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Happy Science Self Reflection Essay

I was listening to Paul Simon’s Hearts and Bones album recently, for the first time in many years – the first time, really, since I was a young teenager. I bought it when it came out in 1983 and listened to it over and over. But hearing it again, and particularly listening to the title track, I was struck by a question: how did I take this back then? What did it mean to me, and why did it mean so much?

So: the title song is a beautifully worn-down response to a relationship at its end, a mix of nostalgic glimpses of happier times and a weary, bruised sense of life in the aftermath of some cathartic break-up. Listening to it as a young teenager, still a virgin and almost wholly inexperienced in such emotions, I wonder if I didn’t think this is how I want to feel. I wanted the happiness, but in a retrospective way (because then it’s done and dusted and safe); and I wanted the melancholy because it just seemed so grown-up and sophisticated and suave. I wanted, as an old joke has it, to skip the marriage and go straight to the divorce. After all – and I am hardly the first person to point this out – there is a complex sort of joy in sadness.

But can this be right? Surely what people want is to be happy. Whole philosophies (I’m looking at you, utilitarianism) rest on the premise that more happiness is always and everywhere a good thing. There is a Global Happiness Index, measuring how happy people are (Denmark tops the league). Bhutan even has a Gross National Happiness Commission, with the power to review government policy decisions and allocate resources.

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It’s good to be happy sometimes, of course. Yet the strange truth is that we don’t wish to be happy all the time. If we did, more of us would be happy – it’s not as if we in the affluent West lack tools or means to gratify ourselves. Sometimes we are sad because we have cause, and sometimes we are sad because – consciously or unconsciously – we want to be. Perhaps there’s a sense in which emotional variety is better than monotony, even if the monotone is a happy one. But there’s more to it than that, I think. We value sadness in ways that make happiness look a bit simple-minded.

Sadness inspires great art in a way that grinningly eating ice cream in your underpants cannot. In his essay ‘Atrabilious Reflections upon Melancholy’(1823), Hartley Coleridge (son of Samuel Taylor) praised melancholy as a more refined state of mind than happiness. ‘Melancholy can scarce exist in an undegraded spirit – it cannot exist in a mere animal’ is how he put it:

Melancholy is the only Muse. She is Thalia and Melpomene. She inspired Milton and Michael Angelo, and Swift and Hogarth. All men of genius are melancholy – and none more so than those whose genius is comic. Men (those I mean who are not mere animals) may be divided, according to the kind of their melancholy, into three great classes. Those who seek for the infinite, in contradistinction to the finite – those who seek for the infinite in the finite – and those who seek to degrade the finite by a comparison with the infinite. The first class comprehends philosophers and religionists; the second, poets, lovers, conquerors, misers, stockjobbers, & c.; and the third comprises satirists, comedians, jokers of all kinds, man-haters, and womanhaters, Epicures, and bon-vivants in general.

Melancholy, Coleridge is arguing, is more dignified than happiness. I suspect this is a sense that most people have – that joy is, at root, a kind of idiot pleasure, the idiom of the lobotomy, a balloon just waiting to be popped. Sorrow is somehow more grown-up, because less illusioned. It feels more sincere, more authentic. As she prepared to write Adam Bede (1859), George Eliot copied the following from Thomas Carlyle’s Life of Oliver Cromwell into her notebook: ‘The quantity of sorrow he has, does it not mean withal the quantity of sympathy he has, the quantity of faculty and victory he shall yet have? Our sorrow is the inverted image of our nobleness.’

Because it has some of the colouring of nobility, sadness is also, perhaps, more beautiful than happiness. Philip Larkin’s ‘Money’ (1973) ends:

I listen to money singing. It’s like looking down

From long French windows at a provincial town,

The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad

In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.

It Is Intensely Sad would be a pretty good title for a study of Larkin’s verse as a whole. Of course, one reaction to this poem would be to say: ‘Wait just a minute, Phil: you don’t actually mean “it is intensely sad”. You mean “I am intensely sad”. The street, the church, the whole provincial town is doing just fine, thank you, and has no responsibility for your mournfulness, looking down from your long French windows.’ Such a reaction would not diminish Larkin’s achievement, either, for this is indeed the whole point of his poetry: to write, not about the slums, the canal or the church, but about the elegance of melancholy.

Why on earth should melancholy be elegant – or attractive in any other way? On the face of it, it ought to be precisely the sort of thing that evolution breeds out of the race, a prime target for sexual deselection. What female would want to mate with a miserable partner when she could have a happy, smiling one instead? Put like that, of course, the question looks a little ridiculous; as if we’d really prefer to pair off with SpongeBob SquarePants instead of Morrissey. But why? Why would you rather spend time with the latter than the former?

