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Should we want to be happy? New NMSU course will explore that question

What does it mean to be happy? It's one of life's most enduring questions. New Mexico State University philosophy professor Mark Walker will explore the often-misunderstood nature of happiness thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Walker received a two-year, $25,000 grant to develop a happiness course, which will be available in spring 2013.

Mark Walker standing in a desert area
Mark Walker, an assistant professor of philosophy, was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities Enduring Questions program to develop a happiness course at New Mexico State University. (Courtesy photo)

The NEH Enduring Questions grant program supports the development of new courses that foster intellectual community through the study of an enduring question.

The course is titled "Should we want to be happy," and will be offered in the College of Arts and Sciences as "Philosophy 361: Special Topics." Walker, an assistant professor of philosophy, said the course is a sustained semester-long interrogation of happiness, and is a first for NMSU.

"Part of the grant money will be used to construct a happiness booth where students in my philosophy class will have the opportunity to emulate Socrates, and ask the public about the nature of happiness," Walker said.

Walker's students will read and evaluate a set of original works with historical, disciplinary and cultural breadth. The class will study writings by Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Jefferson and Mill, as well as read Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" and watch the first "Matrix" film.

"We will examine some contemporary writings from the two emerging sub-disciplines: positive psychology and happiness economics, as well as look to a Buddhist perspective on the matter," Walker said. "Students will come away with a good sense of the long history of thinking about happiness, as well as some sense of the explosion of recent interest in the subject in academia."

The idea for the course came to Walker when he was conducting research for his forthcoming book, "Happy-People-Pills for All." The main idea of the book is about the role genetics plays in personal happiness, and how this knowledge could be used to enhance happiness through advanced pharmacology.
"My book argues that we should look to give the rest of us in pill form what those lucky few have thanks to their genes," Walker said.

Conducting research for the book, he looked at the scientific literature on happiness, and was surprised to find little consensus on the meaning of happiness.

"I sometimes talk about happiness in my introductory courses and students seem particularly excited about the subject, so my research and student interests nicely dovetail," Walker said.

Walker teaches courses in ethics, social and political philosophy, informal logic, philosophy of science and the ethics of genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology. His primary research interest is in ethical issues arising out of emerging technologies.

"I intend to publish the syllabus for the course as well as a statement about any teaching successes and failures encountered during the grant period," Walker said. "Hopefully other educators will find this helpful in constructing similar courses at other universities."

For more information about the class contact Walker at mwalker@nmsu.edu.