Opinion: On humor, happiness and higher education

An exterior view of Jorge Bergoglio Hall at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield.

An exterior view of Jorge Bergoglio Hall at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

Sacred Heart University has been acknowledged as one of America’s most joyful college campuses. I am privileged to teach English at this university and to experience its gleeful energy every day.

So which factors make for a happy campus? Genuine student satisfaction results not from fancy facilities and lavish luxuries, but from a commitment to the classroom campus and community. Students are happy when their involvement comes from a caring and compassionate place, as well as a true concern for the common good. The incorporation of humor into the curriculum also enhances this living and learning experience.

Happiness and humor, which I teach through my “Laughter in Literature” course, are central to the human condition and crucial in a college curriculum. Yet despite an explosion of interest in courses on positivity and mindfulness, joy and comedy only recently have become serious sources of study. The reality is that laughter enhances the ability of human beings to deal with the pains and tribulations of life.

As the COVID crisis, mental health concerns and labor shortages affect us all, humor is a paramount pedagogical tool not only for healing today’s college students but also for uniting various factions (faculty, staff and administration) in higher education at large.

When the pandemic plunged us all into a state of disarray in March 2020, I thought about the students in my classroom as developing human beings; they needed some joy, as did I, and comic relief seemed appropriate at the time.

I began to teach and research the literature of laughter, a topic that has gained recent cultural currency. Almost two years ago when COVID first struck, I found myself turning to Aristotle’s association of happiness with moral virtue (Nicomachean Ethics). My students found this definition interesting, especially in light of a pandemic that had relegated their learning to Zoom. They wondered whether a college course on humor would prompt them to think deeply about their purpose and place in this world.

My literary pedagogy has been inspired by Sacred Heart University’s compassionate mission and vision, which students live and breathe. In the classroom, they reflect seriously on classic and contemporary texts that engage them with deep questions about their journey through learning and life. As second-year undergraduates, they take two seminars in the Catholic intellectual tradition, which is at the heart of this university’s mission; in these courses, students reflect on questions about what it means to be human, live a purposeful life and commit to the common good.

Acclaimed author David Brooks, who will visit our campus later this spring, writes powerfully and prolifically about living a meaningful life for others beyond the self. Using the metaphor of mountains, Brooks claims that the purest joy comes from a life dedicated to service through “relation, community, and commitment” (“The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life”). Although comedy does not always lead us to the higher moral plane that Brooks describes, joy does produce laughter, which can heal many of the world’s wounds.

Happiness and humor are not only relevant in today’s times, but always; after all, laughter is a fundamental necessity for learning and life. As undergraduates exit my core course in close reading and textual analysis, many whose majors range from nursing and health studies to computer science and pre-engineering tell me that they have deepened their appreciation for comedy in literature and for humor in everyday life.

Is the college experience supposed to be purely a pleasurable one? Shouldn’t learning create some discomfort? Here we distinguish hedonism (mere material pleasure) from happiness, which signals true virtue. Institutions of higher learning that value virtue above all do best when they create a truly happy, not hedonistic, student body. Just as humor helps us to navigate life’s complex challenges, so, too, does laughter guide learners through the inevitable stumbling blocks.

Cara Erdheim Kilgallen is an associate professor of English and chair of the Department of Languages & Literature at Sacred Heart University.