If depression is a foul miasma wreathing the brain, elegant sadness is more like a peacock’s tail, coloured in blue-gentian and rich marine greens

It was Charles Darwin, in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), who noted that sadness manifested the same way in all cultures. For something so ubiquitous, it is tempting to venture an evolutionary explanation. Alas, the anthropological and evolutionary work in this area has focused almost entirely upon depression, which is not quite what we are talking about here. I can tell you with rather grim authority that the difference between elegant ennui and the black dog is like the difference between pleasant intoxication and typhus. Many evolutionary theories have been proposed for depression’s adaptive value, but no one has, so far as I am aware, tried to claim that it is enjoyable.

If depression is a foul miasma wreathing the brain, elegant sadness is more like a peacock’s tail, coloured in blue-gentian and rich marine greens. Is it also universal? To this question, anthropology offers no definitive answer. Yet the condition certainly manifests itself in a suggestive array of cultures. It is the sadness to which the Japanese phrase mono no aware gestures (物の哀れ, literally ‘the beautiful sorrow of things’). It is the haunted simplicity of those musical traditions that spread from Africa into the New World as the Blues. It’s the mixture of strength, energy, pity and melancholy that Claude Lévi-Strauss found in Brazil, encapsulated in the title of his book about his travels there Tristes Tropiques (1955). It’s the insight of Vergil’s Aeneas, as he looks back over his troubled life and forward to troubles yet to some: sunt lacrimae rerum; there are tears in everything, said not mournfully nor hopelessly but as a paradoxical statement about the beauty of the world (Aeneid 1:462).

It would be possible, of course, to construct a ‘cost benefit analysis’ of the sorts of sadness I am describing here. We might suggest that it is a signal that the individual in question has the strength, leisure and sensitivity to indulge in being sad. Saying so invokes what evolutionary scientists call ‘the handicap principle’, a hypothesis first framed by the Israeli evolutionary biologist Amotz Zahavi in 1975. The idea is that extravagant traits such as the highland deer’s massive antlers or the peacock’s tail are useful because they are so ostentatiously expensive, manifestly inconveniencing the owner. They are a way of saying: I’m so strong, my genes are so desirable, that I can afford to schlep about with this manifest – and, by the way, beautiful – disadvantage attached to my body.

Sadness, according to this model, is a kind of conspicuous consumption. It takes more muscles to frown than smile, and maybe that’s the point. It signals ones capacity to squander a resource precisely by squandering it. Any fool can live and be happy. It takes greater strength to live and be sad.

All the same, this analysis loses the most important aspect of this emotion; not that it costs, but that it is beautiful. Happy can be pretty, but some species of sad have access to beauties that happy can never know.

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Mood & EmotionConsciousness & Altered StatesPersonalityAll topics →

Adam Roberts

is a professor of English literature at Royal Holloway University and a science fiction author. His latest book is Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea (2014). He lives near London.


Although the first semester of your freshman year is far too early to be feeling stress about your choice of major—much less your career—there are productive things you can be doing now to ensure that when the time does come to make these big decisions you will be more likely to make decisions you will be happy with. It's definitely worthwhile at this stage in your life to spend some time in reflecting about your strengths, interests, and motivations. This is the final essay of the semester, and it's worth more than the previous essays because in it you will ideally draw on what you have learned about various disciplines in L&S 1, and also draw on your own evolving insights about your own educational path.


Before sitting down to write your essay, you are required to take these two preparatory steps:

1) On November 4 your section will meet in the Career Counseling Library, just outside the Tang Center on Bancroft Way, instead of in your usual classroom. During your visit to the Career Counseling Library you will learn about a lot of resources to help you identify your interests, personality, values and skills, and you will participate in a hands-on demo of Eureka. If you have a laptop, please bring it with you.

3) Choose at least one of the resources at the Career Counseling Library that you would like to use to complete the essay. If it is an assessment tool, complete the assessment. Otherwise, explore or interact fully with the resource, as a way of coming to a fuller understanding of yourself, your strengths, your interests, aptitudes, talents and values. These resources are listed at the end of the essay prompt, and on the L&S 1 course website.

In addition, you may supplement the resources we have provided by taking this optional preparatory step:

3) Bring in your own methods of self-exploration, such as examining your own preconceptions, parental and peer pressures, and the like.


Once you have completed the preparatory steps above, do the following:

1) Reflect on what you have learned about yourself (your interests, aptitudes, talents, values, etc.) in the process of using these resources, and consider how these things you have learned about yourself differ from or affirm your preconceptions.

2) Based on the results of your self-assessment activities, please select three potential majors to look at for the purposes of this exercise only. Make sure you choose majors actually offered at U.C. Berkeley. The majors don't all have to be in the College of Letters and Science, but they do have to be offered somewhere at Cal. (If you are really drawn to a major not offered at Berkeley, focus on the qualities that are important to you, and see if there is a major at Berkeley that also fits those qualities. If you try hard but still can't find a major at Berkeley that matches your interests, you are required to meet with your section leader about this issue before finalizing and turning in your essay.)

