Boethius on Happiness Part II: Happiness and Love

Image found on the post Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy from “the bower” blog.

Boethius presents us with a picture of happiness in which it is entirely a matter of choice and personal responsibility whether one attains it. If we are unhappy, it is a product of our own culpable ignorance—a failure to know ourselves, and thus a failure to take the means necessary to secure our ultimate, highest end.

I am inclined to think this is far too dismissive of human frailty and interdependence, and of our need to love and be loved by one another. One finds little talk of love in Boethius, or friendship. But how can we understand human happiness without putting love and friendship front and center of our account?

I disagree with Boethius that virtue is entirely within our control, since the cultivation of it depends on others, and is therefore not inoculated against good fortune. Virtue does not rise spontaneously in us, it requires training from those who possess it themselves. But not everyone in life is fortunate enough to be surrounded by virtuous and wise parents, teachers, or friends. Can we expect those born in unfortunate conditions, such as extreme poverty or broken and abusive homes, to come to the wisdom that Philosophy represents? And even if we come to possess it, wisdom itself is fragile. Iris Murdoch was wise in many respects, but during the last years of her life her rational capacities were slowly destroyed by Alzheimer’s disease.

Second, we may think that part of what it is to be wise is not only to recognize but accept and even embrace the fragility of human goodness. Setting aside the question whether Boethius was right to believe in eternal life and man’s potential participation in it, it seems that genuine self-knowledge includes both the recognition and embrace of our own radical vulnerability and dependence upon others. It is a fact about us that even the best things we can hope to attain for ourselves in this life—a loving family, meaningful friendships, knowledge and wisdom, etc—we may lose against our will. This inherent fragility does not denigrate these goods or our pursuit of them, but rather, reveals an important truth about human beings: we need to rely on others, and radically so. Human love grows in a space of mutual dependence and trust, and it depends on our recognition of our inherent exposure to evil and misfortune. Our happiness is not, as Philosophy insists, totally up to us. We need to be able to turn to others, to expose ourselves and share the burdens of the human condition. This is true for religious persons just as much as their secular counterparts.

Boethius is right, however, to stress that while we cannot control what happens to us, we can control how we react to it. A wise person will know that suffering through life’s inevitable misfortunes and disappointments is the fate of us all, and that part of living well is possessing the ability to suffer well—to face our brokenness with a measure of fortitude. It is also true that some of us will have to suffer far more than others, and that some of this does come down to luck. Boethius is further correct to say that if we have cultivated the virtues, we will be better equipped to bear our burdens with a measure of grace. But virtue alone is not enough—we do need the love, support, and companionship of intimates and neighbors. Boethius was wrong, I think, to focus so much on “self-sufficiency.” None of us is self-sufficient, and it’s a mistake to strive to be.

Boethius, alone in his prison cell, certainly had no friends to turn to. But perhaps Boethius looked upon Aristotle, Plato and others as friends—guides to help him navigate his fallen state. Wisdom is reached in a manner that is mediated by tradition, and we may find in great works of art, literature, and philosophy a similar expansion of the self through others that can console us in our darkest hours. Philosophy too is a kind of friend and constant companion.

Finally, Boethius’s work can help us to see that there is something true in what Kant says about the good will. If we are extremely unlucky in life, we may accept our fate and yet not give in to total despair. If nothing else, a good person can rest in the knowledge that she could not have managed better for herself. While it may not be a perfectly happy death, it is a far cry the despairing thought that one’s life was a pointless waste.

Kant was wrong, however, to insist that the inevitability of luck shows that the pursuit of happiness is suspect, for he was wrong to insist that all that matters is the cultivation of a good will. It is not wrong to want to be happy and to direct one’s efforts towards this goal. But we must do so in a way that is clear eyed about what we are: vulnerable and dependent creatures, in need of giving and receiving love. All of us, like Boethius, stand more or less insecure. The key to happiness, then, is probably not to search for what is ultimately up to us—nothing seems to fit this description—but to seek, as best we can, and with the acknowledged help of others, to become the kind of person who loves rightly, and is thereby easy to love in return.


Part I-Happiness and Good Fortune

Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and Principal Investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.

