January 27-29, 2011

The United States' Declaration of Independence, names three unalienable rights granted all men by their creator as "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." This formulation, a powerful, influential assertion, places the idea of "happiness" as a central tenet of American society, and one whose basic meaning seems clearly evident: satisfaction, enjoyment, a life constituted by these and other comforts. But what is it that we are talking about, exactly, when we talk about happiness? What precisely are we guaranteed the right to "pursue"? Is there an objective measure of happiness - through biochemical or empirical behavioral methods, perhaps - or is the measure of happiness a subjective issue? In what ways are those measures mediated by the values of a community or larger culture? When those contexts are altered, to what extent do our notions of happiness, and our ways of measuring it, change along with them?

As we examine different disciplinary approaches to understanding this essentially human experience, it quickly becomes clear that, even within a single field, it is frequently the case that any two theorists or scholars are not even talking about the same thing, let alone in agreement about the sources or significance of "happiness"? Western philosophical understandings of happiness date back at least to Aristotle, who characterizes what he calls eudaimonia as an exemplary fulfillment of human nature, primarily referring to "the virtuous activity of the soul in accordance with reason." This Classical conception of happiness as the practice of virtue resembles many subsequent religious or theological approaches. Christian theology emphasizes the importance of God to the experience and mere possibility of personal happiness: to know true joy or satisfaction, one must know God. In other religious traditions, a deity from whom happiness flows is less important or absent. Buddhist teachings equate happiness with the absence of desire, with overcoming the fleeting distractions of superficial gratification in favor of an internal state of peace and contentment.

Already a gap is evident between these foundational notions of happiness, which seem to overlap slightly but differ greatly. Once psychoanalysis revised the Western notion of the self and of the self's capacity for satisfaction, as well as the motivations behind such a pursuit, then "happiness" became increasingly difficult to define in a unified manner. Empirical psychological methods continued to make the picture more complex as well as more divided, first from the behaviorists and later from researchers who incorporated physiological and biochemical studies of the brain and body into their understandings of happiness. In recent years, the pursuit of happiness in the West has, for some critics, approached the status of a cultural imperative that serves as a major source of anxiety, while drugs, therapy, consumerism, and other cultural strategies are mobilized to combat unhappiness.

This seminar will invite speakers from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds to speak about the concept both as it's understood today and as it has been understood historically. The seminar will explore whether these disparate fields - Philosophy, Law, Cultural Studies, Anthropology, Psychology, Literary Studies - can offer each other insights in creating a greater appreciation of happiness and the various definitions, attributions, origins and problems associated with it.

Speakers will include Lauren Berlant (English & Gender Studies), David Myers (Psychology), Eric Posner (Law), Judith Fahrquahr (Anthropology), Gabriel Lear (Philosophy) and Eric Slauter (English & American Culture).

Pre-Readings

  • Martha Nussbaum - Who Is the Happy Warrior? Philosophy Poses Questions to Psychology [Download]
  • Aristotle - Nicomachean Ethics (selections) [Download]
  • Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener - About the Science of Happiness [Download]
  • Darrin M. McMahon - The Tragedy of Happiness (from Happiness: A History) [Download]
  • David Sosa - The Spoils of Happiness [Link]
  • John Lanchester - Pursuing Happiness [Link]
  • Suggested: Jean Vanier - The Ethics of Desire (from Happiness: Aristotle for the New Century) [Download]