The Pursuit of Happiness

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Every graduate faces the same questions: What are you going to do next? Enter the workforce? Earn another degree? Take some time off to decide what you’d like to do? The implication in the questions is that life requires a plan, even if that plan is simply to make a plan. We’re conditioned to be chasing whatever comes next. It’s as if hunting for the future is what life is all about. Can we credit this American pastime to Thomas Jefferson? He’s the one who deemed life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as inalienable rights. Possibly, but our nation’s third president can’t be blamed for how each of us defines happiness. Over the past decade of teaching at College of Menominee Nation, I have witnessed hundreds of students move their tassels to the left of their graduation caps. I have no doubt that these graduates are prepared to succeed in their respective fields because our school has equipped them with a culturally grounded 21st century education. What I wonder is if their educational journey taught them how to value the intangible accomplishments in their lives.

Before I go any further, I want to acknowledge that I’m aware that some of my readers are likely doubting if my premise has a place in an academic conversation. After all, we educators are contractually tasked with instilling the toolset our students need to succeed in their future careers—nothing more, nothing less. Yet whenever we ask our students who has had the greatest impact on their lives, they typically respond that it’s their parents, grandparents, or their college professors. That alone means that we educators have an awesome responsibility, and truth be told, we do have dreams for our pupils. Ask any of us willing or unwilling mentors what we’d want for our current and future students and we’ll likely respond that we hope they eventually find fulfilling careers that allow them to achieve their aspirations. If you ask their parents or grandparents the same question, they’ll likely say they want their loved ones to be happy. In both cases, the path to success travels through our campus doors—even if we don’t always recognize it. 

A decade ago, Marc Gellman rightly noted that most people equate happiness with feeling pleasure. The problem with this definition, he reasoned, is that “anyone can feel pleasure. A good meal, a winning team, a fabulous vacation can make even the biggest criminal feel just as happy as the most noble hero.” Gellman said that for some people “feeling good has no natural connection to doing good”—which we can define as a selfless act on behalf of another human being or in the protection of the world we all share. In other words, it’s the kindness towards our peers, elders, and future generations we inherently exemplify in our tribal college or university (TCU) classrooms.        

If we ask our students which aspects of their education made them feel unabashed happiness, we will be able to connect the dots to realize that true happiness comes from both feeling gratitude and offering it to others. The birth of a child, the landing of a new job, and the generosity of another person all make us grateful. While these feelings are wonderful to experience, it’s even better to be one of the people exuding kindness to others. Our students practiced this at a college-sponsored fundraiser, a highway cleanup, a community garden, or a public performance—all of which take hard work but are worth the effort. Moreover, these were times when our students embodied the mission of TCUs, because they exist to serve our communities. Yet beyond our walls these are the moments our students should be reminded to value, because, as Gellman put it, “True happiness, the kind of happiness we ought to wish for our children and for ourselves is almost always the result of doing hard but good things over and over.”

Of course, selfless giving is common in Native communities. It can be seen with every blanket dance at a powwow, whenever someone packs extra food to give away at a gathering, or when an outpouring of tangible and intangible encouragement overwhelms someone who’s mourning. The trick is that we educators have to celebrate the kindness that is ubiquitous in Native communities within our educational disciplines. This is how we all can infuse Native culture into our classrooms, because at their core, every Indigenous society is based upon the practice of acting in the best interest of the whole.  

So what should our graduates do next? That’s for them to answer. They’re entering the job market with a quality education and the abilities to succeed in their chosen fields. If we’re lucky, like I was this past month when one of my favorite students graduated, we’ll know we’ve made a difference. Before Louis Cottrel (Oneida) accepted his diploma, he told me that the highlight of his education was his performance in our theater productions. His joy came from both the communal feeling of the cast and crew and the laughter they were able to elicit from their audiences. He said that being in the cast was fulfilling because he was a part of something that affected so many. The kicker is that he wouldn’t have agreed to be involved at all had my assistant and I not begged him to take his first role. As an educator, I’m thrilled to have provided the metaphorical arm-twist that led him to achieve this fulfillment—or, to put it another way, that I was able to help him take a few more steps towards both his educational goals and his pursuit of happiness.                            

Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communication at College of Menominee Nation, where he has been recognized as the American Indian College Fund’s Faculty Member of the Year.


Gellman, M. (2006, November 4). Gellman: An Argument Against Happiness. Newsweek. Retrieved from:

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Inquisitive Academic or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. 

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