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What does it mean to YOU to be happy?

The Cult of Happiness: Pursuing the Good Life in America and China

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APPLY for Second-Round--Review is Rolling


What is happiness? Might writing your own (mock) obituary help you find happiness? What else can you do to be happy? What has happiness to do with the good life? Does happiness define the meaning and purpose of life for people everywhere?

In this course, we combine reading, discussion, group activity, and fieldtrip to figure out, collectively over the course of 2.5 weeks, what happiness is all about. We consider what philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists, neuroscientists, writers, and artists have to say about happiness and reflect on its relationship to wealth, wisdom, health, love, pleasure, justice, community, spirituality, and mortality. We give equal weight to Chinese and Western sources and interrogate deeply held assumptions through the lens of cross-cultural inquiry.

During the summer, students read a novel and a popular treatise. In September, we review these texts and place them alongside scholarly works, movies, short fiction, and social commentary as we interrogate the chimera of happiness. In addition, we will experiment with meditation, short-form life writing (including mock obituaries!), and service-learning. We meet daily for lectures and seminar discussion. Students submit three short reflective papers and three online commentaries, and in small groups make an oral presentation and do a creative exercise.

Meet the Instructor(s)

Haiyan Lee

Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures and of Comparative Literature


Haiyan Lee  grew up in an impoverished rural market town in Mao’s China and immigrated to the United States as the spouse of an American graduate student. Her biggest cultural shock was the realization that she had to decide for herself what to do with her life. She embarked on this rite of passage with both trepidation and zest, beginning with choosing to study what she had always loved since childhood—literature—in graduate school. Now more than three decades later, she has both lived and observed the American Dream as a dewy-eyed immigrant and a critical citizen-scholar. Meanwhile, back in China, after four decades of reform and opening up, the Chinese economy has surged to No. 2 in the world and the Chinese people have been urged by the government to pursue the “Chinese Dream.” Is it the American Dream redux, or something very different? This course grew out of her long-standing interest in the study of emotion, value, and identity. She loves engaging with undergraduate students in spirited discussion on what it means to pursue happiness in a secular, technologized, and fractured world.