Interview with Madison Gilbertson, Summer Session Participant

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This post is part of a series of interviews with our participants for the “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence” 2017 Summer Seminar.  Madison Gilbertson is earning her PhD in psychology at the Fuller Graduate School of Psychology. Valerie Wallace is Associate Director, Communications, for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.


Valerie Wallace: Where are you from?

Madison Gilbertson: I am originally from Southern California, but I have just recently moved to London!

VW: Tell me about your research.

MG: My current research is focused on thriving and human flourishing as they relate to spirituality and religion. I am especially interested in the way that meaning and transcendent experience have an impact on well-being and the development of virtue. I am currently working on a wide variety of projects including virtue interventions for adolescents, virtue and character development in student athletes, the impact of self-transcendent purpose and religious affiliation in university environments, and intergroup contact in religious and university settings.


VW: What are you most looking forward to about this summer’s seminar?


MG: This seminar provides a unique opportunity to connect with an international group of colleagues from different disciplines. I am looking forward to discussing and learning about virtue, happiness, and self-transcendence from the viewpoints of philosophy and theology. I hope that these conversations will bring nuance and depth to my own psychological understanding of these concepts.
VW: What are your non-academic interests?
MG: I have always loved stories, and I spend much of my free time reading fiction and non-fiction. I am currently reading The Source by James Michener (an epic work of historical fiction about Israel) and I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai (a book by the youngest Nobel laureate who advocates for the education for women and girls). Other interests include spending time with family and friends, writing, traveling to new places, music, and cooking with my husband.


Interview with Sanaz Talaifar, Summer Session Participant

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This post is part of a series of interviews with our participants for the “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence” 2017 Summer Seminar.  Sanaz Talaifar is earning her PhD in Social-Personality Psychology at the University of Texas, Austin. Valerie Wallace is Associate Director, Communications, for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.


Valerie Wallace: Where are you from?


Sanaz Talaifar: I grew up in North Texas, and I live in Austin now.


VW: Tell me about your research.

ST: I study the self and identity. I am interested in how our personal and social identities inform our moral values and well-being. More specifically, how does the strength of attachment to a group, rather than the content of the group’s values, influence our personal moral values? And how does making a group identity a core part of one’s personal identity influence well-being?


VW: What are you most looking forward to about this summer’s seminar?

ST: I’m really excited to meet researchers in disciplines other than my own. I am in the Social-Personality Psychology area at UT Austin, and I often think about how the research questions that psychologists pose (e.g. What does it mean to lead a happy or meaningful life?) are similar to the questions that religious scholars and philosophers have also posed for centuries. I’m looking forward to learning how other branches of knowledge have tried to answer these very human questions.


VW: What are your non-academic interests?

ST: I love reading (mostly fiction), listening to podcasts, taking walks, and traveling.


Interview with Sarah Ann Bixler, Summer Session Participant


This post is part of a series of interviews with our participants for the “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence” 2017 Summer Seminar. Sarah Ann Bixler is earning her PhD in practical theology and Christian education at Princeton Theological Seminary. Valerie Wallace is Associate Director, Communications, for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.


Valerie Wallace: Where are you from?

Sarah Ann Bixler: Raised in southeastern Pennsylvania, I spent my adult life in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia (Harrisonburg) until moving to Princeton, NJ in 2013 to attend graduate school.


VW: Tell me about your research.

SAB: Research areas: a) Young people’s experiences in congregations. Having worked for 8 years of my career as a youth minister, I became interested in the diverse faith experiences of young people and how they find meaning through connecting to God within communities of faith. My research seeks to interpret the ways young people “attach” to God, congregations and individuals within the faith community through the lens of the psychological theory of attachment. I believe that understanding attachment to the church from the Aristotelian perspective of a constitutive good provides a theologically robust conception of ecclesiology.
b) Leadership of new church plants and revitalization efforts. As a founding member of a 2010 church plant, I am curious about how the church adapts and thrives in changing cultural contexts yet remains faithful to the gospel it holds dear. The formation of leaders who initiate new congregations, and leaders who guide congregations in decline through deep change and revitalization, is particularly important to me as someone with a professional background in church leadership. I currently have the opportunity to engage this research interest as the assistant to the pioneer missional theologian Dr. Darrell Guder, who directs Princeton Seminary’s new Center for Church Planting and Revitalization.

