Libby Ashton: Pursuing the semester's theme

BY LIBBY ASHTON

Published November 22, 2010

During my first few days back on campus at the end of August, the banners adorning South University made my fluttering back-to-school butterflies feel a bit heavy. University students and Olympic ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White smiled down at me wearing tee-shirts that bore the University’s fall 2010 semester theme: “What makes life worth living?” And in that moment, I was reminded of my purpose at the University, which is to find my own answer to that question.

I can’t remember being aware that the University had semester themes before this one. Perhaps I was presented with them but didn’t register their weight because they weren’t as jarring — neither in meaning nor in structure — as this one. Examples of past and upcoming theme semester titles include “The Universe: Yours to Discover” (Winter 2009), “Meaningful Objects: Museums in the Academy” (Fall 2009 and Winter 2010) and “Water” (Winter 2011). These are simple declarations of things that exist and the implication that the University intends to spend the semester learning more about their significance.

But this semester, the theme is an entirely different form. By posing a question to students, it reaches out and grabs at our cores as conscious, rational beings. Mere comprehension of the question makes us vulnerable to its power — the source of which is the possibility that we won’t be able to answer it. This semester’s theme, unlike any other, pulls us into an existential debate with ourselves, even if just for a moment.

Psychology Prof. Christopher Peterson and Director of the University’s Center for Ethics in Public Life John Chamberlin, the professors responsible for organizing the semester theme “What Makes Life Worth Living?,” set out to engage us in a positive search for our own answers. In an e-mail interview, Chamberlin said that the theme’s structure as a question “provides an active prompt to an individual to think about what makes life meaningful for her/him.” This exploration, he thinks, is essential to a liberal arts education and often doesn’t receive enough engagement in our curriculum.

Peterson, who came up with the idea for this semester’s theme, said in an e-mail interview that the question “has been, is, and will be important.” He said his career as a positive psychologist is defined as “the scientific study of what makes life worth living.” The question is central to both Chamberlin’s and Peterson’s professional lives. Their work to make it a University-wide focus this semester reminds us of its centrality to our own lives.

It seems strange that we would need to be reminded to think about the reasons behind our walking these streets, writing papers and maintaining relationships. As beings whose capacity to question makes us distinct, I’d think we wouldn’t lose sight of the most fundamental question we could ask: Why are we? Though it may be a contradiction, people — and the institutions they comprise — are often lost in the muck that distracts from considering the meaning of life.

Governments around the world have mistaken measures of wealth and power to be synonymous with measures of happiness. And, in doing so, have faulted on their commitment to their peoples’ pursuits of happiness. A British daily newspaper, The Guardian, recently ran an article announcing the United Kingdom’s plans to begin measuring the happiness of its citizens in an effort to ensure that Britain’s general well-being is “at the heart of future government policy-making.” According the article, “France and Canada are looking at similar initiatives as governments around the world come under pressure to put less store on conventional economic measures of prosperity such as gross domestic product.”

Britain plans to measure happiness by gathering information on “subjective well-being” and an “objective sense of how well they are achieving their ‘life goals.’” While the intentions of the British government certainly seem to be nobly in the interest of its citizens, how can they be sure that their citizens’ “life goals” are any less misguided than the government’s prioritization of the GDP? As Peterson pointed out, there’s a scientific field of study dedicated to discerning what makes our lives worth living. It’s likely that many of us don’t always live in the interest of our happiness.

The answers to the semester’s theme “What makes life worth living?” are as important to discover as they are elusive. The answer depends on the individual, making it imperative that each person works to discover the meaning of her or his own life so as never to forget that such a meaning exists. This column alone isn't long enough to highlight any especially resonant declarations of life’s meaning. In my next column, I’ll attempt to (modestly) substantiate the meaning of life by exploring how various individuals, fields and disciplines answer the question. But until then — and even after — explore the question yourself.

Libby Ashton can be reached at eashton@umich.edu.