unease, and thus have given you a sense of agency in the world.

— Edmund Goehring, professor of music history


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