On finding meaning by looking beyond the self – part 1

Silhouette of a girl watching the clouds after sunset.

Candace Vogler spoke about Self-Transcendence, Virtue, Happiness, and Meaning on the Matt Townsend Show. We’re providing this transcript (in 2 parts) to accompany the audio of the program, which aired February 25, 2016.


Matt Townsend: Our guest today, Dr. Candace Vogler, joins us from Chicago to talk about some research she is doing and a project she is undertaking to basically help us transcend ourselves. Dr. Candace Vogler, welcome to the Matt Townsend show!


Candace Vogler: Thank you very much, and thanks for having me.


Matt: You bet. This is to me a really interesting subject. I mean, we tied it to selfies, but this is an age-old issue, right? I mean our philosophers—cause you’re a philosopher, right? And this isn’t a new concept of people becoming too self-absorbed.


Candace: No, I don’t think there’s anything brand new about it. I think it’s a kind of central temptation for a whole lot of people, and has been for a very long time.


Matt: Talk to us about your research. You did just receive some money, a grant to do a research project about getting over yourself.


Candace: What we’ve got is a $2 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation called “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life,” and the inspiration for this grant came from people who are actually leading pretty solid lives, but find themselves at odds with themselves in all kinds of ways. They’re pretty good people, they’ve got something that looks like a solid family—whatever counts as that for them—they’ve got jobs that don’t grind them into the dust, they’ve got some kind of community, and yet there’s this sense that these lives they have worked so hard to put into place for themselves are hollow.


So for me this started as the question about the difference between people who felt like their lives were hollowed out, and people who didn’t have that sense, whether or not they were sort of stunningly privileged by global standards. So what we’re doing is getting together a group of 25 very prominent scholars. They’re cognitive scientists, psychologists, people who do religious studies of various kinds, and philosophers, to think about the hypothesis that part of what is going wrong in these lives that seem empty is that people aren’t looking far enough beyond themselves to find a sense of meaning.


Matt: Interesting.


Candace: If you can understand your life as lived in relation to something that goes well beyond personal expression, personal actualization, and even the safety and comfort of members of your immediate family or community, then you’ve got a much better chance of being able to enjoy what you’ve put in place for yourself, and find it meaningful in a day-to-day way.


Matt: And that is self-transcendence, right?


Candace: And that is self-transcendence. And there’s lots of different kinds of it.


Matt: Well, how amazing! This seems like such a novel idea, but it blows my mind that this is novel, cause you’ve got a headline, one of the headlines was that you received 2 million dollars for this research, and everyone was surprised, but this has been going on, and I know you use Aquinas as a source of kind of your philosophical underpinning of all of this, but talk to us, teach us about why we aren’t naturally moving towards transcendence.


Candace: Well, some kinds of religious positions think that we are. It’s just that we get in our own ways all the time. So the figure I work on a lot is as you mentioned is Thomas Aquinas, and he’s a 13th century philosopher and theologian, and I’m not myself Catholic, but he’s a major source for Catholic theology.


Aquinas’s view is that the interesting thing about human beings is that we have all these different kinds of capacities and powers, and that we have emotional and feeling capacities and powers, and we sense things and perceive things, we have capacities to love, and to think and to reason, but those powers tend not always to cooperate with one another.


So I sometimes say that in my apartment, the cats that live in my apartment , if they’re going for something, it tends to be the kind of thing that’s pretty good for cats—it’s play, it’s food, it’s love, it’s the best place to sit on the windowsill on a sunny day. The humans in my apartment have a much harder time going straight for things that are good for human beings. It’s much easier for us to go after things that are not good for us, in all kinds of ways, and it’s much easier for us to be insensitive to the world we’re inhabiting, to one other, to all kinds of stuff, and it’s much easier for us to get caught up psychologically in being just very, very worried about self-expression, self-actualization, self-enhancement, comfort, all these kinds of things.


Matt: That–that to me is the American way.


Candace: Yes—it’s been the way for a lot of different people in a lot of different times.


Matt: it’s interesting, because one of the things you brought up in one of your articles was the fact that you’re coming at this, so theological scholars would study this more naturally, because it’s related to their religion, like Aquinas, but you’re saying psychologists might even study it, to some degree, but this is a newer idea to study in philosophy.


Candace: Yes—it’s actually pretty new in philosophy, this way of going about it, even though a lot of our historical sources, if you take a look at them are basically saying, you need to be connected to some good that’s bigger than you are for things to go well for you. That’s a fairly common theme in a lot of philosophical work, well, in a lot of European-based philosophy, and certainly clear in a lot of Asian philosophy. It’s really a pretty common thing there. And the thing that was really the most interesting for me is that the term self-transcendence is one that we’re taking from empirical psychology.


Matt: Right—Maslow was the first time I ever heard the word used. Self-actualization, transcendence.


Candace: Yes—self-transcendence is higher than self-actualization, in his most mature work.


Matt: But transcendence is “me” kind of getting out of me and into helping the “thee” in everyone else.


Candace: That’s certainly the way Maslow is understanding it. One of our psychologists, Dan McAdams, who is the chair of the psychology department at Northwestern University, studies it in connection with intergenerational families. So if I understand the good that I’ve got as something that was made possible for me by the struggle of ancestors back there—I may not even know their names, the ancestors back behind me—but I understand what I’m trying to do here as making some good—possibly good I won’t even be able to imagine—as possible for people in the future, that my own life is in that kind of multigenerational context, that is a form of self-transcendence. If I’m working for the environment really hard, I’m working for a sustainability or something, I’m working for something that may benefit people I may never meet, and other kinds of animals I may never meet, as well, or never see. If I’m some incredibly dedicated intellectual who is, like, I’m after truth here, and truth is important, then I’m connected to something, I’m seeing my work in light of something much bigger. And for most people, if they have powerful religious convictions, then some piece of the lives they lead are lead in relation to the divine, or to something sacred, or something that deserves reverence.


Matt: And what’s amazing about this, Dr. Vogler, is the idea that self transcendence the way you just described it can happen in any realm, in any professional endeavor, in any art, it can happen in anything, it’s just more my focus.


Candace: Yes–it has to do with how you understand what you’re up to and what it connects to.


Matt: You don’t need to be a monk. You don’t need to be a devout whatever—you just need a shift in your view.


Candace: Yes I think that’s right. And in the United States probably the poster child for the problem here was American writer David Foster Wallace, who along with a lot of his friends suddenly realized that he was stunningly successful, and leading a completely empty life. Like he had achieved all the goals he wanted to achieve, and his life was completely meaningless. And it was for him a lethal situation; he killed himself, which is terrible.


Matt: Maybe that’s why so many are committing suicide—they’re so lonely. They’re so empty.


Candace: I think that it is just very perplexing if you’ve been raised on a steady diet that lets you think that self- achievement, self-actualization, and self-expression are the highest goals you could have, and then you find yourself feeling like you’ve expressed yourself and actualized yourself and realized your goals, and all of that leaves you alienated from anything that might provide you with a stable and sustaining source of meaning in your life.