Save the Date! Live streaming John Haldane’s lecture “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life” 12-14-15

live-stream-Haldane-Dec-14-John Haldane will discuss the growing consensus in the field of positive psychology that virtues are the cornerstone of a happy life, including how the sciences of human behavior are related to philosophical investigations of value and conduct, and how ethical evaluation of action has to do with the issues of existential meaning and happiness.

This lecture will live stream from the University of South Carolina at 6pm cst, 7pm est.

John Haldane is professor of philosophy and director of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs at the University of St Andrews, and the J. Newton Rayzor, Sr., Distinguished Professor in Philosophy at Baylor University. He is a scholar with the “Virtue, Happiness, and Meaning of Life” project.

Haldane’s research interests include issues in the history of philosophy; philosophy of mind; social and political philosophy, ethics, and aesthetics. Prof. Haldane obtained a bachelor of arts in philosophy in 1980 and a Ph.D. in 1984. He has held fellowships from the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, and Pittsburgh. A proponent of analytical approaches to the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, Prof. Haldane has authored or edited dozens of articles and books, including “An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Religion”, “Faithful Reason: Essays Catholic and Philosophical”, “Reasonable Faith”, and “Atheism and Theism”. He has also appeared on several BBC radio and television programs and contributed to the Times, the Daily Telegraph, The Scotsman, and several other outlets.

For more information, visit

How Environments Influence Well Being

Path through Pines - photo by Chris Smith
Path through Pines – photo by Chris Smith

Can science measure happiness? One of the things our Neuroscience Laboratory does here at the University of Chicago is measure the impact of both physical and social environments on brain and behavior. One of the environments that we are most interested in is the natural environment. In our laboratory, we have performed studies showing that brief walks in nature (e.g., a local park) can improve memory and attention performance 20% more than the same walk on a busy urban street (Berman et al., 2008; 2012). In fact, we can enjoy greater benefits to our well being just by looking at pictures of nature, rather than pictures from urban environments (Berman et al., 2008).

This work is based on Attention Restoration Theory (ART), which posits that attention can be divided into effortful directed attention (i.e., the attention you use at work) and more effortless involuntary attention (i.e., attention that is automatically captured by interesting stimulation in the environment; Kaplan, 1995; Kaplan & Berman 2010). According to ART, environments that don’t require that you pay constant attention to them but do capture your involuntary attention in some way actually end up replenishing your memory and attention resources. Nature is an example of one such environment that replenishes direct-attention resources, though some built environments, such as museums or quiet city streets with beautiful architecture, can also help restore you in this way.

Indeed, simply viewing pictures of nature can be good for you. With this in mind, we have begun looking at the simplest low-level visual elements present in natural and urban scenes in order to identify features that predict how subjectively “natural” a scene is (Berman et al., 2014a) and how attractive people will find it (Kardan et al., 2015a). With this knowledge we are beginning to manipulate these features in order to test whether an image with more curved edges, such as would be found in nature, would result in greater memory and attention improvements for subjects viewing it. At a larger, more population based level, we are examining how neighborhood greenspace in a large urban center (as measured with satellite imagery) is related to health, controlling for SES factors. We are finding that planting 10-11 more trees on the street significantly improves health perception and significantly decreases cardio-metabolic diseases, independent of income and education levels (Kardan et al., 2015b).

We are currently using eye-tracking measures to examine how peoples’ eye-movements may differ when viewing natural vs. man-made scenes, and also measuring the brains’ response to these environments more directly with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Lastly, we are interested in gene by environment interactions, looking at how genetic factors may impact one’s response to different natural and urban environments. Ultimately our lab is interested in how different physical environments affect brain and behavior and how we can use these results to influence built environment designs in ways that improve human health and well being.

Marc G. Berman is Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology and Director, Environmental Neuroscience Laboratory, at the University of Chicago and a Scholar with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.


Berman, M. G., Hout, M. C., Kardan, O., Hunter, M. R., Yourganov, G., Henderson, J. M., … & Jonides, J. (2014a). “The Perception of Naturalness Correlates with Low-Level Visual Features of Environmental Scenes”. PloS one,9(12).

Berman, M.G., Mišić, B., Buschkuehl, M., Kross, E., Deldin, P.J., Peltier, S., Jaeggi, S.M., Vakorin, V., McIntosh, A.R., & Jonides, J. (2014b). “Does resting-state connectivity reflect depressive rumination? A tale of two analyses.” NeuroImage. 103:267–279

Berman, M. G., Jonides, J., & Kaplan, S. (2008). “The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature“. Psychological science19(12), 1207-1212.

