A quick look at the bestseller lists tells of a widespread interest in and concern about happiness. Echoed in the morning talk shows and the evening news hours, happiness seems more and more a national obsession.
This interest in happiness is not confined just to consumers of the popular media, but extends also to academic experts, where it is currently driven largely by social scientific disciplines such as psychology and economics. Thanks to sophisticated instruments and techniques designed to measure happiness, experts in these fields tell us more and more about what happiness is and what produces it. The hard or natural sciences, too, have joined the team of experts investigating the subject: neuroscientists can offer chemical accounts of happiness, and sophisticated imaging technologies let us see a picture of a brain on happiness.
Amidst the explosion of objective knowledge about happiness, the Humanities are also staking a claim, as philosophers, theologians, and literary critics remind us that the question of what constitutes a "good life" is a central concern of these forms of thought, from long before the modern sciences could present it in objective and measurable ways. Indeed, these disciplines often argue that they have a special contribution to make insofar as their facility with discussion of meanings and experiences might add an indispensable dimension to the examination of a theme as human as happiness.
For the life of a university, then, the question of happiness offers rare and special opportunities. First of all, parents, intrigued by what they hear about happiness, are now taking it into consideration as they think about how they raise and educate their children. Next, the theme makes for a fruitful intersection of academic expertise and popular concern. Everybody, it seems, truly does care about and have something to say about happiness, even without an advanced degree. By engaging the topic, the ivory tower reaches beyond its walls, engages, and even educates a popular concern. Finally, it offers a field where the knowledges produced by disciplinary expertise might come together, shape one another, and respond to one another in a truly interdisciplinary fashion. The exploration of happiness thus lets us see just what promise interdisciplinary practices hold for a university that is more and more looking for a topic that can bring together divisions that seem to grow increasingly distant and autonomous.
About the Series
The Questioning the Good Life seminar series is a year-long colloquium that seizes these opportunities. The colloquium is organized around a series of six visiting speakers, chosen for the discipline they represent as well as for the perspective they will bring to our study of happiness. Each of the speakers is a leader in his or her field and one whose popularity extends beyond the narrow confine of their discipline. Speakers will deliver a public lecture and make themselves available for a luncheon attended by interested faculty and students. In conjunction with the speaker series, seminar participants will meet for four additional "sense-making meetings" during the course of the year to discuss books or essays related to the speakers or the topics they address.