In Honor of International Day of Happiness: Boethius, Philosophy, and Happiness. Part I-Happiness and Good Fortune

“Philosophy Presenting the Seven Liberal Arts to Boethius” – image courtesy

Everyone strives for happiness in life, but you don’t have to be especially perceptive to notice that not everyone reaches the goal.  How much of this failure is one’s own fault? After all, we humans are vulnerable creatures, all more or less at the mercy of fortune.  Talent, beauty, intelligence, health, social privilege, a loving and secure family—these gifts are distributed unequally among us, and we may lose them against our wills.  This raises the question: How much of human happiness is a matter of good fortune or gift, and how much of it is under a person’s voluntary control?  Even the word happiness carries with it connotations of what is bestowed rather than earned (etymologically, it’s root is ‘hap,’ which means good luck; in fact, in most European languages, the word for happiness originally had the same reference to good fortune rather what has been merited through wise choices).

Contemporary virtue ethicists often argue that the purpose of life is happiness, and that if you hope to reach it, you ought to cultivate a good character.[1] But then what should we say to the man who cultivates virtue but to whom happiness is ultimately denied?  Do we simply acknowledge that there is an element of luck in anything a human pursues, including the highest good?  Must we admit that some among us are tragic figures, fated to a sorry end despite all hard fought efforts to change it?

Furthermore, if real tragedy is possible, then perhaps it is wrong to insist that happiness is the goal of life; perhaps instead, as Immanuel Kant argues, we should simply strive to be moral, without thinking this is in the service of anything else.  In his influential Metaphysics of Morals, Kant claims the following about a good will:

“Even if by some particular disfavor of fate, or by the scanty endowment of a stepmotherly nature, this will should entirely lack the capacity to carry through its purpose; if despite its greatest striving it should still accomplish nothing, and only the good will were to remain…then, like a jewel, it would still shine by itself, as something that has full worth in itself”.”[2]

The role of fortune in human life and its impact on happiness is the central theme of one of the most influential literary texts of the Middle Ages, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy.  For Boethius (475-526), the questions surrounding fate and fortune were not merely academic but existential; a philosopher-statesman in the mold that Plato first outlined, Boethius finds himself unjustly accused of treason and sentenced to an untimely and cruel death. While imprisoned, without his library, his health, his friends or family, Boethius composes a deeply moving meditation on wisdom and happiness.

The book opens with a lament upon his own pitiful condition, which will set up a sharp contrast between Boethius and Lady Philosophy.  Boethius describes himself in a state of physical decline and despair; with “untimely white upon his head,” he describes himself as a “worn out bone bag hung with flesh.”  He yearns for the release of death, but complains that death’s ears are “deaf to hopeless cries” and death’s hands refuse “to close poor weeping eyes.”  Reflecting upon his earlier life, he writes:

Foolish the friends who called me happy then

For falling shows a man stood insecure.

While he is busy feeling sorry for himself, Lady Philosophy—wisdom personified—appears to him.  She is noted for her keen, burning eyes, a sign that she is able to see reality clearly.  She, unlike Boethius, is healthy, calm and unperturbed, of regal mien and dress.  She carries books in one arm (a symbol of her knowledge) and a scepter in the other (a symbol of her power to order and rule life in accordance with it). Philosophy is described as a physician who has come to diagnose and heal Boethius; she tells him he suffers from a “sickness of mind”—an amnesia, since he has forgotten what he once knew. This amnesia has been brought about not by his change of fortune, but his inordinate focus on his current plight, which stirs up in him vehement passions of grief, sadness, and anger. Philosophy is there to help him recover knowledge of himself and his true nature.  This knowledge, she tells him, will be his ultimate consolation and cure.