Berman, M. G., Kross, E., Krpan, K. M., Askren, M. K., Burson, A., Deldin, P. J., … & Jonides, J. (2012). “Interacting with nature improves cognition and affect for individuals with depression.” Journal of affective disorders140(3), 300-305.

Berman, M.G., Yourganov, G., Askren, M.K., Ayduk, O., Casey, B.J., Gotlib, I.H., Kross, E., McIntosh, A.R., Strother, S.C., Wilson, N.L., Zayas, V., Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Jonides, J. (2013). “Dimensionality of brain networks linked to life long individual differences in self-control.” Nature Communications 4(1373)

Churchill, N.W., Askren, M.K., Reuter-Lorenz, P.A., Peltier, S., Jung, M.S., Cimprich, B., & Berman, M.G. (2014). “Scale-free brain dynamics under physical and psychological distress: pre-treatment effects in women diagnosed with breast cancer.” Human Brain Mapping 36(3); 1077-1092

Kaplan, S. (1995). “The Restorative Benefits of Nature – Toward an Integrative Framework“. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15(3), 169-182.

Kaplan, S., & Berman, M. G. (2010). “Directed Attention as a Common Resource for Executive Functioning and Self-Regulation“. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(1), 43-57.

Kardan, O., Demiralp, E., Karimi, H., Hout, M., Hunter, M.R., Yourganov, G., Hanayik, T., Jonides, J. & Berman, M.G. (2015a). “Low-level image features predict aesthetic preference beyond semantic preference in natural vs. man-made scenes“. Frontiers in Psychology

Kardan, O., Gozdyra, P., Misic, B., Moola, F., Palmer, L., Paus, T. & Berman, M.G. (2015b). “Neighborhood greenspace and health in a large urban center“. Scientific Reports

23 questions our scholars are asking


The guiding idea of our research is that virtue is the cultivation of a self-transcendent orientation that is necessary for deep happiness and a sense of meaning in one’s life. Our project constructs self-transcendence through collaborative scholarly work in 3 fields: Religious Studies & Theology, Empirical Psychology, and Philosophy.

One key innovation of our project is that rather than bringing independently conceived and executed projects into conversation at large conferences, our scholars will investigate their topics together.

Here are some of the questions many of our scholars will investigate over the course of this 28-month project:

3877063268Religious Studies & Theology

How are our ideas about what it means for Christ to become human shaped and influenced by the divine personhood of Christ?
     – Michael Gorman (Catholic University of America)

What is the relationship between Aquinas’ idea of human flourishing—and its integral component of happiness—and academic enterprise?
– Reinhard Huetter (Duke University)

What is the relationship, according to Thomas Aquinas, between the virtues we acquire on our own and virtues given to us by God?
– Angela Knobel (Catholic University of America)

How does Aquinas understand the relationship between the moral emotions and justice?
     – Jean Porter (Notre Dame University)

How does classical Arabic oratory influence contemporary preachers and politicians?
     – Tahera Qutbuddin (University of Chicago)

Should one cultivate the virtue of humility, or is it a “weak” virtue, encouraging dependence and obedience?
– David Shatz (Yeshiva University)

How do prophecy and martyrdom focus the person on that which is greater than the self?
– Josef Stern (University of Chicago)

What is the relationship between the human moral condition and the condition of the environment?
     – Mari Stuart (University of South Carolina)

Does the human search for truth also make someone open to religious questions?
– Fr. Thomas Joseph White (Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception)


Empirical Psychology

How do people understand virtue, happiness, and the meaning of life when they are stretched thin by work and family obligations?
Marc Berman (University of Chicago)

What influence does a child’s early ideas of virtue have on the understanding of purposeful and socially just acts across her lifetime?
    – Katherine Kinzler (Cornell University)

Can the so-called negative emotions actually lead us to happiness?
– Heather C. Lench (Texas A&M University)

Why are some generative narratives involving commitment to future generations culturally favored over others?
     – Dan McAdams (Northwestern University)

Are we fixed adults with little capacity to change, or are we beings who can use experience to increase wisdom and human flourishing?
– Howard Nusbaum (University of Chicago)

Can we measure happiness and meaning empirically?
– Paul Wong (Emeritus, Trent University)

3877093547       Philosophy

What virtues shape aesthetic inspiration and the actions that follow from it?
– Talbot Brewer (University of Virginia)

What can poetry teach us about spirituality?
     – David Carr (Professor Emeritus, University of Edinburgh)

Should intention factor into the way we look at those who cooperate in evil?
    – Fr. Kevin Flannery (Pontifical University Gregorian)

How does happiness operate as the constitutive aim of human life?
– Jennifer A. Frey (University of South Carolina)

What are the norms inherent in the ethical study of human behavior?
     – John Haldane (Baylor University and St. Andrews University)

How do the ways that we learn not to wrong someone influence our understanding of ourselves, each other, and the social context we share?
     – Matthias Haase (University of Leipzig)

How does awe help us understand the human capacity for moral change?
– Kristján Kristjánsson (University of Birmingham)

How do ordinary people become virtuous, and how does virtue shape them?
– Nancy Snow (University of Oklahoma)

By fostering intensive collaboration between philosophers, religious thinkers, and psychologists, we will investigate whether self-transcendence helps to make ordinary cultivation and exercise of virtue a source of deep happiness and meaning in human life.

