2015–16 Seminar: Personal Happiness & Successful Societies

The annual theme (2015-2016) for the seminar series for the Committee for the Study of Religion is the analysis of religion and ‘successful societies’ and how success could be measured and explained. Various indicators have been used in the policy studies to measure ‘social wellbeing’ but they are typically organized under three main clusters of namely health, wealth and happiness. The seminar program will study how social success is translated, if at all, into personal experiences of well-being and happiness. From an anthropological and historical perspective, it is obvious that ‘happiness’ is culturally conditioned by what, following Michel Foucault, we might call ‘regimes of happiness’.

The Committee runs its Wednesday seminars and occasional workshops to explore notions of happiness and the cultural and religious frameworks within which the concept has operated. In the classical world ‘eudemonia’ was understood as personal flourishing within the context of a virtuous life within the city. This notion was developed in western Christendom although much of its classical content survived. Happiness has been further transformed by modernization. Contemporary research on young Americans suggests that happiness is defined in terms of personal consumption and sexual satisfaction. By contrast, hope and happiness in various European societies have been seriously eroded by austerity packages that have resulted in economic decline, high unemployment and the loss of life chances.

There are competing regimes of happiness. The Committee explores how such regimes might be challenged by rapid and unexpected social change such as civil wars or economic collapse. Adopting a comparative and historical approach, we will consider how different religious traditions are connected to different notions of hope and happiness. The more difficult question is how religious traditions might be related to the conditions that make for successful social change, and to what extent the issue of cultural relativism makes such questions problematic. Religious diversity may also contribute to social conflict making the development of successful social policies difficult. We explore various attempts to resolve such difficulties through the work of John Rawls, Charles Taylor, Jurgen Habermas and others.