Lay conceptions of the good life
In several recent projects, I have investigated how laypeople conceive of a good life. Although happiness and meaningfulness are widely regarded as central aspects of a good life, it’s not entirely clear what they consist in. How do people typically conceive of happy and meaningful lives?
Other researchers have found that laypeople (as well as philosophers and psychologists who specialize in happiness) attribute greater happiness to morally good people than to morally bad people, even when their psychological states are described identically. This finding led other researchers to conclude that, according to the ordinary concept, happiness involves being good rather than simply feeling good. However, Barbara Fredrickson and I found that people are more inclined to attribute positive emotions and life satisfaction to moral agents than to immoral ones, and they do this independently of what they are told about those agents. After accounting for these differences, we found no effect of morality on happiness judgments, suggesting that "happiness" is a descriptive term after all (i.e., it refers to a psychological state, and does not evaluate a person's life). That said, we found evidence that the effect of morality on third-person happiness judgments depends on whether a person believes that “deep down” the agent in question is good. It seems, therefore, that people consider immorality an impediment to positive mental states only when they believe in the innate goodness of humanity.
If a happy life is characterized by certain positive mental states, then what does a meaningful life look like? Broadly speaking, philosophers have given three kinds of answers to this question. The first is that a person’s life is meaningful when that person is gripped and engaged with life, when they feel “fulfilled.” The second is that a person’s life is meaningful when that person does something that has value independent of themselves (e.g., by contributing to their society). The third (“hybrid”) answer is that a person’s life is meaningful when both of these criteria are met. In six experiments, Barbara Fredrickson, Julian De Freitas, and I investigated whether any of these theories fit layperson’s judgments. (You can find a brief video explaining these studies here.) The results suggested that most people see mental states and subject-independent value as making independent and additive contributions to the meaning in a person’s life. Such a view is similar to hybrid theories, which are currently popular in the philosophical literature. However, it differs in claiming that subjective and objective factors are each sufficient (rather than individually necessary and jointly sufficient) for meaningfulness. In a work in progress, I argue that this theory captures the intuitive appeal of views like the hybrid theory, while avoiding some of their implausible implications (e.g., that Nelson Mandela’s life would have been meaningless if he did not feel fulfilled).