Philosophy uses rational argument to heal her patient.  She begins by arguing that the loss of good fortune is no genuine loss.  Fortune, she complains, flatters people and entices them with a false sense of happiness.  The happiness that good fortune grants is unreliable and insecure, as change is the very essence of fortune.  Boethius depicts Fortune as a lady gleefully and carelessly spinning a wheel that determines man’s fate.  When it is her turn to speak to Boethius, she warns him:

It is the game I never cease to play as I turn my wheel in its ever changing circle, filled with joy as I bring the top to the bottom and the bottom to the top.  Yes, rise up on my wheel if you like, but don’t count it an injury when by the same token you begin to fall, as the rules of the game will require.[3]

Fortune controls worldly goods: wealth, honors, power, fame, and pleasures.  Philosophy points out that none of these goods is ever wholly stable or secure. Thus, if a man sets his heart upon any of them he is bound to wind up anxious in his ongoing struggle to maintain them.

Real happiness, by contrast, cannot be lost to a man who possesses it.  Such a good is “self-sufficient” in that it lacks nothing and leaves nothing more to be desired once possessed.  A man who is truly happy is perfectly sated—he does not thirst or want for more.  Eventually, Philosophy comes to argue that the only candidate for such a complete and perfect good is God, and that the only way to participate in this good is to cultivate virtue.  This is meant to console Boethius, since the cultivation of virtue is the one thing she insists is under his complete control.

Tomorrow, Part II of Boethius, Philosophy, and Happiness continues with “Happiness and Love.”

[1] For example, see Rosalind Hursthouse’s claim that virtue is a “safe bet.” On Virtue Ethics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 185

[2] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of morals. Edited and translated by Mary Gregor, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 8.

[3] Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy. Translated by Victor Watts.  London: Penguin Books, 1999, p. 25

Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and Principal Investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.

What John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University Has to Teach Us

University Church of St Mary the Virgin, where John Henry Newman became vicar in 1828. Photo by Arnaud Malon.

We’re presenting a short series of abstracts of the work-in-progress our scholars will present and discuss at their June 2017 Working Group Meeting.

Reinhard Hütter is Professor of Christian Theology at The Catholic University of America and Duke University.

In my last paper I argued that any robust philosophical, let one, theological account of happiness and self-transcendence presupposes an account of finality or teleology. I advanced the case that without an antecedent understanding of the specific nature and the distinct finality of the human person, it is rather futile to gain clarity about the nature of authentic happiness, of genuine self-transcendence and last, but not least, about the question of a perfect continuous state of ek-static bliss, surpassingly fulfilled self-transcendence, or, what the Catholic tradition calls, the beatific vision. Hidden disagreements on this fundamental metaphysical level (human beings are not persons but at best super-primates; they do not have rational souls, but the mind is an epiphenomenon of neurological processes; the universe is bereft of finality, because there does not exist a transcendent First Cause and Final End, usually called God) give rise to notions of happiness that are not only philosophically underdetermined but mutually exclusive, if not simply equivocal. I held that one important step toward a clarification of these matters is a straightforward description of a particular, comprehensive account of finality, self-transcendence, and happiness, an account that lays bare its philosophical and theological first principles.

In this paper I take another step by addressing one of the most daunting contemporary obstacles to a rigorous and comprehensive inquiry into the nature of happiness, self-transcendence, and the meaning of life—the late modern research university and its self-imposed limitation to the empirically falsifiable supported by a tacit but tenacious commitment to what can be variously described as the immanent frame, secularism, instrumentalism, and the privileging of the quantifiable and computable as the proper object of what is a “true” science. It is unavoidable that inquiries that transcend this self-imposed limitation of reason, because of their allegedly non-scientific character, are banned from the public space of university discourse and relegated to the realm of the subjective, to the private space of individual curiosity. Or such inquiries must be transformed in such a way that they fit the immanentist and empiricist framework. Certain disciplines (the sad and interiorly disarrayed remnant of the “humanities”) that engage in such inquiries may exist on the margins of the university as historically descriptive, textually interpretive, and conceptually analytic enterprises that may contribute, next to rigorous disciplines like mathematics and cybernetics, to a soft but still in some ways not completely useless propaedeutic to the real work of science. This reality is challenged by an understanding of the university as an institution that essentially engages the whole breadth of reason and does not deny its grandeur in any shape or form. It is in such a university, I suggest, where inquiries into happiness, virtue, and the meaning of life stand at the very center of what a university is about. It is John Henry Newman who articulates the idea of such a university with a still unsurpassed clarity and force.

