Workshop on Happiness, Virtue, and the Meaning of Life at Stockholm University | May 5-6, 2017


This two-day workshop aims to close the gap between empirical and philosophical approaches to questions of happiness, virtue, and the meaning of life, in the interest of encouraging the development of an empirically informed philosophy and a science with philosophical awareness. Organizers: Erik Angner and Mats Ingelström.

Keynotes by Jennifer A. Frey (University of South Carolina) and Candace Vogler (University of Chicago).

Presentations by Anna Alexandrova (Cambridge University), Michael Bishop (Florida State
University), Dale Dorsey (University of Kansas), Kirsten Egerstrom (Southern Methodist University), Kaisa Kärki (University of Jyväskylä), Antti Kauppinen (University of Tampere), Jennifer Lockhart (Auburn University), Jason Raibley (California State University), Raffaele Rodogno (Aarhus University), Joshua Lewis Thomas (University of Sheffield), Willem van der Deijl (Erasmus University ) and Sam Wren-Lewis (Leeds University).

FREE ADMISSION „ Time and place: Friday and Saturday 5–6 of May, in the William-Olsson lecture hall (Geovetenskapens hus).

For more information:



Download the poster: Workshop-Happiness-VIrtue-Meaning-Poster.pdf

Virtue Talk podcast: “achieving the highest form of happiness” – Josef Stern

VirtueTalklogo1Click the link below to hear our scholar and philosopher Josef Stern discuss Jewish medieval philosophy, his approach as a skeptical reader of Maimonides, multiple levels of meaning into the Akedah or “binding of Isaac”, and how he anticipates  working with scholars in our project across the fields of  philosophy, theology, and psychology will impact his approach to thinking about ideas of happiness, meaning, and perplexity.

Virtue Talk | Josef Stern

Josef Stern (with Paul Wong and Jennifer A. Frey) at the December 2016 working group meeting.

Josef Stern is the William H. Colvin Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Chicago and from 2009-14 he was Inaugural Director of the Chicago Center for Jewish Studies. His book The Matter and Form of Maimonides’ Guide (Harvard UP, 20013) won the  2014 Book Prize for the best book on the history of philosophy published in 2013, awarded by the Board of Directors of the Journal of the History of Philosophy, and will be published soon in a slightly revised version in Hebrew as  Homer ve-Tzurah Ba-Moreh Nevukhim Le-RaMBaM  by Kibbutz Ha-Me’uhad Publishers, Israel. Stern is also completing another book, Quotations and Pictures, to be published in 2018 by MIT Press.



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What Makes a Scientist Good? A Psychological Exploration

Robert Rathbun Wilson Hall
Robert Rathbun Wilson Hall at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Photo by Chris Smith.

Why do people do what they do? Why is science so important to some people? What does it offer to them that other activities do not? Considering the ends of science is one starting point for considering the particularities of virtue in science. Addressing the role of virtue in science entails understanding the purposes of science. Most people would agree that its purpose is to systematically expand human knowledge and enhance human capabilities to control their world. However, perhaps more interesting, from a psychological perspective, is that individual scientists have their own reasons for engaging in science that may be more or less aligned with this general purpose. What are these reasons? What goals, virtuous or not, actually drive scientists in their work? What goals do they think scientists should pursue? 


The career paths of scientists can be challenging and treacherous, given the explosion of advanced degrees in science (see Emanuele Ratti’s post on this). This has led to an increasingly long pathway to a permanent position in academia. Psychologically, this situation is ripe for individuals on all sides to focus on extrinsic rewards – seeking publications, status, and financial success – rather than intrinsic ones. Moreover, stressful environments promote the stress reaction, heightening self-protective pursuits rather than pursuing goals driven by intrinsic motives (like curiosity or valuing the contribution one can make to other’s lives) and the common good.

Purpose and meaning are ideas with a long history in psychology, stemming from the work of Victor Frankl. Purpose is the pursuit of a meaningful goal intended to influence the world in a positive way (see McAdam’s work on generativity). This corresponds with both rich intrinsic motivation (a pursuit driven by one’s values and interests, rather than by external incentives) and the pursuit of the common good. Further, there is a wealth of evidence that pursuing such goals leads to high levels of performance. Thus, I invite you to consider an approach to virtue in science focused on the what, why, and how of goal pursuit through ‘purpose’.

Purpose can be broken down into several components. For example, how one engages in the pursuit of a goal is important, and the form this engagement takes matters for the evaluation of virtue (see this post on the Virtue blog). Virtue after all emerges not only from seeking the good, but from pursuing that good well, that is, through productive and moral engagement. If I pursue my research goals unethically (i.e., through dishonesty), then, while I am doing so, I am enacting a vice. If, on the other hand, I pursue my research in a way that is honest, diligent, and collegial, then I may be developing at least a budding virtue.

