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 people attribute less happiness to immoral agents than to moral ones. In a series of vignette experiments, I found that that this is true of a wide range of positive psychological states (e.g., feelings of fulfillment, a range of positive emotions, and life satisfaction). Additionally, I found that this asymmetry only emerges when people believe that the immoral agents are internally conflicted. In other words, immorality is typically—though not necessarily—seen as a source of intrapersonal conflict that can preclude positive psychological states like happiness.
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 they are gripped and engaged with life, when they feel “fulfilled.” The second is that a person’s life is meaningful when they do 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. This 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).