Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 2011 | In Class

The Pursuit of Happiness

By Shelbi Thomas
A popular course helps students channel their passions towards meaningful work and a satisfying life.

Hailey Jennings held a pen, eager to write down the secrets to the success of one of the country’s most innovative CEOs.

She and more than 100 of her classmates packed into a UI lecture hall to quiz Zappos head Tony Hsieh on how he became rich and famous. But before Hsieh would relate how he grew his apparel company into a billion-dollar business, he had a question for the undergrads: “What is your goal in life?”

Students shared dreams of owning a business, traveling the world, and starting a family. After every answer, Hsieh asked, “Why?” With the relentless inquisitiveness of a toddler, he pushed further until the students realized that all their disparate aspirations were driven by one common, ultimate goal: to be happy.

“I left that classroom thinking, ‘That’s the coolest thing I’ve heard,’” says Jennings, a radiation science junior. “So many college graduates take whatever job they can find, but never look into what will make them happy. Work should be about more than just a paycheck.”

Likewise, college should be about more than a degree. Freshmen have four years at Iowa. What can they do now to prepare for a bright future?

Students in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) course “Life Design: Building a Future” use their education not only to land a job, but to learn how to enjoy lives of meaning and purpose. They read and hear from compelling innovators like Hsieh, explore their talents and interests, and discover how the UI can help them achieve academic and personal success. “We should view the university as a laboratory—a place where students can discover what they’re passionate about,” says course instructor David Gould, 92MA. “We’re happiest when we find what we love to do and turn it toward something larger than ourselves.”

Gould came up with the idea for the course two years ago, when he and his CLAS colleagues discussed how to improve student retention rates. As an academic coordinator, Gould saw students drop out of the UI who were passing classes, but didn’t have an emotional connection to their studies. “Life Design” students strengthen their ties to the UI through mentoring, networking, and extracurricular involvement.

Though it’s never too late to change direction in life, college offers an ideal time to examine career options without the pressures of a full-time job and providing for a family. For students facing a tough economy and competitive workforce, drawing a roadmap for the future has become more important than ever.

To encourage students to dream big, Gould assigns readings from well-known thinkers, such as Bill McKibben, Malcolm Gladwell, and Steve Jobs. He also invites UI alumni to share their inspirational stories. Recent guest speakers include world traveler Andy Stoll, 03BA, 03BBA, illusionist Nate Staniforth, 05BA, and UI College of Education clinical associate professor Mitch Kelly, 87BA, 91MSW, 95PhD.

From these guests, students learn that the path to success isn’t always straight; unexpected opportunities often arise when people follow their passions. Last spring, actor Ashton Kutcher spoke to the class in a room where he once sat as an engineering student. When he asked undergrads if they believed they could be President of the U.S., barely anyone raised a hand. Kutcher, who was discovered by a modeling agent at the Airliner, implored students not to turn down any possibilities in life. “I often doubt that I’ll succeed in a rigorous class,” says Amelia Fleming, a pre-nursing sophomore. “[Kutcher’s] point about believing in yourself spoke loudly to me.”

External obstacles can often stand in the way of students reaching their goals. Undergrads may sacrifice their love of the arts to major in a lucrative field, or debt may keep them from starting a business. Recognizing that young people often strive to meet others’ expectations, Gould assigns students to ask their parents what they hoped for their children when they were born. Nearly every parent started with only two dreams for their babies: health and happiness.

Happiness isn’t without its critics. When Gould wrote a newspaper op-ed on “The Economics of Happiness,” some detractors said that following one’s bliss was overrated. “I know not everyone has a happy ending,” says the instructor. “I don’t live a fairy tale existence, but not ever trying to do what makes you happy seems sad and misguided.”

To avoid the empty clichés of self-help books, Gould turns to the research-based discoveries of social scientists who study the science of happiness. Numerous studies show that while fame and fortune don’t necessarily make a person happy, living a life of purpose and meaning does. “There are two ways you can get rich—pick a well-paying job and work yourself to death, or do what you love and don’t worry about money,” says Brad Carte*, a genetics senior. “The first is going to make you rich in the bank. The second could also make you rich, but if not, you will at least have a rich life.”

Researchers found that family and friends, satisfying work, community, trust in neighbors, and gratitude all contributed to a person’s happiness. To explore these areas, Gould’s students perform a secret good deed and write thank-you letters to people who have impacted their lives. They also turn in weekly journals to reflect on their goals. One assignment explains that novelist John Irving, 67MFA, starts each work with the last sentence; everything else leads up to that finale. Gould asks students, “If your life was framed in a similar manner, what would your last sentence be?”

Of course, passion alone won’t propel students towards success. Talent is also necessary, although likely genetics play a much smaller role than originally thought. Gould cites a study of a music conservatory, where researchers found that what set maestros apart from the amateurs was their dedication to practice.

Creativity also gives dreamers an edge. Students read from journalist Daniel Pink, who asserts that the future no longer belongs to people who can reason with logic and precision, but to those gifted with artistry, empathy, and the ability to see the big picture. Many jobs that can be reduced to a set of rules have been outsourced, while emerging fields such as environmental sustainability and cyber security offer new opportunities for intrinsically motivated leaders.

If they want to take such risks, students can’t be afraid to make mistakes. Gould reveals that although Michelangelo appeared to be an artistic genius, he destroyed earlier drafts of his work to hide his imperfection. Similarly, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was kicked out of his company early on before bringing Apple to its current success. Gould even admits that the “Life Design” course was an experiment. “How do you know that you love chocolate cake and hate broccoli?” he asks students. “You have to find the courage to try new things and risk failure.”

Gould’s involvement in students’ lives doesn’t end when they leave his classroom. He invites them to meet him for coffee, to be peer mentors for future classes, and to put what they learn to practice. In the “dream mentor challenge,” he dares students to list four inspiring people they’d like to meet. Gould then connects the student with a dream mentor, such as travel guide Rick Steves or Hawkeye coach Kirk Ferentz, to show undergrads what is possible through networking.

One year after taking Gould’s course, Jennings continues to reap the benefits of what she learned. A sticky note on her computer monitor offers a prominent reminder of her goals to remain optimistic and hone her patience and creativity. “I used to only set goals to make As or pass a class,” she says. “No one had ever given me this kind of perspective before.”

Gould also shares the story of Avery Bang, 07BA, 07BSE, who joined a UI engineering team that built a bridge for an impoverished Peruvian village. Not only did the project open up opportunities for residents to access health care, education, and jobs on the other side of a river, but it also paved the way for Bang’s future as the executive director for Bridges to Prosperity, a non-profit that helps isolated communities build footbridges over impassable rivers.

Although it may be too early to see their impact on the world, Gould challenges students to believe they can solve global problems. When they walk across the stage to receive their diplomas, he wants them to know their next step.

Every e-mail that Gould sends includes his teaching philosophy from the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Colleges…can only highly serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create, when they…set the heart of their youth aflame.”

Empowered with the lessons of “Life Design,” Gould’s students have the fuel to keep their fires burning.