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If you want to be happy, learn to think

If you want to be happy learn to think | IE Building Resilience

If we are to interpret the current context virtuously, critical thinking is fundamental.

By Borja Santos, Executive Director at IE School of Public and Global Affairs and professor of practice of International Development and Public Policy.



“I am myself and my circumstance, and if I do not save it, I do not save myself,” wrote the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset in his 1914 collection of essays, Meditations on the Quijote. After almost two months confined to our homes, the philosophy behind those words could not be clearer. Not so much in the strict sense of surviving the pandemic, but also for the impact of this new context, which is conditioning our mental health, our behavior and, in the end, our happiness. For Ortega, the degree to which an event affects us is conditioned not so much by what happens, but by the way we interpret this event. If we are to interpret the current context virtuously, critical thinking is fundamental.

The university, in addition to being a space for the transmission of knowledge, must also be a transformative space for young people: an environment where they can continue learning to think, daring to use their own reason (sapere aude), to understand and control their emotions, to interpret their circumstances better, and to act in an exemplary manner. Perhaps that is why all the efforts and activities we carry out at IE University are particularly important at this time: our innovative and participatory teaching that develops students’ judgment; the cross-curricular classes in arts and humanities; and transformative trips and experiences, such as a trip to Bhutan and Nepal, allowing students to better connect their feelings and thoughts and recognize the right path to their happiness.

In this journey and fight against COVID-19, our critical thinking will face many challenges and obstacles. I would like to highlight four of them that are critical during lockdown.

1. The fight against experiential overconsumption and dependency on emotions

Juan Carlos Ruiz, a Spanish philosopher whose book, El arte de pensar (The art of thinking) I will quote from in this article, says we associate happiness with emotional consumption rather than with reason. As material consumption is increasingly frowned upon, we are now in search of constant experiential consumption, seeking new sensations that disturb us, that excite us, and that are capable of altering our state of mind (always associated with positive emotions). In short, we have become dependent on emotions and sensations. It is not surprising that on the first weekend of lockdown, WhatsApp groups were filled with information about how to maintain our daily dose of experiential consumption (online plays, live concerts on Instagram, video calls, free books and films, etc.). No wonder that for a large part of society, the lockdown has generated feelings of disappointment, anxiety and in many cases depression, all mixed with a boredom that for some is unbearable.

In 2014, a study published in the journal Science led by Timothy Wilson subjected different groups of people to periods alone in an enclosed, empty space.

The only diversion open to the participants was applying mild electric shocks to themselves, a practice nobody would seemingly engage in under any circumstance. But a large percentage of people, unable to cope with their boredom and addicted to hyperactivity, began applying shocks after the sixth minute. The study concluded unsurprisingly that few of us are able to deal with loneliness, that we have a hard time keeping calm and that we need a sense of purpose in such situations.

Today’s happiness seems to be a species of to-do list (practicing the latest fashionable sport, using the latest current social network, eating at a new restaurant, visiting whichever country or city is in vogue, etc.) To survive this dependency on emotions we need to cultivate balance in our students (virtuous, as Aristotle would define them), helping them to understand and control their emotions and use the perspective offered by time and distance. This will allow them to appreciate the good things that come from having more time alone and enjoying the many activities that the current circumstances allow.

This is not an easy task since: as Gilles Lipovetsky explains, our happiness is paradoxical. Now that we have more time to read, to focus more on our studies, to talk to our family and friends, we instead fret about not being able to travel, to eat out in restaurants, to consume those longed-for experiences… Contradictions that we must come to terms with.

2. Learning to recognize strong and true friendships

A study led by Robert Waldinger at Harvard University tried to explain how we can grow old healthy and happy. The study began in 1938 and examined the lives of more than 1,300 people aged over 80, looking at the factors that made some people age happy and healthy, while others ended up mentally weak and unhappy. The results showed that it was not money, reputation or fame, but the strength of relationships with friends, family, community and partners that made them happier and healthier. During the most difficult days of lockdown, those relationships can help us more than ever.

Critical thinking is what allows us to distinguish good friendships and intelligent relationships from those where true affection is absent. Aristotle differentiated three types of friendship: utilitarian, where friends have a common usefulness and the friendship ends when that usefulness disappears; fun, based on distractions, as long as they last; and finally, excellence: a virtuous friendship that requires mutual consideration and seeks the virtue, success and happiness of the other. For Aristotle, learning to distinguish between these friendships was fundamental.

3. Distinguishing our real circumstances from the virtual 

For Juan José Ruiz, social networks allow us to develop our avatar and a new virtual circumstance. In the real world, we and our circumstances are predefined, while in the virtual world we choose who we want to be, we show what we want to show. We find ourselves in a virtual circumstance where people look happy, smile, take selfies or are constantly busy. We have increased the amount of time we spend on the internet during lockdown, and this can encourage harmful thoughts and insubstantial ideas. The biggest problem is that we do not know how to define the real me and the real circumstance, with the virtual me and virtual circumstance, and when the real self is seen from our virtual circumstances or vice versa. That is to say, when we compare the strength of our friendships with the number of likes we have or when we do not know how to value our own realities because we are comparing ourselves with the virtual circumstances we think we see in the virtual avatars of other people. In short, we are distorting perspectives and falsifying circumstances.

The only way to bring an end to the cult of beauty and medicating ourselves against the meaninglessness that constantly threatens to overwhelm us is through critical thinking.

4. Water the happiness of the tree before the happiness of the grass

When we want a plant to bear its best fruits, we must take care of it daily, cultivating it little by little. The same goes for happiness and learning to think. Juan José Ruiz distinguishes between the happiness of the grass and the happiness of the tree.

The grass grows quickly and is beautiful and comfortable to sit on. It provides us with an immediate reward, ideal in a society always in search of quick results, of “turbo-temporality”. However, the grass soon dies and is easily pulled up.

The tree grows slowly from a seed, requiring time to germinate, it needs care, watering and a lot of time initially, without much result. However, with time, the roots grow and seek their own food, the tree grows and resists the changes of the seasons, providing shade and shelter.

Learning to think, developing critical thinking, virtuous behavior and cultivating true friendships requires time, attention and care. It requires taking and accepting responsibility. The happiness of the tree will allow us to emerge from this pandemic with greater resilience. Seldom has learning to think been as important to our happiness as under these circumstances.