VW: What are your non-academic interests?

SAB: Outside of my scholarship, I find meaning in spending time with my biological and church family and in the outdoors. My spouse, Benjamin, and I have three children ages 10, 6 and 4. Together we enjoy camping, hiking and bicycling. I am also a jogger. We enjoy gardening and preserving our own produce through canning and freezing. I am also a committed member of a diverse urban church in Philadelphia, Oxford Circle Mennonite Church.

VW: What are you most looking forward to about this summer’s seminar?
SAB: I most look forward to developing my research ideas amid colleagues who will push me to think about topics from new angles, because they have studied particular themes that overlap with those I am exploring. I expect Fr. Brock’s session on friendship, Dr. Frey’s session on self-love and self-transcendence and Dr. McAdam’s work from a psychological perspective hold the most promise for my work. I am interested in working through the nuances of my research interests more through these sessions.

Interview with Andrea Yetzer, Summer Session Participant


This post is part of a series of interviews with our participants for the “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence” 2017 Summer Seminar. Andrea Yetzer is earning her PhD in Psychology at Northwestern University. Valerie Wallace is Associate Director, Communications, for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Valerie Wallace: Where are you from?

Andrea Yetzer: I’m originally from Chicago, but currently live in Colorado Springs, CO for my Master’s program.  I’ll actually be moving back to Chicago this fall to start my PhD program at Northwestern.
VW: Tell me about your research.
AY: My research framework stems from working in a terror management theory lab where I have focused on the relationship between morality and psychological equanimity.  Prior to beginning my Master’s program, I worked with veterans in mental health at the Jesse Brown VA in Chicago.  It is there that I came across research on the construct of moral injury—a trauma dimension that occurs from perpetrating, experiencing, or witnessing acts or events that violate deeply held moral values and beliefs; this experience is what drove my passion to research the role of morality in psychological functioning.
Currently, my research focuses on the self-regulatory processes of moral behavior and emotions, and how perseveration on failures to achieve moral behavioral standards may lead to moral injury.  In doing this research, I have become fascinated with the almost ubiquitous role of morality–from religious and secular laws, to self-regulation, and to politics and intergroup relations.  As I transition into my PhD program, my research will now focus on the more positive aspects of morality and how such worldviews can stimulate other-oriented moral emotions and motivate prosocial action.
VW: What are your non-academic interests?
AY: I’m really into a wide variety of music (Chicago house music, soul, Motown, hip-hop, etc.) and I used to frequent the Lyric Opera.  I also love podcasts, going to baseball games (White Sox fan here), and you can be sure that my answer is always a ‘yes’ for karaoke.  Before I entered grad school and fell out of “fighting shape,” I was pretty involved in obstacle course racing (e.g., Spartan Race, Tough Mudder) and team endurance events (GORUCK).
VW: What are you most looking forward to about this summer’s seminar?
AY: What I am most looking forward to about this seminar is gaining knowledge from the moral philosophical framework of virtue and happiness, and how this may inform and/or strengthen my research.  To be honest, I think all the seminars are going to be incredibly insightful and engaging, and I’m looking forward to meeting other scholars working in this area, and creating strong research networks!

Interview with Elise Murray, Summer Session Participant


This post is part of a series of interviews with our participants for the “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence” 2017 Summer Seminar. Elise Murray is earning her PhD in Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University. Valerie Wallace is Associate Director, Communications, for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Valerie Wallace: Where are you from?

Elise Murray: I hail from Lancaster, Pennsylvania originally–Amish Country, born and raised. I am more recently coming from Boston, where I am in the PhD program for Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University.

VW: Tell me about your research.

EM: My research areas fall under the general umbrella of character virtue development, by taking a holistic approach to understand the bidirectional relationship between an individual and his or her context as it pertains to how virtues develop across time and place, within and between various individuals. My work has focused more specifically on theoretically and empirically investigating intellectual virtues, in particular, intellectual humility, its psychometric properties, and its intersections with other various character virtues.


