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Who, What, When
Taking happiness seriously
Google “pursuit of happiness,” and you’ll get 2,830,000 hits, including a trailer for the Will Smith movie Pursuit of Happyness, a Web site promising to teach “obtainable” happiness, and news of an academic conference at Skidmore last April.
Cohosted by Skidmore and Bard College, the conference was a meeting of the Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-Century Studies organization. It lasered in on the meanings of happiness in the 1800s, an era influenced by three revolutions—French, American, and industrial—that spurred new thinking about human rights and the search for happiness. The conference was also spiced with current academic interest in the role of emotions in everything from philosophy to economics to public health.
According to Barbara Black, the Skidmore English professor who co-organized the conference with fellow Victorianist Deirdre D’Albertis from Bard, happiness has not historically been a hot topic for academic investigation. It’s been considered shallow and thoughtless, Black says, “while unhappiness is complex, deep, and reflective.” Nonetheless, the concept resonated with INCS members: 150 registrants and 100 papers poured in from across the US and abroad, even after the onset of global recession made Black and D’Albertis doubt the timing of their cheerful theme. Turns out that “this timeless and virtually universal thing called happiness is particularly apt now,” says Black. “Deeply unhappy times often generate a renewed interest in the power of optimism.” Call it coincidence, but “The Pursuit of Happiness” was one felicitous academic gathering. Right from the event’s spectacularly sunny first day, participants “walked in with big smiles,” as conference assistant Allison Barber ’09 marveled, and the camaraderie never flagged.
And why not? The research papers were rich with bon mots and key quotes, like the Marquis de Chastellux’s 1774 observation that “the first object of all governments should be to render the people happy,” along with intriguing factoids such as how the addition of a third pommel on sidesaddles freed equestriennes to ride boldly out (without a male escort nearby to adjust the saddle when it slipped). Indeed the cross-disciplinary discussions touched on nearly every source of public and personal happiness imaginable, from the usual suspects (love, money, bling) to freedom, fun, beauty, and more.
There were reports on public entertainments (British brass-band contests, penny dreadfuls, Toulouse-Lautrec paintings) and commentary about taboo pleasures like homosexuality, women’s sexual bliss, and Victorian cross-dressing. One paper described Saratoga Springs in its heyday as “a social stage on which fine women and fine horses could be shown together” and noted that both were deemed “trophies for captains of industry.” Other presentations limned the joys of the intellectual life, the European Grand Tour, honest labor, home cooking, baseball, shopping, opium, and mesmerism, with subsets for men, women, and children (“The Pleasure of Being a Properly Attired Gentleman,” “Happy and Unhappy Women,” “Infant Joy.”) Bob Boyers, one of a dozen Skidmore professors who took part, gave a paper that carefully distinguished between happiness and pleasure. There was even a session on “Misery, Pain, and Despair”—because, as Susan Kress, Skidmore’s vice president for academic affairs, said whimsically, “we cannot know happiness until we know its dark companions.”
In an INCS first, undergraduates joined the ranks of presenters. Students from Skidmore, Bard, and Brigham Young University cut straight to the heart of the matter—can happiness be taught?—in their own session called “Studying Happiness.” Randee Schwartz ’10 and Vanessa Lovash ’09 summed up the latest findings on positive-thinking programs in their presentation “The Psychology of Happiness,” but they gave 19th-century sage Abraham Lincoln the final word: “Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” —BM
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