In the famous and perplexing first sentence of Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy claimed that “all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In this course, we accept Tolstoy’s challenge to explore the question of happiness—and stories about happiness—through a wide range of short fiction, films, and other artworks, with occasional supplemental readings from philosophy and psychology. We’ll engage with visions of happiness (past, present, and life-long) by writers including Anton Chekhov, Yiyun Li, Vladimir Nabokov, Alice Munro, Jhumpa Lahiri, Tolstoy, and Virginia Woolf, juxtaposed with films including Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (1929) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). Through these texts, we will reflect on some of the basic questions about happiness that have guided its investigation in literature and other disciplines: what does “happiness” mean across time, place, culture, and language? What kinds of values should shape the pursuit of happiness—or does pursuing happiness necessarily lead us further from it? What does a story about happiness look like? In the later part of the course, we will use the lens of science fiction to think about some possible futures of happiness, including works of Phillip K. Dick, Octavia Butler, Karen Russell, and Ted Chiang among others.
As a core assignment, you will choose an image, poem, video, article, scientific study or other short text that seems to you to address the question “What is happiness?” to research, analyze, and teach to other students in the class. Other requirements include periodic short reading responses, a midterm paper (3-4 pages), and a final paper (6-8 pages), as well as active presence and participation in class discussions. The course fulfills Core requirement WCd.