Long-term, as a doctoral research assistant, I am working with a larger group of senior researchers and professors, investigating the developmental trajectory of character at the United States Military Academy as part of a longitudinal, collaborative project between Tufts University and the United States Military Academy, Project Arete, funded by the Templeton Religion Trust. This work is both important and engaging for me because character virtues are vital for developing personal strengths and encouraging positive engagement with others and our communities, skills that we must continue to cultivate and facilitate in college. Intellectual Humility, in particular, is important for positive, civil discourse, as well as intellectual growth, which are, again, valued skills in the college context. As such, I am passionate about finding ways to best serve college students by way of promoting character virtues in the collegiate environment.

VW: What are your non-academic interests?

EM: I am a huge sports fan, and love any Notre Dame sporting event, as that is my alma mater (Go Irish!). I am a big fan of the beach (and the occasional long walk on one), hiking, running, comedy (Mike Birbiglia or Jim Gaffigan, don’t make me choose), and performing and listening to music. I like to keep my hand in a little bit of everything!


VW: What are you most looking forward to about this summer’s seminar?

EM: Attending the seminar will allow me to engage in an intensive, interdisciplinary environment to augment my current research on virtues as a whole. This provides an opportunity to supplement my conceptualization of virtues with resources from domains outside of psychology, and improve the dialogue between science and the humanities around the topic of virtues. I also hope the seminar experience will forge interdisciplinary collaborations that may result in future research and publications pertinent to the study of virtues, and potentially, more specifically, intellectual virtues and intellectual humility.



Reading List for “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence” – 2017 Summer Session


We’ve had some requests for the reading list from our 2017 Summer Session, “Virtue, Happiness, and Self-Transcendence”. Here it is, organized by faculty member.


Summer Session Reading List

Talbot Brewer:

Lear, Jonathan – Radical Hope, pp. 1-41

Burnyeat, Myles – Aristotle on Learning to be Good


Stephen Brock:

Aquinas – Commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics, books VIII & IX

Aquinas – Summa Contra Gentiles: chapters 111-112 and question 60 and 90-96

Aristotle – Nicomachean Ethics, books VIII & IX

Brock, Stephen – Natural Inclinations of Man

Gallagher, David – Thomas Aquinas on Self-Love as the Basis for Love of Others

Gallagher, David – Desire for Beatitude and Love of Friendship in Thomas Aquinas

Pakaluk, Michael– Identification and Identity in Aristotelian Philia


Jennifer Frey:

Foot, Philippa – Natural Goodness, chapter six “Happiness and Human Good”

Aquinas –  Summa Theologiae, I-II QQ1-6


Candace Vogler:

Kant – Anthropology From a Pragmatic Point of View

Kant – Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals

Engstrom, Stephen – The Concept of the Highest Good in Kant’s Moral Theory


Dan McAdams:

McAdams, D. P – Psychological science and the Nicomachean Ethics: Virtuous actors, agents, and authors

McAdams, D. P – The redemptive self: Stories Americans live by.

McAdams, D. P., & Guo, J. Narrating the generative life.

Walker, L., & Frimer, J. – Moral personality of brave and caring exemplars



Reflection on the June 2017 Summer Seminar

Our summer session was held in the Neubauer Collegeium at the University of Chicago.

Cabrini Pak was a participant at our June 2017 summer seminar, “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence” at the University of Chicago, and wrote this reflection piece based on the 5-day experience. Pak is a PhD Candidate in Religion & Culture at and Teaching Fellow, The Tim and Steph Busch School of Business and Economics, at the Catholic University of America.


There were just over two dozen of us “youngster” scholars, mingled with about half dozen seasoned scholars, and we spent one week together discussing some deep questions about the human person and how one can (or already does) strive towards the “good.” Several disciplines were represented, falling into the larger categories of philosophy, psychology, theology, ethics, and religion and culture. This unique experience, made possible by a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation, and co-sponsored by the Hyde Park Institute, brought together people from all over the world: Canada, Germany, Italy, Nigeria, the Philippines, Portugal, and the United States. The expert speakers in our group included a psychologist, a theologian, and a number of philosophers.