Personal meaning is also essential to purpose. For Frankl, meaning can be experienced through ‘(1) creating a work or doing a deed; (2) experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering’. The pursuit of scientific goals emphasizes the first two forms of meaning. Meaning is a personal response to one’s experience. This is why meaning is deeply related to ideas like calling and vocation (see Michael Steger’s post exploring this).

Finally, purpose relates to moral goals – pursuing that which is good. This is a challenging dimension of science, as knowledge unrelated to use is difficult to call moral or immoral. One can, for instance, pursue knowledge which, through misuse or abuse, can cause harm. On some level, it is easier to evaluate the ends of engineering, which are more concrete, than the ends of more basic science, like sequencing the genome of a species. Nonetheless, the pursuit of good ends is essential to virtue (see this post from Jean Porter).

Virtue enables expert purposeful engagement in science. This includes pursuing moral goals, having moral motives for those goals, and pursuing those goals through the effective and moral means. This also necessitates, given the technical nature of science, the judgment and expertise to accomplish these goals effectively. Ideally, this judgment and expertise includes both tacit knowledge of how to conduct scientific research effectively and the capacity to articulate and communicate one’s understanding to others. While I have begun to describe a potential psychology of virtue here, I intend to further explore engagement, personal meaning, and the pursuit of the common good as they relate to specific virtues in future posts.

Why is science important? It is unique for the power of knowledge it generates. However, given this power, there is also an inherent moral responsibility among scientists to direct their pursuits appropriately and to work to ensure the proper utilization of their findings for the common good. Any scientist who fails to do so cannot be called virtuous.

This post originally appeared on Origins. Natures. Futures., a blog out of the University of Notre Dame’s  Center for Theology, Science and Human Flourishing. Timothy Reilly is a post-doctoral fellow in Psychology at CTSHF, whose research examines interventions to enhance psychological well-being, college student development, moral identity, the role of practices in self development, and virtue development. 

Universal Oneness: the Feeling of House

Universal Oneness: the Feeling of House

The philosophy of House music and dance aims to create unifying and meaningful life experiences for its practitioners through the idea of being one with each other and the universe.


Brandon 1
Brandon Dorsey, aka Bran1 at Rooted: Hip-hop Choreographers’ Evening 2016 (Minneapolis). Photo by Corina Seuasoukseng.

To learn more about House dance culture, history, and philosophy of self-transcendence, I had the honor of interviewing the distinguished House dancer and event organizer, Brandon Dorsey, also known as Bran1. He has been part of the Chicago dance community for more than fifteen years, organized several events, traveled across the globe to perform, teach, and compete, and has won multiple prestigious competitions. Brandon is the organizer of the event series Provide The Vibe, and is also a successful businessman in the logistics industry.


“House” music emerged from the Chicago club scene in the early 1980s. Its origins can be traced to the Chicago nightclub The Warehouse (1977-1983), where legendary DJ Frankie Knuckles—often named the Father of House music—was experimenting by blending disco and other genres with music technologies such as drum machines and synthesizers. By taking the intensity and pulsing base rhythm from disco, and mixing it with new electronic sounds, Frankie Knuckles along with other Chicago artists created a sensation. Soon people would travel from the other side of the town, and eventually from the other side of the country just to hear “Warehouse music”. Eventually this became just House Music.

The vinyl collection of Frankie Knuckles will go on display in new Chicago cultural center, Stony Island Arts Bank. Photo from Electronic Dance Magazine. Read more here.


House dancing as a self-aware culture and art form emerged in the late 80’s early 90’s after House music had gained its rapid international success. House was branching out to all corners of the world. Dancers in NYC, Chicago, and other cities began to come together to develop a specific foundation of steps to be the foundation of the dance that accompanied House music. These steps predominately came from Salsa, samba, tap dance, Breakdancing, and Chicago Footwork, but had other influences as well.


“It sounds like such a cliché at first, but House is a feeling.” Brandon elaborates that House dance as a community and a philosophy is centered around a specific mindset, namely that House is a feeling. Philosophers might call it a form of transcendence; House dancers call it “Blacking Out”. The phenomenon of Blacking Out has many similarities to meditation or the mind state of Zen.


When in this state of mind the dancer forgets about themselves, forgets about their problems, and simply becomes one with the music. It is dancing without boundaries, determined less by steps, forms, and conventions, and fully by intuitive on-the-spot interactions between dancers and their music. Brandon describes the ideal House moment as one in which everyone is in tune with each other’s movements, creating a collective freestyle partner dance. When one person moves, everyone moves with them. Such an experience can only be achieved when dancers are fully engaged in the music and with one another. The dancers must forget about their own needs and desires, and become one with the moment.


