Yesterday, Ben and I drove down to St. Olaf with two of our good friends, Tessie and Evan for the 30th birthday of the Great Conversation. The Great Con is a two year, discussion-based series of classes on philosophy, history, art and literature from ancient Greece and the Bible through the 20th century, and for me, those four semester and an interim will always hold some of the best memories from my college years.
The theme of the Con's birthday party was "What is Happiness," and the day centered around a lecture by Ed Langerak. Ed has a deep voice full of wisdom, and likes to spout off such gems as "always look inside yourself to find the truth...unless you're a weirdo," and, "we all know that relentlessly chipper people are annoying." He is a philosophy genius in the guise of a bearded, twinkly-eyed grandpa and has always been one of my favorite professors. I took no fewer than four classes from him in college, and always brought my rough drafts to him so he could rip them to shreds before I turned them in. I've gone to a couple of his lectures post-graduation and we're always happy to see each other. For some reason, he's decided that I am OK - beats me.
During the lecture and post-lecture discussions, we tried to answer two questions: 1) what is happiness, and 2) how do se pursue it. The epicurians (contrary to the misrepresentation presented by websites like epicurious.com) espoused that tranquility and moderation, not pleasurable experiences, were the source of a happy life. If you had a lot of peak experiences, they belived, the valles would be just as deep and twice as wide. Aristotle, on the other hand, belived that happiness was living the virtuous life (he then proceeds to tell you what these virtues are) - and that ultimate happiness lies in the life of contemplation, aka being a philosopher like Aristotle. Brilliant. We also discussed Jeremy Bentham, who claimed to have discovered an exact algorithm for calculating happiness (it terrifies me to think what this guy could have done with an excel spreadsheet), and the utilitarian John Stuart Mill who belived that happiness was the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
After the lecture, Professor Groton, another of our favorite profs, handed out door prizes - Ben was lucky enough to win one by being the person closest in age to the Great Con. The "prize" as it turned out, was a brick from the old Ytterboe building. During a break in the action Professor Langerak hurried over to proudly tell Ben that he had actually stolen the brick from its prior position of helping to hold up a statue on campus. Actually he told us that he had "liberated" it.
Then we broke out into small discussion groups - technically we were assigned to groups, but Ben, Tessie, Evan and I decided to just stick together and go to whatever room we felt like, so we just followed Professor Groton to join her group even though we were supposed to go to a totally different room. The theme that came up again and again during our conversation was that family, friends and community are a huge part of what makes us happy.
Ed mentioned in his lecture that joining a social group that meets once a month can increase happiness the same amount as if you were to double your income. I think our society seriously overvalues money and undervalues time and people. No amount of money should be worth letting our relationships with friends and family slip - but just think of how often that happens, and how often it is seen as totally justified. Past a certain point - I think it is $77K for a family of four (although some adjustments should probably be made for cost of living), the amount of money we make has no bearing on our happines. Why, then, do people strive for more prestigous jobs with higher paychecks that require them to work 80 hours a week and make them miserable, and give up the things that would make them happy?
This got me thinking about what a fantastic community the Great Con itself is. I met many of my best friends in those classes, including my fiancee, and got to know some of the most amazing professors and mentors I have ever encountered in my life. I also found out that Rick Fairbanks, who led my Con-affiliated study abroad session, passed away two weeks ago from cancer. I hadn't known he was ill, and it was a little rough to learn about his passing during a slideshow commemorating the professors the program had lost. One of the other profs told me she'd tried to contact people by e-mail before the event so we wouldn't find out this way, but hadn't been able to get in touch with everyone. It just made me think even more about how much we need to cherish our time with the people who are important to us.
The friendships, community and common language of the Great Con creates a sort of family that spans generations. I was amazed at how easily my friends and were able to jump into very personal conversation with alums from 1985, and how we knew their thoughts on happiness and the meaning of life before we found out their last name or what they did for a living. Fake bullshit networking sessions can suck it, as far as I'm concerned.
After the event, we all drove to Tessie's house for dinner with her and her husband Mark, also an Ole and a good friend of all of ours. As we made homemade pasta, drank wine, and talked about every subject from Lybia to the protests in Wisconsin to what we would invest in if we were Unicorns (don't ask!), I realized how lucky I am to have such amazing friends, who are smart and thoughtful, and who think that sitting around eating delicious food and talking about politics and unicorns is the best Saturday night ever.
Like any good day at the Con, yesterday's events helped me get a little closer to figuring out the answer - happiness is good friends and great conversation. And a brick from Ed Langerak.