Universities Produce Happiness | The Socjournal

Recent discussions of cutback to our universities in Alberta, the neo-liberal led assault on post-secondary education, led one colleague of mine to decry the new instrumental rationality that pervades the social fabric. These days all things great and small come down to their monetary value. Education is assessed by the cost to the taxpayer and when the cost is too high, the hammer comes down.  Why we have  allowed our thinking about the educational system to be reduced to a question of dollars and sense is a question for the political scientists to answer. For me though the important question is “how can we put a dollar value on human happiness?” And it is the key question because over the long term cuts to post-secondary education will impact our ability to be happy.

Now, the reader of this short little missive may be wondering about the leap  from economic rationality to happiness, but bear with me. Universities, you know, produce happiness. In order to understand how they do this we have to travel all the way back to 1954 when the great American Psychologist Abraham Maslow posited his now famous hierarchy of needs (Maslow, 1954). At the time Maslow postulated two hierarchies of needs. One hierarchy, the basic needs hierarchy, is well known. It was a constellation of safety needs, love needs,  esteem needs, self-actualization needs, transcendence needs, and so on. The other hierarchy was a hierarchy of cognitive needs. In this hierarchy there were only two needs, the need to know, and the need to understand. Maslow said, and other great psychologists and sociologists have agreed, that humans have a need to know and understand. And in fact any parent will know these needs to be true. It isn’t long after children learn language that they begin to ask the question “why?”, and in healthy families these questions never stop. Children always ask and parents, and then teachers, and then professors, always answer. We ask to know the truth and we are satisfied only when we get it.

That we have these cognitive needs to know and understand is beyond doubt. That there satisfaction is important, nay critical to the realization of human happiness, goes also without question. Maslow noted that pathology was produced when cognitive needs went unmet as for example when intelligent people led “stupid lives in stupid jobs.” (p. 48). At a time when women were pretty much stuck in the home, he also noted that “Women unoccupied develop symptoms of intellectual inanition and gratification of the cognitive needs leads to satisfaction and happiness.” Myself and my wife notice it as well. We have a private therapeutic practice were we deal with couples and we note that “truth” is a key element in the healing process. People need to know the truth, and they need to express the truth, and a lot of the therapeutic process is tied up with creating a safe space where couples (and people) can speak the truth about their emotions, or their experiences. It is critical. In intimate relationships the “truth” is often sacrificed. In toxic relationship truth is denied and fabrication and illusion become the central feature, with disastrous results for the couple. Basic emotions are denied and realities are suppressed in a typically toxic battle to avoid being wrong.

“You are mad at me.” “No I’m not.” “Yes you are. Clearly you are.”

“No I’m not, It is in your head.”


“You are hurting my feelings.”
“Quit being such a pussy and man up.”

Maslow also noted that when the needs to know and understand are met, the organism is happy. He also noted, importantly, that the “higher” the need, the more happiness one would derive from its satisfaction.  “Higher need gratifications produce more desirable subjective results, i.e., more happiness, serenity, and richness of the inner life.” (Maslow, 1954, p. 99). More than even that, Maslow noted that “greater longevity, less disease, better sleep, appetite, etc.” is the outcome of satisfaction of needs (Maslow, 1954, p. 98). According to Maslow “Pursuit and gratification of higher needs represent a general health ward trend, a trend away from psychopathology.” (p. 99).[1]

So what do universities have to do this? Well, to make it as clear as possible let us transform Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to a simple statement. Let us say that humans have an instinctual drive for Truth (Peter Berger said they have an instinctual drive for meaning (Berger, 1969, p. 22), but I like truth better because not all Truths are necessarily deeply meaningful, yet humans seek all truths).  This need must be satisfied otherwise neurosis, and even psychosis, result. Universities fit in here because universities produce truth. They produce engineering truth, and chemical truth, and psychological truth, and sociological truth, and so on, and in this production of truth they provide the requisite substance for the happiness of humanity. Of course, the production of truth is not without its problems, which is why scientists emphasis empirical methods, experimentation, and even tenure. You see, some people out there don’t like to hear the truth, and they don’t like it when people speak the truth, and tenure was established to protect the people who produce the truth from being arbitrarily fired by the people who don’t want to hear the truth. This is a particular problem for psychologists, historians, and even critically oriented economics who often say things that other people don’t want to hear. Throw people out of their jobs is a great way to silence them. This is why, in the early days of the university, tenure was so important. Back then people knew the importance of the university, they knew professors produced truth, they understood how important this was not only to their happiness, but to the progress of society, and they valued it so much that they instituted tenure to protect the truthsayers of society. Now tenure is under attack not because it is not important, but because it is not cost effective.[2]

But the question here is, how can you put a price tag on human happiness?

Undermine society’s ability to produce truth and you undermine people’s ability to be happy. It sounds like a crazy idea but, in an era where everybody and his dog deals with anxiety and unhappiness by popping a little bit of soma, where all families, rich and poor, are dealing with the consequences of the attack on Truth, where neurosis and pathology grows and even the sparkly glow of the newest smartphone doesn’t satisfy the deep seeded needs, it is at least worthy of consideration. Sure, shutting down some history and humanities programs may look like a short term gain, but in a day and age where so many families are dealing with addiction, depression, eating disorders, suicide, and even gun rampages, in an age where the cost of untruth is becoming as obvious as the attack itself (Rasmus, 2013), the tradeoff seems hardly worth it at all.


Berger, P. (1969). The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. New York: Anchor Books.

Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and Personality. New York: Harper & Row.

Rasmus, J. (2013). Givebacks in a deepening crises  Retrieved Sept 22, 2013, from http://www.solidarity-us.org/site/node/3355

Sharp, M. (2013). The Rocket Scientists’ Guide to Money and the Economy: Accumulation and Debt. St Albert, Alberta: Lightning Path Press.

[1] If this is true the economic implications are stunning. In a world rife with all forms of mental pathology the notion that satisfying our need to know and understand could contribute to the reduction of psychopathology is good news for taxpayers, but bad news for pharmaceutical companies.

[2] The real truth of course here is that tenure is under attack because it interferes with accumulation. See my book, written under Sharp (2013), Rocket scientists Guide to Money and the Economy for a popular treatment of this difficult topic.