My research is about the good life, both what it means to live a good life and how we can help each other lead better lives. That is, I study things like happiness and well-being, meaning in life, and morality and virtue. My work crosses traditional disciplinary boundaries, employing methods from philosophy, cognitive science, and social and personality psychology. 


I have contributed to debates about the nature of moral judgment—and, in particular, how thinking and talking about morality influence individual and societal well-being. I have also defended a theory of well-being according to which the human good ultimately consists in the fulfilment of our nature. Although historically popular, this theory is not widely discussed or defended today. Yet I argue that, if understood properly, it provides a plausible and powerful framework for thinking about what is good for people and why. 

I have also contributed to philosophical theorizing about life’s meaning. Although seemingly the quintessential philosophical topic, meaning in life was largely neglected by philosophers (at least in the “analytic” tradition that dominates Anglophone philosophy) until relatively recently. I suspect that this is because philosophers considered the topic too conceptually muddy. Hence, rather than jump straight to the question of what would make a life meaningful, I have attempted to clarify what it would mean for life to be meaningful. Simply put,  I've argued that a life can have meaning in much the same way, that words and signs do because a meaning is what one learns when one correctly interprets something. "Interpretation" refers to the process of making sense of some thing by situating it into a broader framework. 

Cognitive science

In addition to reflecting on these questions myself, I run experiments to study how people ordinarily think about them, drawing on the methods of cognitive science. Typically, this involves presenting hundreds or thousands of people with “vignettes” (e.g., descriptions of a person’s life) and systematically manipulating the details of these vignettes to reveal the cognitive processes that shape people’s judgments. For example, in recent work, my collaborators and I have found that when people think about the purposes of their lives, they actually seem to be doing something remarkably similar to what they do when they think about the purpose of a knife or the purpose of a kidney.  In other studies, I have investigated how people think about whether someone is living a meaningful life (I present some of the findings here), and sought to understand the connection between ordinary thinking about morality and happiness. 

Numerous studies have found that, if someone is living a morally bad life, people tend to consider them less happy than if they were living a good life. My collaborators and I have found that this effect arises because people see immorality as a source of intrapersonal disharmony. That is, if a person behaves immorally, people tend to think that the person is not at peace with themselves. Although people recognize that an immoral person might feel good “on the surface,” they also think that “deep down” inside of the person there is something calling them to be good. Hence, people’s judgments about happiness (as well as other states like sadness, love, and hatred), depend partly on their beliefs about the inherent goodness of human nature.

Social and personality psychology

A natural question in light of these kinds of experimental findings is whether people are right. For example, people may think that a person is happier if they live a morally better life. But is that true? To investigate these sorts of questions, I turn to the methods of social and personality psychology. In fact, in recent work, I have found that doing good things for the Earth makes people happier (and telling people about this motivates them to live more sustainably). In an ongoing project, I am specifically investigating whether virtues like compassion, patience, and self-control are conducive to happiness and well-being.

In other work, I have used these sorts of methods to study how and why people feel that they matter. Most often, people feel that they matter to their loved ones, or to people in their community or society more generally. In a series of papers, my collaborators and I have found that experiences of high-quality social connection—moments in which people feel that they truly matter to someone—were vital for sustaining mental health during the pandemic, and are essential building blocks for the relationships that support an enduring sense of meaning in life. Moreover, when people experience more of these moments of connection, they tend to become more virtuous, increasing in compassion, kindness, and humility. Yet, some people feel that they matter, not just to other people, but in the grand scheme of the universe. Indeed, this sense of cosmic significance is the primary means by which religious faith supports a person’s sense of meaning in life.

In a new program of research, I am investigating intellectual virtues, and how different kinds of educational programs could make people better thinkers. My collaborators and I are studying the National High School Ethics Bowl (NHSEB), an extracurricular program headquartered at the Parr Center for Ethics that aims to promote respectful and rigorous discussion of ethics among high school students. It involves a year-long series of events in which students gather to discuss real-life ethical and political issues, not with the goal of subduing opposing views with superior rhetoric, but of pursuing truth collaboratively. We are testing whether participating in NHSEB fosters intellectual humility, open-mindedness, curiosity, and a tendency to reflect deeply on one’s values. We are also investigating whether we can cultivate similar outcomes through portable interventions, like in-class workshops and online videos. We are looking at the influence of college education. For example, we have found that people who studied philosophy are more reflective, more skilled with logic, and more open-minded than those with other majors. Next, we will be using a large dataset to investigate changes in students’ intellectual traits over the course of the college years and how such changes differ across majors.