The first day required a massive readjustment on my part in listening to people speak and use their different vocabularies. I often found myself having to ask what a person meant by simple words, words that we use in everyday life but can take on different meaning in the academic milieu – “know,” “good,” “love,” “habit,” “value,” and “incurable.” By the end of the week I felt as if I had learned four different languages. Although all the talks were delivered in American English, the nuances of meaning attached to certain words in the different disciplines reflected very different styles of communication, and perhaps even different ways of knowing things.

Talbot Brewer, Cabrini Pak, Anselm Mueller, at the 2017 Summer Seminar.

I found the discussions inside and outside the formal seminar setting both energizing and draining. They were energizing because we all seemed to have some deep concerns in common, like what it means for human beings to thrive or how happiness in the human life can be achieved, and yet had such different perspectives on how this could or should be accomplished. Debating these differences gave me much to think about. These same discussions were also draining because I was well outside my comfort zone, both as a 95th percentile introvert who requires long periods of silence and solitude, and as a religion and culture scholar from a distinctly Catholic tradition. I had to make my personal boundaries more porous and be willing to temporarily let go of the sharply defined conceptual boundaries of my discipline. In the end, four lessons remained for me as I strive to pursue a more holistic understanding of human flourishing and a practical, communicable, understanding of a “common good” that local communities can strive for.

Continue to break down interdisciplinary and cultural barriers

Often, especially in the academy, disciplines remain siloed and people do not reach out beyond their home disciplines to discuss the “tough questions” that affect us all. Cultural divides, like those between communities of different faiths, linguistic origins, ethnicities, and social class, can also erect barriers to common understanding and meaningful collaboration. I learned this week how important it is to reach out beyond my own discipline and to the fringes of my cultural horizons in order realize a larger-scale vision of a common good that allows for the fullest development of all.

Find a common vocabulary

Words mean something. Sometimes the same word means very different things to different people, depending on where they come from how they use that word in a variety of contexts. Scholars, when dialoguing with other scholars from very different fields, will need to establish some kind of consensus on a basic vocabulary that they can agree upon in order to produce insights that would be valuable to their respective fields. In my case, I have already I identified a subset of words that can be included and need to be collaboratively defined better in discussions around a “common good” – transcendence, virtue, generativity, the “good life”, the ultimate good(s), truth, happiness, joy, human dignity, rights and responsibilities, personal concerns, friendship, telos, and of course, common good.

Expand analysis beyond the individual

Much of what we talked about at the seminar revolved around a specific unit of observation: the individual human being. His or her personal context was examined, whether it was about transcendence, virtue, generatively, telos, or some other factor. My theological interest in realizing a “common good” in a Catholic sense requires me to look not only at the implications for a single human life, but also at the implications for couples, friends, families, communities, cities, countries, and the world as a whole. Things get more complicated when you go from looking at one human being to looking at two human beings, in for example, in the dynamics of friendship. Tensions or dialectics within and between each person must be harmonized in order for the “good” to be realized optimally for both. They get even more complicated when you start looking at group dynamics. I will need to be attentive to the proper extensions of our conversations during this seminar to more communal concepts like solidarity, compassion, subsidiarity, and shared concerns.

Co-author works using above three principles

I tend to agree with Dr. Candace Vogler’s idea that it’s important to “get a kind of deep integration between people working in very different disciplines without relegating their work to the margins of less widely read, explicitly interdisciplinary publications.”[1] I also believe that co-authoring works between scholars of different disciplines, perhaps placing the work within a home discipline publication, could potentially bear much fruit in advancing our understanding. That said, there may also be a benefit to relaxing the borders of the bounded disciplinary journal’s sandbox and sending out a few tendrils to promising interdisciplinary journals. When aligned with the above three principles, perhaps some good fruit will come of such collaborative endeavors.

In the end, I am very grateful to have had this opportunity to gather with such special people in a way that promoted my development both as a scholar and as one in service to a much larger and more diverse community. Thanks to all who made this experience possible, especially the John Templeton Foundation, the Hyde Park Institute, and Candace Vogler, Jennifer Frey, Valerie Wallace, and Jaime Hovey of the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life. You have given me a gift that I will continue to unwrap over the years to come.

[1] Courtney C.W. Guerra, “Scholarship of Self-Transcendence: Candace Vogler leads a search for the meaning of life,” Tableau (Spring 2007), accessed June 27, 2017,