Choose three majors from three different divisions (Arts and Humanities, Biological Sciences, Physical Sciences, Social Sciences, or the Interdisciplinary majors in the Undergraduate Division) in the College of Letters & Science. In other words, even if you think the Arts and Humanities will be the best fit for you, be sure to choose at least two majors from other categories besides the Arts and Humanities. You can look up the divisions at As with other assignments this semester, we are pushing you a little out of your comfort zone, in this case because it might help you discover something unexpected about yourself. You may want to consider writing about at least one major you never considered before.

3) In the preparation phase of this assignment you chose and used a self-assessment tool or tools from those offered at the Career Counseling Library and/or the L&S 1 website. Now, draw on the tools available to you to explore how good a match these three majors would be for you, based on what you know about yourself so far, and also based on your own research into each of the three majors.

Eureka features information on majors that you might find useful for this aspect of the assignment, as does the handout on "Matching Interests to UC Majors," which you will receive during your visit to the Career Counseling Library and can also find on our course website under "Resources." Departmental websites may also be a good resource.for you as you research the majors. Think not only about the ways these majors match your interests, values and skills, but also about the gaps between what you know about yourself and what you know about the major. Are these gaps bridgeable (and if so, how?) or not, in your estimation?

It is extremely important that you don’t merely lift language about the majors, personality types, etc. from Eureka, departmental homepages, etc. Please digest these sources, and put the insights you gained in your own words. Plagiarism is against the rules and does carry heavy penalties.

4) Did any of the readings or speakers or other assignments for L&S 1 influence your choice of the majors you focused on for this essay? Did anything you learned in L&S 1 up to now give you any insights into these disciplines that you found yourself reflecting upon as you completed this assignment? It's not required, but you can earn up to three bonus points on this essay by incorporating a discussion of anything specific you learned this semester in L&S 1, leading up to this culminating assignment. 


Now you should be ready to write a short reflective essay. Keep in mind that you can't do justice to everything you discovered about all three majors and your own self in just four to five pages. Instead, we ask that you reflect deeply on yourself (your interests, strengths, personality, etc.) in relation to these three majors, and then focus on the most important, surprising, or interesting insights about yourself that you have gained from doing this exercise, and write about those insights.

Make sure you explicitly mention which tools you used, and when you used them. (Even if you have already done some of these exercises before you came to Cal, we want you to repeat them, or try others: you are growing and evolving, so your results are likely to have changed over time.) Include the score you received or the results you got from the self-assessment tool you used. Also explicitly discuss all three majors, even if your deepest or most surprising insights were mainly connected with only one of the three.


1) Did you choose three majors actually offered at Cal? Did you demonstrate that you have researched all three majors? (That is, don't merely mention each major, or refer only to the prerequisites or what Eureka says about these majors.)
2) Is each of these three majors in a different division in L&S (or a different college)?
3) Did you use a tool (this semester) to help you figure out how good (or bad) a match these majors are for you? What tool was it, and what were the results?
4) Did you reflect on yourself—your interests, strengths, personality, etc.? Did you discuss each major in relation to your interests, strengths, personality, etc.? How well does your essay convey the reflection you engaged in, and any insights you gained from the exercise?
5) Is your essay well organized, and engagingly and clearly written? Have you avoided wheel spinning and padding, making every word count?

See the syllabus for specific formatting guidelines.


Your essay is due at the beginning of your discussion section on December 2


A. Online resource that you will sign up for in the Career Counseling Library:

EUREKA - (includes self assessment exercises and does touch on majors)

B. Other resources available in the Career Counseling Library:

Values Card Sort (administered in library)

SkillScan Card Sort (administered in library)

Books on Majors (College Major Handbook, Guide to College Majors, College Majors and Careers, How to Choose a Major, Fishing for a Major, etc.)

Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (personality inventory) and the Strong Interest Inventory (identifies general areas of interest, specific work/leisure/school activities of interest, and possible majors and careers student may want to explore): Both tests require at least one extensive meeting with a career counselor, so be sure to make an initial 45-minute appointment in advance by calling the Career Library at 642-2367. Because of the time commitment, The Myers-Brigg and Strong might be better suited for you when you have a little more time at Cal under your belt. 

If you are interested in taking an assessment or getting more information about utilizing the available resources and services at the Career Library, please contact the Career Library Manager, Paula Jung, at 642-2367.  Paula will be available on a limited basis for walk-ins or individual 30-minute appointments.  

D. Resources (courtesy of the Career Counseling Library) that you can download from the L&S 1 site: