The Art & Science of Happiness

This year’s IRW interdisciplinary seminar on The Art & Science of Happiness will investigate the biological, physiological, psychological, emotional, social and cultural factors that contribute to making a person “happy.” The seminar brings together University faculty, graduate students and IRW Global Scholars for weekly discussions of one another’s work-in-progress. 


IRW Seminar Fellows

Lincoln Addison, Anthropology
“Happiness at a Distance: Sex, Money and Migration on a South African Border Farm”

This project explores how gender relations structure the probability of attaining happiness among a community of Zimbabwean migrant farm workers in northern South Africa. Most workers define happiness as kuvaka musha: the personal fulfillment they experience by supporting a rural homestead or building a future life in Zimbabwe. The South African border farm appears as a male-dominated environment, where women rank among the lowest in the social hierarchy. However, widespread sex-work (chiback) on the part of women and domestic partnerships (kuchiya mapoto) drains the income of men and supplements that of women. As a result, women generally return to Zimbabwe with more savings than men. Does this mean that women are more likely to attain the personal fulfillment that most workers yearn for? In exploring possible answers to this question, I examine how Zimbabweans ascribe meaning to sexual practices on the farm and their aspirations of kuvaka musha.


Samantha Costanzo, Italian
“Luigi Pirandello: A literary exploration of Theosophy, Spiritualism and Parapsychology”

This project draws on the collected works of Sicilian writer and Nobel prizewinner for literature, Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936). Metaphysical concepts of ontology, the study of the nature of being pertaining to material and spiritual existence, and cosmology, the philosophy of the structure and laws of the universe, are interwoven throughout Pirandello’s works. I examine Pirandello’s postulation that 20th century man may experience fleeting glimpses of happiness in life but he will never achieve genuinely true, pure happiness and peace, i.e. nirvana, until he completely disassociates with the self and frees himself from all illusions. Pirandello utilizes the space of the afterlife to illustrate the necessity of dying to self, beyond the death of the physical living body, applying the concept of reincarnation to demonstrate the contrast between the volatile state of happiness, the 20th century predicament, and the eternal state of nirvana.


Valeria Garrote, Spanish and Portuguese
“The strategy of joy in the underground artistic movements during the dictatorship and post dictatorship in Argentina and Spain”

This project analyses underground artistic collectives that used “strategies of joy” to deal with trauma and fear during the military dictatorships and democratic transitions in Spain and Argentina (1974-1989). I define the “strategy of joy” as a new popular language establishing a relationship between personal and collective happiness through humor and a celebration of corporeal pleasure. Most of the bibliography on the period focuses on sorrow, death and trauma, and many of these artistic expressions have been marginalized, treated as frivolous and hedonistic. In my study, I shift the perspective and analyze how these artistic movements helped rebuild a state of happiness, using joy as a political affect.


Neha Gondal, Sociology
“Family Size, Relationship Structure, and (Un)Happiness: A Culturally Situated and Gendered Phenomenon”

This project argues that family-size, measured in terms of the number of siblings and/or children, has an effect on the number, intensity, and variety of one’s relationships—both familial and extra-familial. Individuals with smaller families are at a structural disadvantage as they have a smaller kin-universe, which could lead to lower access to family support, and in the extreme, isolation. Such differences in relationship structure affect individual happiness. The basis of happiness in family-size is culturally-situated as well as gendered. Individuals located within cultures that place a high emphasis on family are more likely to be adversely affected by fewer available kin. Research also demonstrates that women are more likely than men to be embedded in family ties. Accordingly, smaller families are more likely to affect the support networks of women, placing them at a higher risk for isolation and unhappiness.


Jeannette Haviland-Jones, Psychology
“Secret Ecology of Happiness”

I began this project with a simple question of whether flowers make one happy. The answer has led to a series of studies showing that the sensory surround can affect happiness and that it does so through dynamic relations between the ecological surround including plants, animals and other people... Sounds and sights are important but the surprising prominence of odor is part of the story. There are gender puzzles as well. Why does the undetected odor of an older woman provoke happiness, when the undetected odor of a young man does the opposite? Why do women so often behave happily and yet report unhappiness and why do men do the opposite?


Briavel Holcomb, Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy
“RU Happy?: An undergraduate, interdisciplinary course on happiness”

Rather than a more conventional research proposal, I would like to take as my project the design and organization of a new undergraduate course which could be team taught. I would begin by exploring some of the existing courses on happiness both “academic” and “popular.” There are a number of “free courses” on happiness on the web and some which look (at first blush) legitimate. This is a field beloved of pop psychology so one of my tasks will be to learn criteria to distinguish between them. In designing the course I expect to start with the ancient philosophers (Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, etc…) and move to more recent considerations by the pessimist Schopenhauer (life is made up of desires which, when satisfied, are immediately replaced by others) and other more optimistic thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham or John Stuart Mill. The proposed course would probably then move to the new field of positive psychology. A main focus of the course would be how government should/could use happiness as a tool to evaluate policies and programs.


C. Laura Lovin, Women’s and Gender Studies
“Opening Space? The Production of Transnational Subjects and Spaces through Contemporary Visual Arts”

To examine how the visual arts create new affective experiences and encounters that augment the political potential of bodies and spaces, my project explores visual arts’ contribution to the constitution of new kinds of perception, relations, and modes of coexistence in three transitional, transnational cities, Newark (New Jersey), Sibiu (Romania) and Berlin (Germany). In the aftermath of the cold war and in the midst of globalization, these cities represent marked sites in the geopolitical axis of “west” and “east.” As such each has distinctive visual vocabularies, different constellations of affective attachments, and particular histories of transnational engagement. Investigating the production of new forms of subjectivity in these disparate sites, I consider how various models of capitalist multiculturalism produce commodified subjectivities, while also vacating urban space for touristic consumption and financial corporate occupation. Informed by visual methodologies, this is an interdisciplinary project that engages scholarship in feminist theory, Marxist political economy, queer theory, geography, and cultural studies.


Damaris Otero-Torres, Spanish and Portuguese
“Happiness and the pursuit of human understanding: intersections among the body, the emotions and creative spirituality”

Nueva filosofía de la naturaleza del hombre (Madrid, 1587), NF for short, is a relatively-unknown philosophical text surrounded by controversy given the misogynist allegations that officially rebutted its female authorship. Built on the Ancient Greek aphorism “Know Thyself,” NF not only offers a comprehensive physiological model that affirms that happiness can be achieved through a dispassionate understanding of human nature, it also explores how the immune and emotional systems have a life of their own that must be objectively understood prior to human flourishing. In suggesting that the formulation of happiness in NF holds the key to solving the authorial dilemma, my research maps out how human understanding helps to articulate the historical, gender, and spiritual identity of the writing subject.


Ben. Sifuentes-Jáuregui, American Studies
“Happily Ever after?: Melodramatic Latin America”

This project involves a reading of melodramatic works in Latin American literature and early films to examine how these texts configure the “happy ending” as a social, cultural and ethical question. In the Latin American scene happiness is inseparable from pain, sadness or tragedy—happiness needs of its negatives to succeed. I give particular attention to the figure of the prostitute and her vindication—how her body and persona get written or filmed in the articulation of modernity. How does the “fallen woman” get reworked to become “happy?” How does the vindication of prostitution (a trope that is constantly and powerfully repeated in the melodramatic text) lead to pleasure and jouissance? If happiness is only possible when it is the result of a dialectics of pain, if rather than sheer happiness, we are talking about tortured happiness as the only possible way of “happiness” to succeed, then the figure of the prostitute embodies that impossible harmony between pleasure and tragedy, between elevation and falling.


Kristin Springer, Sociology
“Happiness, Psychological Well-Being, and Marital Satisfaction: Exploring the Gendered Effects of Spousal Income Dynamics Across the Life Course”

Women’s contributions to household income have risen dramatically over the last several decades, including an almost 300% increase in female breadwinner families. These economic shifts conflict with persistent—albeit outdated— stereotypes of “male breadwinning” and “female homemaking.” In prior research I document that husbands in female-breadwinner families suffered poorer physical health caused by the masculine insults of being a secondary earner. In this project I want to extend my research to systematically explore how wives’ increased earnings affect different aspects of both men’s and women’s mental health, marital satisfaction, and general happiness. Specifically, I plan to analyze 40 years of husband and wife income information to understand how the life course contours of husbands’ and wives’ income affect happiness in specifically gendered ways.


Alex Warner, History/IRW Learning Community Coordinator
“‘Where Angels Fear To Tread’: Feminism and the Rise of the Leatherdyke Community, 1969-1990”

This analysis of the origins and first 15 years of the Leatherdyke/organized lesbian SM sado-masochistic community in the United States is located within Second Wave feminist debates around sexuality.  It emphasizes issues of feminist ethics and community-identity formation while unraveling the complex system of ideas and assumptions that surrounded female sexuality in the 1970s, 80s and early 1990s.


Karen Zurlo, School of Social Work
“Financial Well-Being as a Source of Happiness for Older Women”

The financial well-being of older women has improved over the past few decades, but the outlook for future generations is not positive. Older women are required to take greater responsibility for their financial circumstances as they age, yet they often have neither the skills nor ability to exercise this control. As a result, these women are at risk of a reduced standard of living, which can have adverse and long-term consequences. This project explores the financial well-being of women aged 51+ who reside in the US. Using survey data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), statistical analyses will test descriptors that include the demographics of older women, a psychological construct defined as sense of control, financial well-being and life satisfaction. Financial well-being will be measured as financial satisfaction, a component of subjective well-being, and will be linked to life satisfaction, a commonly used measure of happiness.

IRW Global Scholars

Claudia Brazzale (AAUW International Fellow, Italy)
“Engendering and Degendering Cosmopolitanism: Globalization and the Family Firms of the Italian Nordest”
Focusing on the family firms behind the economic development of northeastern Italy, this project documents women’s often-ignored role in the making of the regional economy, the gender dynamics structuring these family businesses, and the postmodern turn of the region. More specifically, during this seminar I want to explore how globalization and its promise of modernity seduced the local entrepreneurial culture and assess the impact of this seduction on gender subjectivities. In particular, I wish to complicate my initial postulation that modernity discourses end up effacing women's collective gender consciousness as well as generating a widespread reluctance to correct inequalities. Beyond the economic security, how is the development of the region affecting women's sense of happiness? And how is the region's globalist and postmodern turn contributing to women's social connections and personal fulfillment?

Ioana Cirstocea, Centre national de la recherché scientifique (Strasbourg, France)
“Transnational feminism in the making: the East European example (1990s-2000s)”
Adopting the perspective of the sociology of the international circulation of ideas and studying a historically and politically marked process of transnationalization of feminism, this project focuses on the socio-genesis of “East-West” debates on women’s condition in post-communist countries. It will consider the main institutional sites and social actors involved in these debates in order to shed light on the strategic solidarity of new East European intellectual actors looking for legitimacy in the global gender field of the 1990s, as well as on de-differentiating logics of international democracy promotion, which (re)produce Eastern Europe as a symbolic reference.

Susana Galán Julve, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (Barcelona, Spain)
“Arab Women in the Blogosphere: Spaces for the Expression of (Un)Happiness in the Net”
I would like to continue my research on the use of the Internet by Arab women, and especially on their participation as bloggers. As my hypothesis I consider that Arab women have started using blogs as a way of expressing their unhappiness. However, these individual acts of virtual protest have converged to give birth to a community of women sharing common interests. Being part of this virtual group—being read and understood—has led to a certain level of happiness among the active bloggers.