Though I have searched the positive psychology literature, I have found very little about the link between the humanities and well-being. The humanities include religion as well as literature, art, philosophy, history, languages and related topics.We know that attending religious services is highly correlated with well-being in a number of important categories. But what about reading poetry and literature, going to art museums, creating art, and all the other activities taught in the humanities? Do these activities promote well-being? I have found little evidence either way. That makes me think that perhaps this is an untapped but fertile area for research in positive psychology. Questions that occur to me include:
- Do college graduates with a degree in the humanities self report being happier than graduates in other majors; are they better citizens, more altruistic, more ethical, healthier?
- Do practicing artists self-report being happier than others? Does their work promote well-being in others?
- Can we set up an intervention experiment with a control group testing the benefits of visiting art museums, reading poetry, taking humanities courses, visiting historical sites with guidebook in hand, and related activities?
The Legacy of the Humanities
The humanities are more about character development than happiness and well-being. Most of the founders of the United States and the framers of our constitution were educated in the humanities. Those who gave us the modern democratic state with all its freedom and opportunities were products of a classical education in the humanities. Their legacy to us is beyond measurement or quantification. No experiments we can devise can fully evaluate this legacy. Nevertheless, some research like the studies of the advantages of religious practice could be novel and useful.
How the Humanities Have Influenced Me
The humanities have had a profound influence on me, but not through college or high school courses. My father gave me The Outline of History by H. G. Wells, a wonderful choice for a 17 year old. In college, while I studied engineering, many of my friends studied the humanities, sharing with me their deep interests in literature, philosophy, and history. Though I cannot claim to be well-educated in the humanities, they have had a profound effect on my life. I assume this is true for many others.Humanities and Science
At NCSU where I taught engineering for 40 years, a new 1000 acre campus with buildings for teaching and research in engineering has been opened in the past 15 years and continues to expand. It is advertised as “an advanced technology community for university, government, and industrial partners.” The College of Humanities and Social Sciences are still housed on the old campus in buildings built many years ago.
Speaking of a similar situation at Vanderbilt, Volney Gay asks, “Why is this pattern, seen at every university, so common? Why do money, new buildings and resources seem to flow like a river to the sciences, (engineering,) and medicine yet barely trickle to the humanities?”
Is this because it is easy to show how technology and medicine increase human well-being, but little or no creditable evidence is available to show the link between well-being and the humanities?This difficulty arises partly because many in the academy believe that it is inappropriate to apply scientific methods, especially quantified measures, to evaluate the efficacy of the humanities.
The Divorce of the Humanities and Science
There is a serious conflict in the academy regarding the encroachment of the sciences and the scientific method into the humanities. This conflict is about Scientism, the belief that science and the scientific method produce the most authoritative worldview and the most reliable and useful way of learning and knowing. It excludes other ways of knowing and thinking. This divorce has a long and rich history. In 1824, William Blake wrote Mock On, Mock On, Voltaire, Rousseau:
Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;
Mock on, mock on; ’tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.
And every sand becomes a gem
Reflected in the beams divine;
Blown back they blind the mocking eye,
But still in Israel’s paths they shine.
The Atoms of Democritus
And Newton’s Particles of Light
Are sands upon the Red Sea shore,
Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.
This divorce is discussed at length in essays by C.P Snow and Isaiah Berlin; and more recently by Stephen Pinker and his critic, Leon Wieseltier.
Nevertheless, research in positive psychology linking the humanities with well-being could have far-reaching results and would be a proper study of mankind.
Gay, V. (2009). Progress and Values in the Humanities: Comparing Culture and Science. New York: Columbia University Press.
Snow, C. P. (1959). The Two Cultures (Canto Classics). Cambridge University Press.
Berlin, I. (2000). The Divorce between Science and the Humanities. In I. Berlin, The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Pawelski, J. O. & Moores, D. J.(Eds.) (2012). The Eudaimonic Turn: Well-Being in Literary Studies. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.
Pinker, S. (2013, August 19). Science is not your enemy: An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians. The New Republic.
Wells, H. G. (1920, 2015). The Outline of History. Amazon Digital Services.
Wieseltier, L. (2013, September 16). Crimes Against the Humanities: Now science wants to invade the liberal arts. Don’t let it happen. The New Republic.
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