Audio: Fr. Thomas Joseph White, OP | Metaphysics: Philosophy as Wisdom


Our scholar and theologian Fr. Thomas Joseph White talks about the classical idea of philosophy as wisdom, and the notion of a hierarchy of being in the universe in accord with the modern sciences. The talk also contains a consideration of objections that might arise from Kant, Heidegger or Neo-Darwinianism.
This lecture is part 3 of a 3-part series on an introduction to metaphysics and shared by one of our partners, the Thomistic Institute.


When babies identify meaningful cultural differences

Note: This piece first appeared in the New York Times on August 19, 2016 as “Babies Watching People Eat”.

You may not be surprised to learn that food preference is a social matter. What we choose to eat depends on more than just what tastes good or is healthful. People in different cultures eat different things, and within a culture, what you eat can signal something about who you are.

More surprising is that the sociality of food selection, it turns out, runs deep in human nature. In research published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, my colleagues and I showed that even 1-year-old babies understand that people’s food preferences depend on their social or cultural group.

Interestingly, we found that babies’ thinking about food preferences isn’t really about food per se. It’s more about the people eating foods, and the relationship between food choice and social groups.

While it’s hard to know what babies think before they can talk, developmental psychologists have long capitalized on the fact that babies’ visual gaze is guided by their interest. Babies tend to look longer at something that is novel or surprising. Do something bizarre the next time you meet a baby, and you’ll notice her looking intently.

Using this method, the psychologists Zoe Liberman, Amanda Woodward, Kathleen Sullivan and I conducted a series of studies. Led by Professor Liberman, we brought more than 200 1-year-olds (and their parents) into a developmental psychology lab, and showed them videos of people visibly expressing like or dislike of foods.

For instance, one group of babies saw a video of a person who ate a food and expressed that she loved it. Next they saw a video of a second person who tried the same food and also loved it. This second event was not terribly surprising to the babies: The two people agreed, after all. Accordingly, the babies did not look for very long at this second video; it was what they expected.

But when the babies saw the second person do something less expected — when this second person instead hated this same food that the first person loved — the babies looked much longer.

In this way, we were able to gauge infants’ patterns of generalization from one person to another. If babies see someone like a food, do they think that other people will like that food, too? And if so, do they think that all people will like the same foods, or just some people?


We found some surprising patterns. If the two people featured acted as if they were friends, or if they spoke the same language, babies expected that the people would prefer the same foods. But if the two people acted as if they were enemies, or if they spoke two different languages, babies expected that they would prefer two different foods.

It was as if cultural lines were being drawn right in the laboratory. And in the babies’ minds there seemed to be something special about the link between culture and food: When the babies saw people liking and disliking inedible objects, we didn’t observe the same patterns of results.

One thing you may be wondering — and we were, too — is whether this is all about the foods people like. Whether you like grits or kale may depend on cultural identity. But there are some things that are disgusting to all humans, regardless of culture. Do babies intuitively know this?

Indeed, they seem to. When the babies in our studies saw a person act disgusted from eating a food, they expected that a second person would also be disgusted by the same food — regardless of whether or not the two people were in the same social group.

We also discovered something interesting about what babies identify as meaningful cultural differences. Babies from monolingual English-speaking homes saw language as a marker of different cultures; as noted above, if two people spoke two different languages, babies expected that they would prefer two different foods.

In contrast, babies from bilingual homes assumed that even two people who spoke different languages would like to eat the same things. Thus babies have the potential to learn different things about the foods and people around them, depending on their social environments.

Parents of young children may want to take note of our findings. Infants are not just learning to eat the foods they are given; they are also learning by watching adults eat, and figuring out who eats what foods with whom. By introducing babies to social contexts in which adults make healthful food choices, parents may help children learn the cultural norms of healthful eating themselves.

Katherine Kinzler is an associate professor of psychology and human development at Cornell University, and scholar with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Tolstoy on Love and Self-Transcendence

Leo Tolstoy, 1862

In his novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Leo Tolstoy explores questions about happiness and the meaning of life with brutal honesty and realism. Tolstoy’s harrowing account of one man’s confrontation with his own mortality helps us to see that even the most selfish and shallow life still contains within it the inherent potential for redemption through self-transcendent, sacrificial love.

