The Generative Adult

The Generative Adult
The famous psychoanalytic theorist Erik Erikson defined generativity as an adult’s concern for and commitment to promoting the well-being of future generations.  Generativity involves raising children, of course, but it also encompasses things like teaching, mentoring, activism, leadership, and other prosocial activities aimed at leaving  a positive legacy of the self for future generations.  Erikson argued that generativity (versus stagnation) is the central psychosocial issue of the middle-adult years.  Midlife adults who are able to make positive contributions to future generations should enjoy better psychological health and higher levels of psychosocial development, compared to their less generative counterparts.  But generativity should be good for others, too, as well as for the self, which suggests that generativity is itself a virtue, or that it points to related virtues, such as care and concern for humanity.

My students and I have developed the main psychological measures used today to assess individual differences in generativity.  Many studies link high levels of generativity, as assessed on these measures, to more effective parenting, broader friendship networks, political participation, civic engagement, religious involvement, mental health and well-being, positive personality characteristics, and a host of other positive outcomes in life.  As described in my book, The Redemptive Self:  Stories Americans Live By (2006/2013), highly generative American adults at midlife tend to construe their lives as heroic narratives of redemption, wherein a gifted protagonist journeys forth into a dangerous world and, equipped with moral steadfastness, aims to transform suffering into enhancement.

Image by Otto Steininger, from

Redemptive life narratives serve as a psychological resource for highly generative adults, providing them with the kind of personal story (narrative identity) they often need to persevere in the face of adversity and to keep focused on trying to make a positive difference in the lives of others and in society writ large.  In our current longitudinal study of men and women between the ages of 55 and 65, we are continuing to study the vicissitudes of generativity and redemptive life narratives.

Video: “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life: A Collaboration” presentation and audience Q&A

Here is the video of our Project Launch on October 17, 2015, at the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, in conjunction with the Division of Humanities’ Humanities Day:
“Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life: a Collaboration” with Jennifer Frey and Candace Vogler.

The lecture is followed by a lively audience Q&A.

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Recap of our launch event: “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life: A Collaboration” – Humanities Day, 10-17-15

Recap of our launch event: “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life: A Collaboration” – Humanities Day, 10-17-15

It was a capacity crowd at the Neubauer Collegium for the October 17th Chicago Humanities Day project launch for “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life”, a talk led by Jennifer Frey, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina, and Candace Vogler, the David E. and Clara B. Stern Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. Frey and Vogler spoke for about thirty minutes on the philosophical, religious, and scientific questions framing the project before taking questions from the audience. Right before the presentation, as audience members drifted into the room and both scholars rehearsed their talk, I listened to Vogler rehearse. She uttered a sentence that to my mind perfectly captures the spirit of the larger project. “We are not perfect,” she said.

She continued, “Indeed, at times, we are our own worst enemy. We all operate this way, and even very good people will find themselves messing up. This is not just due to bad luck.”

These are some of the precepts that 13th century philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas held to be true of the human condition, and they reflect his sense that being virtuous is an ongoing project and a journey. But why use the concept of “virtue”? Why be virtuous? Why use Aquinas to think about virtue, rather than Aristotle? What is the relationship between happiness and virtue? How can we measure happiness, or meaning?

During their presentation, “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life: A Collaboration”, Vogler and Frey explained that their research for this project endeavors to pull apart the strands that bind virtue to happiness, and happiness to meaning, emphasizing that Aquinas believed that the truth is out there, but unlike the classical philosopher Aristotle, and unlike many doctrinaire Church fathers, he also believed the truth might take many forms. They noted that Aquinas’ sense of character and innate goodness is much better than that of Aristotle, who tended to have a much more elitist take on virtue. While Aristotle believed that virtue was primarily the province of those males from prominent families brought up to be virtuous, Aquinas believed that anyone might be virtuous, and that virtue was also to be found among women, the poor, and the uneducated. Both Frey and Vogler emphasized that the notion of virtue is important because virtue helps you not get in your own way, or sabotage your life. Human beings have a lot of trouble with balance. We aren’t always attracted to what is good for us. Virtue helps with balance. Virtue is a philosophical term with an emphasis on balance.

We are not perfect.

In short, as both speakers maintained, Aquinas has a much more expansive notion of the virtues that are missing from Aristotle—virtues such as hope, charity, and mercy—and a more diverse picture of moral exemplars than Aristotle could have imagined. Even women(!) could be recognized as mystics and moral beings. Most importantly, Aquinas brings with him the sense that we can learn from a whole range of people and their experiences. And so Aquinas, argued Frey and Vogler, is a good place to begin when we want to ask questions about happiness and meaning in relation to virtue, questions such as:

What kind of happiness comes of virtue?

When and how does cultivating virtue lead to a meaningful life?

When and how does a sound moral center anchor a meaningful life?

