Kingfisher explores models of happiness

Dr. Catherine Kingfisher, a professor and researcher in the University of Lethbridge’s Department of Anthropology, will present Locating Happiness: Beyond Individualism on Thursday, Mar. 22, 7 p.m. at the Lethbridge Lodge. The talk just happens to coincide with the focus of her current research project, which is aimed at a non-academic audience and specifically policy makers.

Dr. Catherine Kingfisher has always been keen on influencing public policy with her work, with her latest project designed specifically to appeal to non-academics, which include policy makers.

The project is a study of two urban collective housing communities, one in Japan, the other in Vancouver. Kingfisher is exploring, in a broad sense, the concept of happiness and what kind of constructs in today’s society serve as models for happiness. She does this against a backdrop of neoliberalism that champions the good life but places responsibility on individuals for achieving their own happiness.

Her current work is the latest progression in an anthropological career that began with her undergraduate studies at Beloit College in Wisconsin, followed by master’s and PhD studies at Michigan State University. Her interest in the discipline can be traced back even further, rooted in a childhood that saw her raised in both the United States and the Middle East by two parents from France.

“I think I developed an early sense of cultural relativity, which is the idea that the way we live in the world is only one possibility among many. So, that’s a clear line to anthropology,” she says.

Kingfisher has been at the U of L since 1999, having come to Lethbridge after a six-year stint at University of Waikato in New Zealand where she taught women and gender studies.

Much of her early work at the U of L examined issues of power, inequality, poverty and welfare reform. In 2010, she took note of the rapid rise in happiness studies and the hyper individualization that was being championed. She was appointed a University Scholar Research Chair and also earned CREDO funding, allowing her the opportunity to attack the issue.

“I was actively looking for models of happiness and well-being and the good life that do not locate it inside people’s heads but rather in what goes on between people and in particular forms of social organization,” she says.

She spent time in Samoa and then eventually turned her focus to intentional communities in Japan and Vancouver. Urban collective housing communities construct an entirely different approach to achieving happiness because they are founded on community support and engagement – and it seems to be a model that is gaining momentum.

“We’re kind of on the cusp of this as an idea that’s taking off, and anybody I talk to is extremely interested. There’s this real sense of a loss of community ties and people really wanting that. So, I think it’s an idea whose time has come,” she says, citing studies that show how loneliness effectively kills people.

“There’s this recognition that we live in a fragmented, alienated society. I’m not saying everyone needs to move into these communities but we need to look more broadly at what kinds of models of the good life are out there that aren’t just about me talking to myself to develop a more positive attitude.”

While Kingfisher has always been keen on influencing public policy with her work, this project is designed specifically to appeal to non-academics, which include policy makers.

“The primary output of this project is not going to be academic, it’s going to be a book collaboratively produced with people in both communities,” she says.

She is also working with fellow faculty member Don Gill (fine arts) to produce film shorts that focus on everyday life in each community.

“My big agenda in this project is to spread awareness that there are alternatives out there. If there’s one alternative, there are no doubt many more, so let’s look around. It’s about spreading the word that there are these other ways of thinking about happiness and well-being that don’t just make it something that’s inside your head,” she says.

The PUBlic Professor venue is an ideal opportunity to spread that message.

“I think the format of PUBlic Professor is absolutely brilliant because it challenges academics to translate our work in ways that demonstrate its relevance to society at large, and also gives us the opportunity to learn from the feedback we get from the audience.”