The story’s protagonist is Ivan, a late nineteenth century Russian bureaucrat who strives, above all else, to live a “decorous and pleasant life”—a life of material comfort that is, at least to the greatest extent he can manage, insulated from hardship or suffering.  We read that Ivan is “capable, cheerful, and sociable” as well as “playful, witty, good-humored and bon enfant.”  He is industrious in his well-appointed role as a public prosecutor and content to do “his duty,” but Tolstoy cautions us that Ivan understands duty not in the moralist’s sense, but in accordance with what members of the Russian haute bourgeoisie perceive as good, proper, and decent.  It is their standards that Ivan has internalized and their approval and validation that he seeks.  By this measure, even at a young age, Ivan is succeeding in living well, and this brings him great satisfaction.

As a young man Ivan falls in love with “the most attractive, intelligent, brilliant girl,” Preskovia, who was also a member of his social class and consequently shared his general outlook.  Ivan married her both because he loves her (at least as he loves anything –he finds her company “agreeable”) but also because she is met with the approval of his social circle.  But the demands of marriage and family life soon lose their charms for Ivan, as he learns that domesticity does not always (or perhaps even very often) fit his ideals of agreeableness; thus he quickly finds it essential “to shut himself off from such interferences” to his personal well being.  To avoid the trials that typically attend family life, Ivan throws himself into his work, where he takes particular delight in the power and honors the position affords him.  Of this darker aspect of Ivan’s pleasure seeking, Tolstoy writes:

The awareness of his power, the power he had to ruin anyone he chose to ruin, the importance and even the outward dignity of his entrance into the courtroom and his meetings with subordinates, his success with both superiors and subordinates, and—above all—the mastery with which, as he felt, he carried out his duties—all this gave him pleasure, and alongside chats with his colleagues, dinners, and whist [cards], it was what filled up his life.  So, on the whole, the life of Ivan Ilyich went on as he felt it ought to, that is pleasantly and decorously. (p. 169)

In this way, we learn, seventeen agreeable years of Ivan’s life pass.

But then Ivan reaches a point of perceived stagnation in his career, and feels that his talents are being neglected.  He sees that he is being passed over for promotions that he both desires and feels he alone deserves, and he feels forgotten and wronged by his colleagues.  He sets off for Petersburg with a single aim: to get a position that carries a significant raise.  Through luck he succeeds, attaining a position in a new ministry “two grades higher than his colleagues.”  At this achievement, all his hard feelings are forgotten, and he is “perfectly happy.” Ivan takes particular pleasure in his awareness that he is now the envy of many colleagues who previously ignored him, and who now must grovel before him.

The newfound happiness Ivan experiences on the occasion of his promotion allows him to resume pleasant relations with his wife.  Having a new influx of money, they take on the task of securing a much larger apartment they can decorate together.  Ivan throws himself into this task with determination and joy, making every detail very elegant and comme il faut.  He particularly relishes his thoughts of how impressed his friends will be once his vision of a finely appointed home is completely realized.

At this point in the narrative Ivan truly believes he is happy and living just as he should. Although his life is devoid of love and shot through with motives of pride, vanity, and greed, as far as he can see everything is very good. And yet Ivan stands on the precipice of existential despair. For his agreeable existence is about to be disrupted by a mysterious ailment, which will open up horizons of suffering and torments previously unimaginable to him.

Ivan’s troubles begin with bouts of nausea, and a mysterious pain on the left side of his stomach, which only grows worse over time.  His condition casts a pall over his otherwise happy mood, and makes him unable to find pleasure in his normal routines.  Just as quickly as their reconciliation had come about, relations between Ivan and Preskovia begin to unravel; they take to quarrelling often as Ivan finds that the easy and agreeable feelings he longs for have vanished. Soon enough, a mutual hatred grows between them.

