Happiness: Enlightenment to Present

deadline for submissions: 
May 15, 2019
full name / name of organization: 
University of Cambridge
contact email: 

Happiness: Enlightenment to PresentKing’s College, CambridgeSaturday, October 19 – Sunday, October 20, 2019 

The question of what makes us happy, let alone how to actually define happiness, has preoccupied writers and philosophers since the Ancient Greeks. Happiness has often been viewed with suspicion; be it located in another world, aligned with worldly dangers, or pictured as an endless pursuit symptomizing our fall from grace. From the Enlightenment onwards, however, writers begin to reinvent or reinvigorate the idea of happiness in new forms. Rather than scold ourselves out of expectation, happiness is viewed as a component of real quotidian life, as something we might learn to expect from our encounters with reality.

Happiness generates lots of cognates – joy, pleasure, contentment, delight, ease – yet it remains distinct, however hard to define. It can be private or shared, pursuit or achievement; it is both means and end. Happiness intervenes in debates about pleasure, morality, god, society, human nature, and it informs the reception of literature through ideas about, for example, the reparative value of reading. Its value is not unambiguously positive. ‘What…is to be expected from our pursuit of happiness,’ asks one of the characters in Samuel Johnson’s Rassellas, ‘when we find the state to be such, that happiness itself is the cause of misery?’ In thinking of happiness, we inevitably consider unhappiness, too. ‘Happiness writes white,’ Henry de Montherland once declared. Whether ineffable, or merely blank, happiness is regarded as less aesthetically powerful than its moodier relations. The first sentence of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina reads: ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’. In other words, suffering individuates. This conference seeks to resist the idea of a homogenous happiness, bringing together papers which showcase the word’s full range and complexity across two centuries of lived and written experience.

We invite papers of twenty minutes addressing any aspect of happiness, after 1690. Topics of interest include, but are by no means limited to:

  • The good life
  • The philosophy of happiness
  • The politics of happiness
  • Liberalism and social reform
  • Sociability, community and friendship
  • Theories of comedy and laughter
  • Happy endings
  • The senses and senselessness
  • Childhood, wonder, play
  • Luck and chance (hap)
  • Devotion and its secular alternatives
  • Optimism
  • Self-help
  • Bibliotherapy

We invite proposals of 300 words, to be sent to happiness.conference@outlook.com by May 15th, 2019. We will be tweeting at @2019happiness. 


Keynote speakers: Dr Rowan Boyson, KCL

                            Dr Kirsty Martin, Exeter

                            Mr Adam Phillips, child psychoanalyst and literary critic

                            Professor Adam Potkay, Princeton