Collaborative research project to examine sources of happiness and personal fulfillment

Susan Allen
News Officer for Arts and HumanitiesUniversity Communications

A new research project at the University of Chicago and University of South Carolina will bring together scholars from different fields to study the factors that bring about deep happiness and a sense of meaning in one’s life.

“Virtue, Happiness and Meaning of Life” is led by Candace Vogler, the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy at UChicago, and Jennifer A. Frey, assistant professor of philosophy at South Carolina, and supported by a major $2.1 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society will host the 28-month project.

"We are delighted that the Templeton Foundation has provided this generous support for a project driven by humanistic issues,” said Martha T. Roth, the Chauncey S. Boucher Distinguished Service Professor of Assyriology and dean of the Division of the Humanities. “Candace Vogler’s work demonstrates that questions of moral philosophy can and should have impact on modern life.”

Research in the humanities and social sciences suggest that individuals who feel they belong to something bigger and better than they are on their own—a family with a long history and the prospect of future generations, a spiritual practice, a strong political belief system—often feel happier and have better life outcomes than those who do not. Some scholars have labeled this sense of connection to a larger force “self-transcendence.”

Vogler and Frey will bring together an international team of 28 scholars in philosophy, psychology and religious studies to engage in collaborative, interdisciplinary research on the concept of self-transcendence as a framework for investigating fundamental questions about virtue, happiness and meaning in human life. The guiding idea of the project is that virtue is the cultivation of a self-transcendent orientation necessary for deep happiness and a sense of meaning in one’s life.

Rather than bringing independently conceived and executed research projects together at large conferences, project participants will discuss, focus and shape their disciplinary work-in-progress at weeklong, biannual cross-disciplinary working group meetings on campus in Chicago and Columbia, S.C.. The cross-disciplinary network will enable researches to develop work in different fields informed by the insights provided by other members of their working groups. 

“We are very gratified and grateful to be awarded this opportunity for meaningful, cross-disciplinary intellectual exchange, which is rare in our field,” said Frey. “This kind of research has the potential not only to reignite interest in virtue and happiness within philosophy, but also to transform empirical work being done on these topics as well.”

For Vogler, who studies moral philosophy, the project will allow for an exploration of the work of the medieval thinker Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas’ writings explored questions of virtue and happiness. He saw virtue as a force that helped individuals orient themselves toward a common good—essentially, a force for self-transcendence.

“I am especially excited about this opportunity to bring Aquinas’ work into conversation with mainstream analytic philosophical moral philosophy, empirical psychology and religious studies,” said Vogler. “Aquinas understood that the work of moral education does not end when we reach adulthood, and was alive to a diverse range of moral exemplars—important developments in Aristotelian ethics largely unexplored in philosophy and in empirical work.”

The scholars selected for the grant represent disciplines including psychology, religious studies and theology, and philosophy, and represent institutions from around the world.

In addition to publishing the work shaped through the working group discussions, the scholars working on the grant will share their research on the project’s website in blog posts, podcasts, videos and live webcasts.

Other highlights of the grant include:

·      Two weekly summer seminars at the University of Notre Dame geared to early-career faculty and graduate students
·      A two-day philosophy workshop at the University of South Carolina in spring 2017
·      Four public lectures
·      A major capstone conference in fall 2017 at the University of Chicago

Additional support for the grant comes from the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, the Jacques Maritain Center at Notre Dame, and the Lumen Christi Institute.