Topic Description

(From “Happiness and Culture: Special Topic Proposal” by Vida Penezic)

2. Description of the Special Topic Happiness and Culture

The proposed special topic would focus on the relationship between happiness (as a universal human emotion) and culture. The papers and presentations in this area would explore (but are not limited to) attitudes about happiness, portrayals of happiness, happiness practices, the definitions of happiness, the uses of happiness, and perspectives of happiness, as they appear in the popular arts and genres, in the sciences and humanities, in business, in education, in popular media, in popular rituals, and in other cultural institutions, products, and phenomena. The papers and presentations might also consider the relationship between these institutions, products, and phenomena and the various cultural contexts in which they occur, including (but not limited to) the contexts of the mainstream, non-mainstream, alternative, minority, specialized, professional and other cultures, as well as different historical periods and different international cultures. 

While the participants may choose any definition or understanding of happiness as the basis of their exploration, for those unsure where to begin, we suggest using the latest science-based definition discussed in the Introduction (happiness is “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile”) or some version of it. 

Additionally, our starting assumption is that most of the happiness-culture relationships, interactions, and intersections are nonlinear, non-binary, and/or multi-directional.  Thus, they are less like a food chain and more like a food web: there are multiple, multi-directional connections (interactions) between and among the items in the cultural web. This is not to say that all the items in the web carry the same weight or that their impact remains unchanged over time. It is quite possible that economic factors—e.g., the state of the economy or major corporate interests—the culture of the demographic majority, religious beliefs, military power, etc., alone or in combination with other factors, have a more significant and long-lasting impact on cultural issues related to happiness, than, for example, fashion. Still, their impact is rarely simple or one-directional.

But, again, participants are in no obligation to accept this assumption.  It is the purpose of this special topic area to allow for free exploration of the relationship between happiness and culture.  It is not our intention to in any way limit the directions in which these explorations might go. 

Possible paper and presentation topics include but are not limited to:

– Portrayals of happiness in popular arts (movies, literature, music, photography, etc.), and in different popular genres (romance, detective, horror, country, rock, game shows, reality shows, etc.); 

– Portrayals of happiness considered against the background of different cultures, ideologies, and/or historical periods (for example, the relationship between the patriarchy in the 1950s and the portrayals of women’s happiness in popular movies of the time);

– Mass media and happiness.  Mass media have been accused of pitching their product to the lowest common denominator. How does this correlate with happiness?

– Happiness as it is portrayed  in social media and the impact of these portrayals on communities and individuals nationally and internationally. (For example, Facebook and the new happiness-related emotional disorder, fear of missing out [FOMO]);

– Happiness and new technologies (e.g., meditation and dating apps);

– Popularity and happiness. Popular products are popular because many people choose them. Do they choose them for their happiness-making properties?  (If so, what are those properties?) Or, is the relationship between popular products and the positive emotions they elicit (if they do) more complex?

– Does enjoying popular arts (movies, detective stories, popular music, etc.,) make us happy?  How and why? Is there a happiness catharsis? If so, does it work to our advantage?

– The relationship between different music genres and happiness;

– Happiness as a subject of scientific research (in psychology, neuroscience, economy, etc.) in the US during the past two decades, and its context; 

– The intersection of the scientific views of happiness, the attitudes to happiness in the business community, and the socioeconomic and management systems in which they occur; 

– The intersection of happiness, gender, and ideology in the political arena (for example, in an election);

– New paths to happiness (yoga, meditation, volunteering, be yourself, etc.);

– Old standards of happiness: success, money, family;  

– The various uses of happiness for objectives other than making people happy (and the cultural, socioeconomic, and political context in which they occur): 

  • in education (where trainings, such as the training based on The 7 Habits of Happy Kids by Sean Covey and Stephen R. Covey, have been used to train children to be responsible for their own success); 
  • in business (happiness training for business executives is all the rage, often promising to increase their productivity while making them happier); 
  • in advertising (happiness—that is, its absence—is often the main selling point for just about anything); 
  • in medicine (where positive mood is seen as being important for healing); 

– Demonstrations of popular happiness-training strategies; 

– Critical analyses of the uses of happiness as a carrot to elicit desirable behaviors, such as compliance, hard work, purchasing choices, etc.; 

– Portrayals (by the dominant/mainstream culture) of happiness in various minority groups, sometimes (often?) to justify oppression; etc.; and so on.⁠1

In short, the proposed papers might trace, describe, analyze, and/or examine the connections and lines of intersection between happiness and any of the phenomena that make up our cultural landscape, such as popular arts, popular media, ethnicity, cultural values, different ideologies, various sciences and humanities, economic class, gender, globalization etc., with the intention of understanding their interaction and its results. Authors might choose to confirm previous findings, question and/or assume a critical stance towards the subjects of their exploration, or propose a new approach.

1 Please see a more detailed list in Paper Ideas.

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