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Conference considers happiness

Emma Driscoll | Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Academics from across a wide range of fields gathered at Notre Dame last weekend to get serious about happiness. Notre Dame’s department of economics and policy studies and the program in American democracy sponsored the conference “New Directions in the Study of Happiness: United States and International Perspectives,” which sought to find the root of happiness, and how happiness can be increased and used.

The conference drew thinkers from universities throughout the United States and abroad. Professors traveled from the Netherlands, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, according to Benjamin Radcliff, professor of political science at Notre Dame. The 23 speakers from various schools included Harvard University, Dartmouth College, University of Southern California, University of Zurich, University of Basel, Florida State University and Notre Dame.

The whole Notre Dame community was invited to attend the event and, according to Radcliff, both undergraduate and graduate students were there throughout the conference.

From Sunday evening until Tuesday afternoon, presenters addressed different aspects of happiness, divided into a variety of subtopics. Two to four speakers discussed each topic.

The subtopics included “What is Happiness?,” “Theories and Empirics of Happiness,” “Happiness and Economy,” “Happiness and Justice,” “Happiness and Politics,” “Happiness and Society” and ended with “What is to be done?” Alasdair MacIntyre of Notre Dame’s department of philosophy was the final speaker, connecting all the previous pieces together.

Speakers typically presented one of their research papers and then answered questions and discussed their paper with the group of about 20 other professors.

The “Happiness and Society” portion of the conference, held Tuesday, featured Wendy Rahn, professor of political science at the University of Minnesota and Eric Oliver, professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

Rahn presented her research paper entitled “Matters of Life and Death,” in which she studied suicide trends in the United States to see if there was a correlation between the amount of people who commit suicide and presidential election years.

“Fewer people commit suicide during presidential elections years,” said Rahn. “On balance, it’s a good thing.”

Oliver’s paper, entitled “Mental Life and the Metropolis in Suburban America: The Psychological Correlates of Metropolitan Place Characteristics,” was a study of whether or not suburbs are the cause of unhappiness. He concluded that there is no evidence that the suburbs themselves make people unhappy, but that the process of suburbanization itself can have this effect.

Radcliff noted that the opportunity to share and interact over research was part of what made the conference so valuable. It brought together those studying happiness from a variety of different viewpoints, he said. Researchers were able to talk with one another about their findings, not just read each other’s studies in journals, according to Radcliff.

Radcliff said the field of happiness has become “one of the big research programs of social science,” and it is being examined from the perspectives of political science, economics, sociology, psychology and history.

Often, academics in these diverse fields do not have the opportunity to work together, even when they are studying the same issue. The conference remedied this situation.

“Here, you’re getting questions [about your research] from a philosopher, sociologist and economist,” Radcliff said.

Ruth Abbey, professor of political science and Acting Director of the Institute of Scholarship in the Liberal Arts (ISLA) also expressed an appreciation for the interdisciplinary nature of the conference.

“People from different disciplines can learn from one another when they are all working in the same field,” said Abbey, who added that gathering such an interdisciplinary group is often “very hard to do.”

The conference was funded primarily by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.