Both speakers set about defining “self-transcendence” as one of the project’s key concepts. Noting the difference between people whose lives appear to be successful but who are unhappy and people whose lives may or may not be conventionally “successful” but who are deeply happy, Vogler defined self-transcendence as the sense that something matters beyond the “me and mine” immediate concerns of family, job, and success, involving a devotion to something greater.

Continue reading “Recap of our launch event: “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life: A Collaboration” – Humanities Day, 10-17-15″

Self-transcendence the missing link in research on virtue, happiness, and meaning in human life?

To the sky – photo by Chris Smith

The hypotheses we are investigating center on the thought that self-transcendence supplies a missing link in work on virtue, happiness, and meaning in human life. All three of those terms—virtue, happiness, meaning—can be interpreted in more than one way, but those three are showing up in broad, educated popular culture these days. Self-transcendence, on the other hand, is not. So what is self-transcendence and why do we think that it is important to research on developing the kinds of strengths that help one to be a good person (virtue), thriving, growing, and flourishing in the course of working to lead a good life (happiness), and having a sense of purpose in doing what you do (meaning)?

Some aspects of self-transcendence are familiar—in discussions of egoism versus altruism, altruism stands as the term marking putting concern for others ahead of concern for self. Altruism can be an aspect of self-transcendence. But there are many ways of putting others’ needs ahead of one’s own, and some ways of doing this have more to do with self-aggrandizement or self-defense than self-transcendence. For example, if I use “service” to others as a way of showing that I am a better person than you are, I am trying to use so-called “service” to make myself big rather than get over my fixation on myself. If I am endlessly helpful and obsequious because I have been beaten down by the world, or am afraid that others will beat me down if I try to stand up for myself, I am not transcending my self—I am trying to find a way of defending myself.

As we understand the term, self-transcendence shows itself when I live my life and understand my life as essentially connected to a good beyond my own comfort, the security and comfort of my friends and immediate family, the goods of personal achievement, success, self-expression, and the like. My life is lived through participation in a good that goes beyond personal achievement, expression, security and comfort, beyond even the need to promote those goods for members of my intimate circle. I work on behalf of bettering the community in ways that will help strangers, say. I engage in spiritual practices that are not just designed to make me calmer or more effective in my daily life, but allow me to participate in a spiritual community organized by the need to be right with one another and to show due reverence for the sacred—community practice directed to a good beyond the borders of the self-identified community. I devote myself to social justice. I devote myself to participation in a community seeking truth, goodness, or beauty. In ways small or large, what I do, and how I do it, what I notice and how I respond, what I think and say and what I do not think and do not say, are guided by my relation to something bigger and better than I am. I have a self-transcendent orientation to the living of my daily life. My own life is a part of some good crucial to good life more generally, as best I can understand, serve, and embody that larger good.

The passages above are not offered as a comprehensive, ultimate definition of self-transcendence. The sketch of self-transcendence I’ve given serves as a starting point for our collaboration. One of the aims of our research is to develop rigorous and more thoroughly articulated understandings of self-transcendence that can guide and direct ongoing research in our different disciplines.

Our hypothesis is that the larger good is what can imbue my daily life with a sense of meaning and purpose, and that the strengths that belong to virtue are strengths that help me to direct myself to the larger good in thought, feeling, and practice. If there is a special happiness that comes of the effort to be a good person and lead a good life—a deep happiness, that can sustain us through the inevitable struggles and trials of our lives—that happiness comes of a life lived through a self-transcendent orientation. We are investigating this hypothesis through our diverse research modalities, in the hope that developing a broad, multifaceted account of self-transcendence in its relation to virtue, happiness, and meaning will help people generally begin to assess and address those aspects of their lives that can make the stuff of living look more like a giant ‘to-do’ list than a real source of vitality, purpose, resilience, and joy.

Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and Principal Investigator for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Does Money Buy Happiness?


One of the most intense debates in the science of happiness – the effort to study who’s happy and why in a scientific manner – concerns the relationship between money and happiness. “Money can’t buy happiness,” people say. But those who disagree believe the science backs them up. “Money Buys Happiness and You Can Never Have Too Much, New Research Says” announces Derek Thompson at The Atlantic. Over at Vox, Dylan Matthews adds: “Work by economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers … has found that there’s no satiation point” – meaning a point where more money does not translate into more happiness.

A minor point first. Normally, scientists say that they have established some claim when they’ve shown that the other possibility can confidently be rejected. Showing that money buys happiness therefore requires rejecting the hypothesis that it doesn’t. But this is not what Stevenson and Wolfers do. Instead, they show that you cannot reject the hypothesis that money buys happiness. From this fact – if it is one – you still can’t infer that money buys happiness. If you did, you’d be guilty of the sort of thing your Psych 101 professor would call a fallacy. This is why Stevenson and Wolfers in their actual work only conclude that they “find no evidence of a satiation point” – not that “there’s no satiation point,” as Matthews claims.

