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

The 2006 film Pursuit of Happyness, an unabashed celebration of the American Dream, was enthusiastically embraced by Chinese audiences. It seems that the pursuit of happiness has become truly globalized, even as the American Dream is slipping away for many. Are Americans still convinced that their conception of happiness is a self-evident truth and a universal gospel? Is there anything that Americans might learn about what it means to live a good life from not only the distant past, but also cultures in which happiness is envisioned and sought after very differently? This course takes a multi-disciplinary approach to the question of happiness and invites undergraduate students to reflect on its relationship to virtue, wisdom, health, love, pleasure, prosperity, justice, and solidarity. Giving equal weight to Chinese and Western sources, it seeks to defamiliarize some of the most deeply held ideas and values in American society through the lens of cross-cultural inquiry.

During the summer, students will read a selection of novels, memoirs, and reflections by philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists. In September, we will review these texts and place them alongside movies, short fiction, news stories, and social commentary while we interrogate the chimera of happiness. In addition, we will experiment with meditation, short-form life writing (including mock-obituaries!), and service-learning.

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 nearly three decades later, she has both lived and observed the American Dream as both 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 exploring with fresh-faced undergraduate students the question of what it means to pursue happiness in a secular, technologized, and fractured world.