The Case for Liberal Arts: Life Satisfaction
The Case for Liberal Arts: Life Satisfaction
Do you appreciate the art you see at an art museum? Do you have a context for understanding the books you read? Can you connect current events to similar events in history? Can you separate fact from emotion in advertising? These are some of the skills that a liberal arts education teaches. If you answer “yes” to these questions, do these abilities bring you satisfaction in your life? Happiness?
Satisfaction and happiness are hard to quantify, of course, and causally connecting a liberal arts education to increases in these feelings is even harder to prove. But if you ask thoughtful people to entertain the idea, they have some compelling supporting arguments.
The Liberal Arts Edge
Gallup and Purdue University recently released Great Jobs Great Lives, a report on a study they conducted of over 30,000 college graduates across the U.S. They wanted to see if they could measure outcomes for the aspirational goals students have when they pursue a college education—to have fulfilling jobs and happy lives; or, in other words, does a college education produce a well-lived life? The study assessed workplace engagement, both intellectual and emotional. It assessed well-being through five elements: purposeful daily activity, strong personal relationships, financial stability, community engagement, and good health. And finally, it assessed alumni attachment to their alma maters to uncover which college experiences and perceptions are related to greater gains in the workplace and in well-being.
One of the study’s findings is that what graduates studied in college appears to contribute to their likelihood of being engaged in the workplace. Slightly more employed graduates who majored in the arts and humanities (41%) and social sciences (41%) are engaged at work than either science (38%) or business (37%). According to the report, other Gallup studies have shown that workplace engagement and people’s well-being are closely associated and that an engaging workplace increases the odds of higher well-being. For employed graduates engaged at work, the odds are nearly five times higher that they will be thriving in all five elements of well-being.
In this study, then, liberal arts graduates do appear to have an edge over other disciplines when it comes to life well-being. But what exactly accounts for that edge remains unclear.
The Life-Long Student
When you ask liberal arts alumni to reflect on the connection between a liberal arts education and life satisfaction, they tend to think there is a positive correlation, and they can easily tell you why.
UNH alumna Nancy Gannet Vickers ’77, an operations manager for a large non-profit organization, sees her education as having fostered a sense of curiosity about the world and an openness to new thoughts and experiences. During her time at UNH, she cultivated tools that she has since used to explore her interests in history, politics, travel, and the arts.
“My education has allowed me to enjoy my life as a constant student,” says Vickers. “There is always something new to learn, question, and consider. This is the true value of liberal arts.”
Bank lawyer Richard Toomey ’66 concurs with Vickers. The broad array of courses and subjects he took as a liberal arts student gave him a foundation, he says, for pursuing a variety of stimulating interests and activities.
“As a recent example, I was introduced to Anthony Trollope at UNH and every few years read another of his novels,” says Toomey. “Just last week I bought the 48 volume complete works, which will keep my pleasantly occupied for years.”
Toomey points out that having varied interests and activities makes you a more balanced person—and a more interesting one. This can be tremendously helpful in building friendships and business relationships. You’ll have more things to discuss with others and a greater potential for having common interests, he suggests.
“A lot of success in business and the law comes from building personal relationships, and being balanced and interesting contributes to that,” says Toomey, who adds that non liberal arts majors could certainly achieve these satisfactions, but they nonetheless would be well-served by taking liberal arts courses.
Learning What You Like
Although a liberal arts major provides depth in a subject, there is more opportunity for breadth and exploration than in many professionally-oriented majors that have highly tailored curricula. That breadth—that exposure—allows you to explore what you like and don’t like, says Ken Fuld, dean of the College, and that can lead to life satisfaction and fulfillment.
“You will never fully appreciate art unless you have been exposed to it,” says Fuld. “It's a shame that some students are limited in what courses they can take and as a result are denied the opportunity to study art in all its forms, to hear different kinds of music from what they are used to listening to on their iPods, or read a great novel that transports them intellectually and emotionally.”
The liberal arts provide that opportunity for exposure. When you find something appealing, it can enrich your life, Fuld says.
The Informed Life
Enriching experiences aren’t always entirely pleasurable, though. Some of the most painful episodes in our lives can deepen our understanding of ourselves and the human condition; or, in other words, good things can come out of bad experiences. But we have to be contemplative to reap those rewards. We have to be practiced in knowing ourselves.
“The liberal arts and sciences are about both the pursuit of self-knowledge and knowledge about the world around you simply for its own sake,” says John T. Kirkpatrick, associate dean of the College. “This is not about satisfaction or dissatisfaction or happiness or nonhappiness. This is about a conscious decision that you are going to live life fully. You decide that you want to live an informed life and that's what a liberal arts education enables you to do. That’s not to say that you're not going to get there without it, but it certainly can be like a booster rocket. It will prepare you to think those big thoughts that will be advantageous at those times in your life when you're able to puzzle through problems. There is a happiness that you can find despite tragedy, and that is very comforting. Do I know for certain that that's a byproduct of a liberal arts education? No, but I have a hunch that it is.”