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W&L to Launch Interdisciplinary Seminar Series on Happiness

Washington and Lee University will introduce a new, year-long interdisciplinary seminar series that will examine our national obsession with happiness during the 2012-13 academic year.

“Questioning the Good Life” will feature six visiting speakers, each of whom is recognized as a leader in their respective discipline (economics, literature, philosophy, psychology/sociology, neuroscience, and business).  The speakers will bring their considerable insight and expertise to bear on the topic of happiness.

Five W&L faculty have teamed up to plan the series, which they believe takes advantage of the University’s particular strengths.

“The exploration of happiness lets us see just what promise interdisciplinary practices hold for universities that are more and more looking for topics that can bring together divisions that seem to grow increasingly distant and autonomous,” said Jeff Kosky, associate professor of religion and one of the seminar’s planners. “We believe Washington and Lee is uniquely qualified to organize around big questions such as happiness.”

In addition to Kosky, the professors who have planned the series are Tim Diette, assistant professor of economics; Jon Eastwood, associate professor of sociology; Art Goldsmith, the Jackson P. Stephens Professor of Economics; and Karla Murdock, associate professor of psychology.

Although the series will be centered around the visitors and their public lectures, students, faculty, and staff who choose to join the seminar series will also meet the speakers during luncheon programs and attend additional sessions on the topic throughout the academic year.

Students, faculty and staff can sign up to participate through the seminar’s website: go.wlu.edu/GoodLife.

The series speakers:

  • Sept. 13, 2012 — Carol Graham, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and College Park Professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. She is also a Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA). She is the author of “The Pursuit of Happiness” (Brookings Press, 2011), which was the subject of a recent discussion hosted by the Brookings Institute (“Measuring Happiness and Opportunity around the World”) that considered happiness as a national performance indicator. Her other books include “Happiness around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires” and “Safety Nets, Politics and the Poor: Transitions to Market Economies.” She offers a wide-ranging and thorough overview of what researchers in economics and psychology know about happiness.
  • Nov. 8, 2012 — Eric Wilson is the author of numerous books including a memoir, “The Mercy of Eternity,” that recounts his struggle with and ultimate embrace of manic depressive illness in the context of the birth of his daughter, and “Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy.”  Making a compelling case that the loss of sadness would be sad for our culture, Against Happiness adds a healthy note of caution about our national obsession with flourishing and happiness.  The book appeared on the bestseller list of the LA Times and was featured NBC’s Today Show, NPR’s All Things Considered and Talk of the Nation, the BBC’s Today Programme, and CBC’s The Current.  It has been translated into nine languages.
  • Nov. 29, 2012 — Charles Taylor is widely considered one of the most important philosophers and social theorists of our era.  In his work “A Secular Age,” he offers a historical account of the emergence of an idea of happiness that detaches the good from ends beyond human flourishing.  This account allows us to see shortcomings in and conceive alternatives to the modern vision of happiness.  Professor Taylor received the Templeton Prize in 2007 for progress towards research or discoveries about spiritual realities.   And in 2008, he was awarded the Kyoto Prize in the arts and philosophy category.
  • Jan. 17, 2013 — Corey Keyes, professor of sociology, Emory University. Keyes is a leader in the field of positive psychology. His influential empirical work has focused on the measurement of positive mental health as a complement to the well-elaborated measures of mental illness that exist in the field of psychology. Optimal mental health is conceptualized as flourishing, characterized by fulfillment, purpose, meaning, and happiness. Keyes’ work has far-reaching policy implications, and in 2012 he was invited by the Department of Health and Human Services to participate in the first historic “health-related quality of life and well-being” working group to create health objectives for the US “Healthy People 2020.”
  • March 19, 2013 — Richard Davidson, Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Founder and Director, Center for Investigating Healthy Minds. Davidson is a pioneer in the field of affective neuroscience. Using techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), he has studied neural substrates of depression and anxiety as well as neural plasticity, which is the ability of the brain to reorganize itself on the basis of new experiences. He has investigated meditation as a potential mechanism for physically changing one’s brain and generating greater health and well-being. Through this work, Dr. Davidson has developed a longstanding relationship with the Dalai Lama and helped to launch a new field of contemplative neuroscience. Among a host of other honors, Davidson has been awarded the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association. His latest book is called “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.”
  • March 28, 2013 — Richard, “Duke” Cancelmo, Jr. is a partner with Bridgeway Capital, an investment management company based in Houston Texas.  The mission of Bridgeway Capital is to contribute to the enrichment of the local community and the world at large by establishing a work environment dedicated to ensuring that workers flourish, rather than a traditional corporate focus on profitability.  Cancelmo believes that employees prosper, and feel happy and empowered, when they are able to integrate their work life with philanthropy while also being able to participate as full partners in business decision making.  Half of Bridgeway Capital’s after-tax profits are distributed to charitable organizations each year, with employees staffing the committees that distribute the funds.  Duke envisions a society operating under the principle that Work and the Good Life are Compatible, the theme of the talk he will deliver at Washington and Lee.

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