Brandon explains that such moments are prized by the House dance community on both a practical and philosophical level. House dancers will get together not only to achieve “the House feeling”, but also to discuss what it means to have such experiences, how to better achieve them, and what they mean for their community at large. Hence the feeling of House becomes the centerpiece around which an elaborate philosophy is constructed.


The principle of unity is shared and articulated by practitioners not only through philosophical conversation outside the dance floor, but also on the floor when people will yell “This is church, this is church!” The chant “This is church” and other similar phrases are meant to reinforce the understanding of the philosophy but also to show that moments of intense unification are sacred to House dancers. Brandon explains that he has no qualms in using the word sacred, since it is the closest thing he can find to explain the strong spiritual aspect of the dance.

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 Chosen Few 2016 House Music Festival. Photos by Marc Monaghan.

In fact, Brandon articulates that he and many others do not see a difference between practicing a religion and practicing House dance. Like many organized religions, House dancing or “Housing” consists of a community coming to worship, confirming a set of beliefs, practicing rituals, and tapping into the sacred and the spiritual. For Brandon and many of the practitioners in the international community, House dancing fulfills all of these functions and more.


House competitions exist, but they are not at the center of the culture. In fact, while in Breaking it is seen as odd not to want to compete, house dancers find it inauthentic to practice the dance in order to compete. House is a feeling first, a community second, a technique third, and a competition last. This concept is explicitly part of the virtues that house dancers are told to develop. If Breakdancing is the Art of War, House dancing is Taoism.


It is understood by House dancers that they must develop the virtues of intuitiveness, sensitivity, universal love, and respect for the sacred. In turn, the community and the “feeling of House” will provide a meaningful life to the dancers, letting them know that they are part of something much bigger, part of everyone and everything. The philosophy of House speaks of a universal love for people, beings and things. Through the feeling of House, practitioners become unified with each other, their community, society, and the universe at large. The feeling of House is an entry way into a form of epistemology that will ultimate reveal that everyone and everything is connected. So by loving others we love ourselves, and by loving ourselves we love others.


Brandon explains that although House started as a predominately Black and Latino form of music, House dance culture’s focus on community makes it a virtue to eliminate the isolated particularity of race, class, gender, and sexuality. In fact, because of the strong emphasis on unity, house dance celebrates those who can obtain the universal feeling of House, where all other aspects of a person’s background recede. Taking part in the dance and helping achieve the feeling of House in the moment is all that matters. Transcending the self in order to become part of something bigger and more important is at the core of House dance philosophy and is part of what makes House dance a meaningful experience.


Christian Kronsted is a graduate student assistant with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Virtue Talk Podcast: Michael Gorman on Listening to Others and Finding Meaning

virtuetalklogorsClick the link below to hear our scholar and philosopher Michael Gorman discuss his research in human fulfillment, and how his thinking about scholarship and research has been impacted in surprising ways by our collaborative project.

Michael Gorman | Virtue Talk

Micahel Gorman is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America. Read more about him and other other scholars here.

WGM June 2016_20160609_2749
Michael Gorman discussing meaning as PI Jennifer A. Frey listens, at our June 2016 working group meeting.



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9th Biennial International Meaning Conference

We’re pleased to share the announcements for this conference, which is coordinated by our scholar Paul T. P. Wong.

The International Network on Personal Meaning (INPM) is pleased to announce the 9th Biennial International Meaning Conference to be held July 28-31, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.
The main theme of the conference is, “Spirituality, Self-Transcendence, and Second Wave Positive Psychology.” This conference theme was partly inspired by the Chicago Virtue, Happiness, and Meaning project. It will address the topic of self-transcendence from theoretical, empirical, and therapeutic perspectives.
Dr. William Breitbart, the foremost authority on palliative care, will give a keynote as well as a pre-conference workshop. Other keynote speakers will include Robert Neimeyer, Mick Cooper, Kirk Schneider, Michael Steger, Carol Ryff, Itai Ivtzan, Paul T. P. Wong, and more.


Here are other conference highlights relevant to spiritual care and self-transcendence:
    • Workshop on Meaning-Centered Psychotherapy for Advanced Cancer Patients
    • Workshop on Integrative Trauma Informed Treatment
    • Workshop on Mindfulness Programs in Positive Psychology
    • Workshop on Techniques of Grief Therapy
    • Workshop on Pluralistic Therapy
    • Workshop on Need for Transcendent Meaning

For more information, including registration, visit the  conference’s website.

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”