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The Eternal Pursuit of Happiness (EN)

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What does science tell us about happiness? Since the dawn of time, people have been looking for wellbeing, happiness and the good life. In the past, we turned towards philosophers and Church Fathers for advice to live well. But how do we, in the affluent West, try to attain happiness and well-being nowadays?

Is our modern society – driven by a combination of hedonistic consumerism and individual self-actualisation towards authenticity – a fertile ground for this pursuit? How do technologies shape our quest for the good life? And what can we learn from Eastern philosophy and religion?

The pursuit of happiness touches upon such diverse topics as dopamine in the brain, ideas of the good life and the organisation of our economy and society. The best way to further our understanding of happiness, as both concept and practice, is to embrace its complex and sometimes paradoxical character.

In this course we will take an interdisciplinary look at the eternal pursuit of happiness on the basis of four themes: (1) modern self; (2) modern society; (3) East and West and (4) meaning. The main focus of the course will be on developments in the 20th and 21st century, as they relate most directly to current issues about happiness and wellbeing.   

First, we will dive into the history of the modern self and modern society. When did we begin to consider ourselves as unique individuals? Where did our quest for authenticity and self-actualization start? How to understand wellbeing as both ethical concept and practice? What is the impact of technology on our behavior and wellbeing? How does out modern political and economic system influences our (ideas of) wellbeing?

Then, we will compare Eastern and Western approaches to alleviate our suffering. Eastern philosophies and religions claim to have many ways for improving happiness and wellbeing. Western psychologists and psychiatrists have developed different therapies to treat psychopathology. In the last decades East and West have found common ground in the Western world: meditation and mindfulness have conquered psychotherapy, and are even part of the toolkit of the modern HR-manager.

Finally, we will look at meaning as it is one of the most fundamental compasses in life. We will analyze historically the role work has been playing in the life of many people as a way to create meaning, purpose and fulfilment. And we will reflect on the challenges of writing a personal meaningful narrative in modern society.


Mr. Ties van de Werff

Learning objectives

By the end of the course, students will be able to:

  • Reflect on the concept of happiness and the good life;
  • Analyse happiness from a philosophical, historical, socio-cultural and scientific perspective;
  • Relate technological developments to happiness;
  • Apply insights from the course to daily life.

Teaching format

  • Lecture
  • Self-study
  • Work independently on project/thesis


Weekly assignments (literature), personal experiment and essay.

Entry requirements

Open to second-year and third-year Bachelor’s students.

Study material

Articles will be made available on Canvas.


You can find the timetable on Datanose.

Number of participants



UvA students can register from 7 June 2021 (look for code 5512TEPH6Y in SIS) until one week prior to the start of the course. If you have any trouble while registering, please contact us at

Other interested parties, such as contract students or students from other institutions, can register from 7 June  2021 until one week prior to the start of the course by completing the registration form.


Check the website.

SDGs in education

The IIS strives to reflect current societal issues and challenges in our elective courses, honours modules and degree programmes, and attempts to integrate the following Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in this course. For more information about these goals, please visit the SDGs website.

Facts & Figures
Mode Short-term, open uva courses
Credits 6 ECTS,
Language of instruction English
Starts in November