Despite the fact that he is seeing all the most famous doctors and taking his medicines punctiliously, Ivan can see that his condition is worsening.  He begins to realize the gravity of his situation, and despair descends upon him.  After a month of trying to convince himself that he is improving and will recover, Ivan realizes that he is dying.  And yet he is unable to comprehend or reconcile himself to this fact; in fact, he actively works to hide from the grim reality.  Of Ivan’s internal struggle with the truth, Tolstoy writes:

“He couldn’t understand it, and tried to banish this thought as false, wrong, and morbid, and put other thoughts in its place, correct thoughts and healthy ones.  And this thought—and not only the thought but what seemed to be the reality—kept coming back and standing there before him.  And he called up a succession of other thoughts to displace this one, hoping to find support in them. He tried to return to his old thought patterns, which had once shielded him from death. But strangely enough, everything that had once screened away, hidden, or abolished the awareness of death now failed to produce that effect.” (p. 188)

Ivan finds himself in unchartered psychological territory, as neither work, cards, or his fine home can any longer distract him from the unbearable truth.  He finds himself all alone, face to face with it, though there was nothing to do “but stare at it and shudder.”  He must confront and reconcile himself to death, but finds he is unable.

And so his life becomes a torment to him.  Ivan is particularly aggrieved by the fact that no one around him—his colleagues, his doctors, his family—will acknowledge reality.  They all perpetrate the “lie” that he is merely ill; worse still, they force him to participate in this lie.  And so Ivan is deprived of the pity he feels is owed to him.  Ivan wants desperately to be “caressed, and kissed, and wept over” even though he knows such behavior does not befit a man of his age and social stature.  Instead he is merely prodded and poked by his doctors, cajoled by his wife, and ostracized by his so-called friends.

Ivan begins to enter a phase where his sufferings take on new dimensions: fear, helplessness, loneliness, and doubt.  In particular, Ivan begins to doubt that his life had been anything more than a trivial and dubious mistake.  He begins to worry that he never perceived reality clearly, and that what he thought was life was really death:

“It’s as if I had been going downhill, while imagining that I was climbing uphill.  That’s what it was.  In society’s eyes I was going uphill, and at exactly the same pace life was vanishing from under me.” (p. 202)

But once again, while Ivan knows the truth in his heart, he is still unable to reconcile himself to it. He struggles and fights back against it:

“‘Perhaps I didn’t live as I should have done?’… ‘But how can it have been wrong, when I did everything properly?’ he said to himself, instantly dismissing as completely impossible this one and only solution to the whole riddle of life and death.” (p. 202)

Ivan’s struggle to accept the truth, “that everything had been a huge and terrible deception which had shut out both life and death” (p. 206) is his final torment, the cause of an internal struggle that sends him into a fit of madness during which he screams uninterrupted for three days.  Tolstoy describes his inner ordeal as follows:

“For those three days, during which time did not exist for him, he struggled in that black sack into which some invisible, invincible force was thrusting him.  He fought as a man condemned to death fights in the arms of the executioner, knowing that he could not save himself; and minute by minute he felt that, despite all his struggles, he was drawing nearer and nearer to the thing that horrified him.  He felt that his torment lay both in the fact that he was being thrust into that black hole, and even more so in the fact that he could not get into it.  And what prevented him from getting into it was his awareness that his life had been a good one.  It was this justification of his own life that held him back, not letting him go forward, and tormenting him more than anything.” (p. 207-8)

The struggle ends when Ivan has a sudden revelation: his life really was a worthless mistake, but it could now “be put right.” But how? Ivan does not have a clear answer until Vasya enters the room, kisses his hand, and bursts into tears; soon after Preskovia, who is also weeping, enters as well. For the first time Ivan sees what they need from him and lovingly responds. He realizes that to let himself die he needs to cease justifying his own life.  And so, instead of continuing to try to reassure himself, he asks them for forgiveness for his failures.  And with that gesture, suddenly,

“it was clear to him that the thing that had been oppressing him, and not letting him go, was now releasing him all at once, from two sides, from ten sides, from every side. He was sorry for them, and he must do what is needed so that they should not be hurt.” (p.209)

At last Ivan sees how to put things right: he can, and will, for the first time in his life, put the needs of others before his own. And with that final act of love and reconciliation, Ivan conquers death—the spiritual death of being trapped inside the prison of the self—and in so doing redeems his pathetic life.  For it was that same selfishness that had him locked in an ongoing struggle with truth that was preventing him from the possibility of a happy death.  Of Ivan’s final moments, Tolstoy writes that he searches for death but cannot find it: “Instead of death there was light.”  By embracing the truth of sacrificial love for others, Ivan is released from his suffering and dies in a condition hitherto unknown to him—not a state of agreeable pleasure, but immense joy.