For more information about our scholars, and the topics they’ll discuss at our December Working Group Meetings, visit our website here.

Continue reading “23 questions our scholars are asking”

What is virtue?

Bond Chapel in Winter - photo by Chris Smith
Bond Chapel in Winter – photo by Chris Smith

‘Vir,’ the Latin root for the term, links to the term for the male organ–as in ‘virile’–and was used to denote a strength of some sort.

In contemporary philosophy and religious studies, a virtue is a character trait, not a personality trait.  Social scientists sometimes treat character traits such as virtues as features of personality, but some scholars have recently begun working on the necessity of elucidating the strict separation of work on personality from work on character.  ‘Character’ is a developed, stable way of taking in what you get from the world, feeling/emotion/response to others, and action.  For example, kind people don’t just help people who fall down on the ground in front of them, although they normally WILL do that; kind people also find instances and reports of cruelty painful, look for ways to make others’ lives go more smoothly, enjoy it when things go well for others, and try to avoid injuring people.  Kind people notice the kinds of things that injure or could injure others.  Kind people also are willing to do unpleasant things for the sake of helping others, and may even be willing to do dangerous things to help others.  That is plain old virtue at work.  Kindness may start when caretakers invite a child to think how she would feel if someone else did/said that thing (that she just did/said) to her.

There are two sorts of virtues–strengths–that our philosophers and religious thinkers have studied. These two are acquired virtue and infused virtue.

An acquired virtue is a strength of character that develops by doing the things one ought to do–e.g., telling the truth, paying your bills, looking after the health and well being of those who depend on you.  Children begin to develop proto-virtues by obeying adults and gradually stopping doing the kinds of things that make it really hard to look after groups of children–hitting, lying, being selfish with toys or crayons, etc. Acquired virtues become habitual, and help direct the person towards good, but like any habit, they can also be broken, become infrequently used, or go entirely absent.

An infused virtue, on the other hand, is one given to you, and not one you can acquire. In Christian theology, infused virtues are given to us by God. Virtues that Catholic theologians always consider to be infused include faith, hope, and charity. Thomas Aquinas believed that infused virtues such as these prepare us for union with God. Instead of becoming confused, losing wisdom, and going astray–as we are wont to do–we are kept on track by our infused virtues, and our whole natures are better ordered towards the pursuit of what is best and most just, making us right with ourselves, each other, and God.

Aquinas thinks that he finds in Aristotle the idea that even plain old virtue is directed to the common good–basically, that my virtues (if I have any) are at least as likely to benefit others as they are to benefit me, and that the benefit to others is genuine benefit–I help contribute to GOOD ways of producing and reproducing the GOOD aspects of the social world we share.  Although it is not at all clear that this view comes from Aristotle, what IS clear is that virtue is hard to cultivate and puts people at risk in various ways.  Testifying truthfully in court about gang activity in my neighborhood can make me a target for bad stuff, for example.  It is not nearly as easy to be kind to angry or frightened and unpleasant people as it is to be kind to puppies, well-behaved children, and pleasant adults.  But it is often the unpleasant living things that need kindness.

Virtue, then, is not an attitude, although attitudes often go along with virtue.  It is not a belief system or a kind of desire or a kind of feeling/emotion, although virtue shapes thoughts and feelings.  It is closer to a stable, cultivated way of noticing what’s going on and responding to what’s going on (inwardly and through one’s actions) aimed at supporting, enabling, or doing actual good.  On the traditional account, even though there are distinct virtues, these have to work together if actual good is supposed to be the result.  For instance, it isn’t kindness if I tell you lies in order to make you feel better, even if telling you the truth will likely make both of us feel worse.  It’s not generosity if I offer to drive the getaway car when you guys are set on armed robbery.  Personality traits concern me and my psychology.  Character traits can correct aspects of my personality. For instance, if I tend to be irritable or gullible or petty, virtues like temperance, practical wisdom, and justice can help to correct these flaws in my personality. If I am impulsive, virtue can help bring a measure of thoughtfulness and care to my doings. Basically, virtues help to govern my mind, emotions, will and actions so that I can pursue good without sabotaging my own efforts or impeding myself.

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.

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

Here is the recorded session 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.

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