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Happy days

At a two-day symposium, gifted students from eight Portland-area schools (including Riverdale) explore the 'pursuit of happiness'
by: Jonathan House, Riverdale High School student Emily Lee, right, and Hillsboro High Student Sanny Rider work on their final project Tuesday at the “Pursuit of Happiness” symposium at Catlin Gabel School in Portland.

Happiness, it seems, is all around us. Portrayed on iPod and Coca-Cola commercials. In sappy love songs. On the pages of beauty magazines.

So, while it seems to consume American pop culture, why does it seem to allude some societies and pervade others?

What would it take to make a person happy, anyway? Financial wealth? Good health? Laughter? Or, as the Beatles notably said, 'a warm gun'?

Finally, are YOU happy?

These philosophical reflections were intensely pondered, discussed and debated by some 100 high-achieving high school students and 20 teachers during a new 'Pursuit of Happiness' summer honors symposium held August 7 and 8 at Catlin Gabel School in Portland.

The event - sponsored and designed by the Oregon Council for the Humanities - marked a first-ever collaboration between eight Portland-area school districts and private schools after about two years of planning. Each school paid for its students to attend.

The symposium, according to a press release, 'offer(ed) a chance to explore different philosophies and aspects of happiness: as a state of being for individuals and an inalienable right of citizens, the ways we pursue it and its relationship to economic opportunity and consumerism. This topic should be of great interest to high schoolers as they begin to shape their adult lives.'

Riverdale High School rising seniors Aaron Latz, Emily Lee, Jon Hall and Jaila Cramer were selected to attend out of a 15-person applicant pool. Riverdale history and English teacher Jeff Brown and art teacher Conrad Schumacher helped shape the curriculum.

'It was essentially two days of inquiry ... essentially sitting and talking about concepts and texts for the pleasure of doing that, for the exploration itself,' Brown said. '... An opportunity to explore a topic that has no easy answer.'

Attendees prepared for the symposium by reviewing a packet covering the subject of happiness. It included excerpts from Darrin M. McMahon's book 'Happiness: A History' and a handout on a study about countries and their respective 'happiness' levels in correlation with their wealth.

Statistics in the study suggest that while the median income of the United States is higher today than it was 30 years ago, an increased level of happiness has yet to be found.

'It's always timely to think about these big issues, like happiness and what it means,' Brown said.

Each day of the symposium, students met in small, diverse groups and moved into five of seven 'break-out' sessions, where they were asked to think critically about happiness when it comes to the arts, culture, economics, gender, history, neurology and religion. The sessions were homework- and test-free, in keeping with a liberal arts-like environment that encouraged healthy, engaging debate.

Class topics included: The definition of happiness, happiness as an individual or collective concept and cultural expressions of happiness.

'There are no mistakes, no wrong answers. In a way, it's like bowling with bumpers: you can't go wrong,' said OCH Education Program director Jennifer Allen during opening remarks.

'The need for your voice in this conversation is significant. Happiness in your world is yours to find.'

Students' 12-hour day on Monday required rigorous thinking and intense discussion about happiness among the peer groups. They stopped only for bathroom breaks, meals and an hour of recreational play.

'It was a lot of work, very rigorous on the mind,' Hall said. 'It was good it was in the middle of summer and not in the middle of the school year. I was rested and ready for it.'

Hall enjoyed bonding with students from other schools and getting their views on the topic.

During one break-out session, Schumacher and two other teachers showed examples of happiness expressed in the arts. Schumacher played the upbeat, Latin-inspired song 'Sway' by Michael Buble and asked the students to close their eyes and dance along.

Minutes later, the students sat in a circle and expressed their feelings about the exercise: How it made them feel.

All of the students read the short story, 'The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas' by Ursula Le Guin and used it to discuss Utilitarian theories, including, 'To what extent is one's happiness contingent on the happiness of others?'

'It was something I'd never experienced before,' Hall said of the symposium. 'I'd never been together with a group of intellectuals like that, plain thinkers who were willing to do the effort, put in the work and think while having a good time.'

As a final project, Brown's group wrote a poem and choreographed an interpretive dance to present what they learned about the pursuit of happiness.

'Each of them were different,' Brown said. 'It really showed ... their idea of happiness had evolved in two days.'

That begs the question: What exactly is happiness?

'Oh man, that's such a hard question,' Hall said. 'It's so subjective. It's any person's definition. It's whatever makes you content and satisfied with who you are and how you lead your life.'

Brown offers a different perspective.

'Happiness is one of those things on a continuum. It constantly changes for me and it's hard to quantify it,' Brown said. 'I came away feeling even stronger about that.'