Click here to see the translation used in this reading.

Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and Principal Investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.

Multilingual exposure improves children’s social abilities

speaking spanish and english

Note: This piece first appeared in the New York Times on March 11, 2016, as “The Superior Social Skills of Bilinguals”.

Being bilingual has some obvious advantages. Learning more than one language enables new conversations and new experiences. But in recent years, psychology researchers have demonstrated some less obvious advantages of bilingualism, too. For instance, bilingual children may enjoy certain cognitive benefits, such as improved executive function — which is critical for problem solving and other mentally demanding activities.


Now, two new studies demonstrate that multilingual exposure improves not only children’s cognitive skills but also their social abilities.


One study from my developmental psychology lab — conducted in collaboration with the psychologists Boaz Keysar, Zoe Liberman and Samantha Fan at the University of Chicago, and published last year in the journal Psychological Science — shows that multilingual children can be better at communication than monolingual children.


We took a group of children in the United States, ages 4 to 6, from different linguistic backgrounds, and presented them with a situation in which they had to consider someone else’s perspective to understand her meaning. For example, an adult said to the child: “Ooh, a small car! Can you move the small car for me?” Children could see three cars — small, medium and large — but were in position to observe that the adult could not see the smallest car. Since the adult could see only the medium and large cars, when she said “small” car, she must be referring to the child’s “medium.”


We found that bilingual children were better than monolingual children at this task. If you think about it, this makes intuitive sense. Interpreting someone’s utterance often requires attending not just to its content, but also to the surrounding context. What does a speaker know or not know? What did she intend to convey? Children in multilingual environments have social experiences that provide routine practice in considering the perspectives of others: They have to think about who speaks which language to whom, who understands which content, and the times and places in which different languages are spoken.


Interestingly, we also found that children who were effectively monolingual yet regularly exposed to another language — for example, those who had grandparents who spoke another language — were just as talented as the bilingual children at this task. It seems that being raised in an environment in which multiple languages are spoken, rather than being bilingual per se, is the driving factor.


You might wonder whether our findings could be explained as just another instance of the greater cognitive skills that bilingual children have been observed to have. We wondered that, too. So we gave all the children a standard cognitive test of executive function. We found that bilingual children performed better than monolingual children, but that the kids who were effectively monolingual yet regularly exposed to another language did not. These “exposure” children performed like monolinguals on the cognitive task, but like bilinguals on the communication task. Something other than cognitive skills — something more “social” — must explain their facility in adopting another’s perspective.
Sign Up for the Opinion Today Newsletter


In a follow-up study, forthcoming in the journal Developmental Science, my colleagues and I examined the effects of multilingual exposure on even younger children: 14- to 16-month-old babies, who are hardly speaking at all. In this study, led by Zoe Liberman and in collaboration with Professor Keysar and the psychologist Amanda Woodward, babies were shown two versions of the same object, such as a banana, one of which was visible to both the infant and an adult, the other visible to the baby yet hidden from the adult’s view. When the adult asked the baby for “the banana,” the baby might hand her either object — both were bananas, after all — yet if the baby understood the social context, he would reach more often for the banana that the adult could see.


We found that babies in monolingual environments reached equally often for the two bananas. Babies in multilingual environments, including those who were exposed to a second language only minimally, already understood the importance of adopting another’s perspective for communication: They reached more often for the banana that the adult could see.


Multilingual exposure, it seems, facilitates the basic skills of interpersonal understanding. Of course, becoming fully bilingual or multilingual is not always easy or possible for everyone. But the social advantage we have identified appears to emerge from merely being raised in an environment in which multiple languages are experienced, not from being bilingual per se. This is potentially good news for parents who are not bilingual themselves, yet who want their children to enjoy some of the benefits of multilingualism.

Katherine Kinzler is an associate professor of psychology and human development at Cornell University, and scholar with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.