But this sort of concern is probably of greater interest to intro-to-psych professors than to anybody else. The issue I figure Thompson, Matthews, and their readers are most interested in is whether they’ll be happier if they become lawyers, take the high-flying jobs, accept the promotions, work longer hours, and do whatever else is required to bring in more cash.

Suppose it is true that there is no satiation point, and that happiness is always increasing in money. Does this mean that you should try to make more of it?

Well, it doesn’t, and the reason is (or should be) familiar to all students of economics. Whenever you take some action to make more money, there is always another course of action you do not take. When you become a full-time lawyer, you can’t also become a full-time writer; when you work longer hours, you have less time to spend with your kids; and so on.

And it’s always possible that the other course of action will give you even more happiness. Even if the extra money you make as a hard-working lawyer would make you happier, it is certainly possible that writing or hanging out with your kids would make you even happier.

Ignoring this fact amounts to ignoring the opportunity cost of pursuing more money, and that’s also a fallacy.

On the question of money and happiness, in spite of it all, the science is far from conclusive.

Erik Angner is Associate Professor of Philosophy, Economics, and Public Policy at George Mason University and a Scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Joining the conversation about goodness, happiness, and a life worth living

Joining the conversation about goodness, happiness, and a life worth living

After decades of believing happiness could be found by focusing on the self, many of us are now seeking purpose elsewhere. Rejection of personal achievement as the yardstick with which one might measure a successful life began some years ago, but in recent years more and more people seem to feel that a good life requires more than mere personal success. In a 1997 interview with Terry Gross on the NPR show Fresh Air, the fabulously successful young author David Foster Wallace voiced his profound disenchantment with the self-indulgent tendencies of U.S. culture, describing the sense of emptiness he felt he shared with others of his generation: “I was about 30 and I had a lot of friends who were about 30, and we’d all, you know, been grotesquely over-educated and privileged our whole lives and had better healthcare and more money than our parents did. And we were all extraordinarily sad.”

Wallace went on to criticize mainstream culture’s definition of a meaningful life: “[A] successful life is – let’s see, you make a lot of money and you have a really attractive spouse or you get infamous or famous in some way so that it’s a life where you basically experience as much pleasure as possible, which ends up being sort of empty and low-calorie.” Wallace also questioned the connection between individual success as

David Foster Wallace interview with Terry Gross, “David Foster Wallace: The ‘Fresh Air’ Interview,” recorded March 5, 1997
David Foster Wallace interview with Terry Gross, “David Foster Wallace: The ‘Fresh Air’ Interview,” recorded March 5, 1997

measured by money and status, and real happiness, happiness which he felt had eluded him despite his enviable achievements: “I guess it sort of depends on what you mean by happiness . . . we sort of knew how happy our parents were, and we would compare our lives with our parents and see that, at least on the surface or according to the criteria that the culture lays down for a successful, happy life, we were actually doing better than a lot of them were. And so why on earth were we so miserable?”

Wallace’s sense that life should be about something greater than individual achievement is reflected in the contemporary idealism of the high-profile actors and music industry stars whose lives are successful by conventional measures, yet who have still felt the need to draw attention to poverty and human suffering throughout the world. It is reflected in the popularity of Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Life, which has sold more than 30 million copies, and whose first chapter begins, “It’s not about you,” and goes on to insist, “The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness. It’s far greater than your family, your career, or even your wildest dreams and ambitions.”

This sense that a successful life should be about something greater crops up in the language Karl Moore uses in Forbes magazine to contrast the desire of millennials for meaningful work with the Wall Street generation that preceded them:

“You might remember the bumper sticker, ‘He Who Dies With the Most Toys Wins.’ Fast forward two decades and you notice that Millennials are concerned with other things. Money is important and they do enjoy making it, however, they long to be a part of something bigger than themselves.”

Continue reading “Joining the conversation about goodness, happiness, and a life worth living”

Webcast October 17, 2015 – “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life: A Collaboration”

Streaming live from the Neubauer Collegium. Registration for this event is full, so closed, but you can view a live webcast here on Saturday, October 17, at 2pm central time.  Click here to live stream the event.

Principal Investigators Candace Vogler and Jennifer A. Frey present “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life: A Collaboration”

Under what conditions do the everyday activities associated with being a good person provide a source of happiness and meaning in human life? What is the difference between morally serious people whose lives give them deep happiness and a sense of purpose, and morally serious people whose lives feel hollow?

We are embarking on a 28-month project funded by the John Templeton Foundation to explore and research these questions. The project, hosted by the Neubauer Family Collegium for Culture and Society at the University of Chicago and the University of South Carolina at Columbia, brings together an international gathering of 30 scholars in philosophy, psychology, and religious studies to engage in collaborative research on trans-personal, self-transcendent good as a framework for investigating fundamental questions about human life.