What Makes Us Feel Happy and Fulfilled?

For a slightly different version, see Jim Throgmorton. 2008. “Turn youthful energy to be more productive.” Iowa City Press-Citizen (November 5): 25A.

Late last Saturday I wandered around downtown trying to sense the ebb and flow of nighttime life. The experience both exhilarated and depressed me. I could not help but admire the youthful energy surging in and out of the bars and pulsating on the mall. And yet, as you might expect, I found other sights less appealing: drunken young men and women embarrassing themselves without knowing it, cigarette smoke wafting through the air like some perverse distortion of a Sixties psychedelic dream, and cigarette butts being tossed onto public space as if it were one big outdoor ash can.

I know, this already sounds like an old man’s rant. So let me immediately issue a disclaimer: having drunk far to much beer and bourbon as a young man, I am in no position to moralize about youthful behavior. What I want to do instead is turn the conversation down a more productive path.

Many of you no doubt hope the problematic aspects of evening life downtown can be fixed by prohibiting undesirable activities in certain locations, especially by banning smoking and excessive drinking in bars. While such regulations have beneficial effects within spaces—I love being able to sip a beer without feeling assaulted by smoke—in the end they simply shift the activities from one location to another. No, what we need most is to invent new activities that will redirect that great youthful energy in far more productive, rewarding, and ultimately happier directions.

Happier. What makes us feel happy and fulfilled? In part, happiness comes from mingling with others. So, when I see large numbers of students talking, laughing, and wearing funny costumes on the Ped Mall, I see people who are trying to bring a little companionship, love and joy into their lives. Moderate amounts of alcohol can help with this, for (as we all know) it can act as a powerful social lubricant. But lubricate oneself too much and one can quickly find oneself engaging in regrettable behaviors. Sexual assaults and OWIs are high on the list, but they aren’t the worst. In September 1995 a first-year student at Iowa (Matthew Garofalo) drank himself to death in a fraternity house. Were the extra beers worth it?

While being with others is good, we are happiest when we are in flow, when we lose ourselves in activities that require sustained concentration. Those of you who love playing musical instruments or gardening in the yard on a sunny spring day know what I mean. Sports lovers do too. Back when I played basketball every other day at the Fieldhouse, I would become so immersed in the flow of the game that I often felt like the game had become me. I knew where the ball was going and all the players were moving before they moved. I was in the flow, and happy.

Being with others and being in the flow are crucial to happiness, but we also feel profoundly fulfilled when serving other people. Like when sandbagging with thousands of strangers on a very hot and sweaty day in June, or when mucking out a flood-ravaged house in New Orleans.

In the end, however, if we want to feel happy deep down in our bones, we have to believe that our actions are helping us live meaningful lives. It’s one thing to dance, but it’s quite another to dance with joy after having accomplished something that you know is important to you and those around you.

To transform this wonderful youthful energy in a more productive direction, therefore, we need to invent actions that enable large numbers of students (and old geezers like me) to immerse themselves in productive and enjoyable labor that helps other people.

One powerful collective act would be to help the neighborhoods of Cedar Rapids revive from the devastating floods of this past June, much like students from the Law School have been doing. It requires four simple steps: organize a group of friends, contact Lynette and Michael Richards at (319) 213-2051 (or through their web site at: http://www.rebuildandgrow.org), ask “what can we do to help?” and then do it.

A second would be to follow the lead of Birmingham, England, and organize a multi-day “Climate Change Festival” of music, dancing, informative walking tours, performances, and other activities that enable people to celebrate how good life can be in a well-designed, low-carbon city. Our city can join in next summer’s worldwide version of the festival by connecting with the organizers at www.climatechangefestival.org.uk.

Sharing a good beer with friends can be fun, but true happiness calls for much more.

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