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

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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.