Happiness is a Chinese Philosophy MOOC

Course: The Path to Happiness: What Chinese Philosophy Teaches us about the Good Life
Length: 13 weeks, 1-2 hrs/wk
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Instructor: Michael Puett

Today, finding happiness is about mindfulness and discovering your true self. You may have heard that happiness is found by looking within. Ancient Chinese philosophy challenges all of these modern assumptions. From Confucianism to Daoism, the philosophies developed over two thousand years ago are among the most powerful in human history.
This course brings voices from the past into modern contexts to explore the path to a good life today. The philosophical concepts discussed provide tools to change your life and increase personal happiness by focusing on your actions, the power of ritual, and the importance of sensing the world around you.

The world is full of wonders, and one of them is that just as I, determined anti-self-helpist, started reading a self-help-disguised-as-American-philosophy book about William James, Class Central tweeted about a self-help-disguised-as-Chinese-philosophy mooc. I couldn’t let a Chinese philosophy mooc pass me by, self-help or no. Especially when the instructor is Michael Puett.

I first discovered Michael Puett through Harvard’s ChinaX series when I took the first few parts of it about four years ago. I’m not sure what it is that makes him such a wonderful speaker: he’s not dynamic, or funny, or even particularly attractive (hey, we all go there sometimes), at least in ways we usually think of in terms of great speakers. But I sometimes just look for videos on youtube where he’s explaining something, even something I don’t understand (Chinese history, rather than philosophy, is his academic area, though the two aren’t all that separable). In this particular course, he has a somewhat Mr. Rogers vibe, and it’s mesmerizing. And soothing. ASMR for philosophy geeks.

And of course it’s even better that he’s talking about Confucius. And Mencius. And Zhuangzi. And Mozi and Laozi and Xunzi and Hanfeizi and how they all relate to one another, how they’ve all developed ways of going through life.

Only a very narrow slice of the scholars’ works is under discussion. There are other courses go into broader and deeper views, but the point here is to present one aspect of a philosopher’s work that can be turned into thought or action for contemporary day-to-day living. I think it would play just fine for those without any prior exposure to Chinese thought, and as someone who’s had some prior exposure to the basics of Chinese thought, I liked it as a quick review of the high points. The lectures seemed a bit repetitive, but for someone encountering the material for the first time, I suspect that would be a plus.

The time estimation of 13 weeks seems wildly excessive to me, but that’s fine, I suppose you could stretch it out; I went through it in about a week, doing maybe 90 minutes a day (hey, I like this stuff). The graded parts of the course – quizzes after each lecture – are unavailable to audit students; the Verified track costs $99. But in a course like this, grades aren’t really the point.

The self-help aspect of the course is actually quite useful as a pedagogical tool: a Self-Reflection diary follows each video segment and stores the student’s input as a PDF that can be downloaded complete at the end of the course. It starts from the beginning – what habits do you have? – and shows up after each lecture video. What patterns do you notice in others close to you? What can you identify in your life that could become a ritual space? What activities would you like to do spontaneously? These questions stem from the content of the lecture (habits, patterns, ritual spaces, spontaneity) and help emphasize the meanings of those terms in the context of the philosopher under discussion. For example, the dinner table or a business meeting can become a ritual space; playing a musical instrument or a sport can, after a lot of focused practice, become spontaneous. So it, too, serves as reinforcement for the particular vocabulary.

Whether you want to take the life advice or just learn something about Chinese philosophy, it’s an informative and pleasant way to do it. And soothing.

3 responses to “Happiness is a Chinese Philosophy MOOC

  1. Tell me about this “importance of sensing the world around you”. Is it just smelling the rose and seeing the butterfly, being aware of the gust of wind on your arm, or is there more to it than that?

  2. Not really. For Confucius, it’s more about sensing other people, what they’re feeling, how they are approaching whatever intersection they have with you. This is part of what is being included in “ritual” – and remember, this is one professor’s interpretation of one aspect of Confucianism in support of one practical result (happiness). It isn’t fact. it’s an application. And it’s a starting point, subject to modifications to fit the individual.

    He gives a couple of examples: when you tell your little kid to say “thank you” after someone gives him something, that’s the beginning of ritual, and of course the kid is just doing what he’s told and he’s not going to sound very grateful, but you work with him over time.
    to quote the class lecture: “So if Sammy learns the ritual, and, if I’m a good uncle, will continue to work with him as he grows up, he goes from that initial being sort of forced in this ritual situation, to say please and thank you, rolling his eyes, gradually he learns to do it without rolling his eyes. Gradually, he learns to do it, smiling, please, thank you. Gradually, he then begins to learn in different situations, different tones of voice that would be more appropriate to express these emotions. He begins to have different emotions because he begins to sense people around him better. He begins to sense what it means to ask something of this person, what it means to express gratitude, which it turns out for different people in different situations will be very different. He slowly gains a sense of the different ways tones of voices affect people differently because they have different ruts and patterns too, just like we do. And he learns to sense those and sense when to be more calm, when to be a little more laughing, when to be more smiling, when to be a little more grave. ”

    Then he goes into sensing when someone comes into a room and is angry, working with that over time to find ways that are better than yelling back or scolding. This too becomes part of ritual of a business meeting or family dinner, breaking patterns that have been in place for years to make the meetings/dinners more productive or more conducive to actual communication.

    From my own experience, when this is adapted to DBT, it’s called distancing or observing: you don’t get emotionally involved in the anger, you don’t get defensive or angry in return, you back up and realize this may not be the time to bring up the budget problems or your own anger, this might be a time to listen to what’s on the other person’s mind. It’s incredibly hard to do. And it starts with sensing another person’s mood and feelings.

    Take the course. Go ahead, it’s free, this is all in the first week, and there’s a whole discussion forum to ask these kinds of questions.

  3. Pingback: In-Depth Course Review: Harvard's Path to Happiness — Class Central

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