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?
Past work has led other researchers to conclude that the layperson's concept of happiness is moralized—i.e., when deciding whether someone is happy, people consider not only that person’s psychological states, but also whether that person is morally good. This would make it impossible for an immoral person to be completely happy, regardless of how positive their psychological states were. Doubtful of this conclusion, I designed two tightly controlled vignette experiments, which found that participants only attributed less happiness to immoral people when they also attributed lower levels of positive psychological states (e.g., pleasant emotions and satisfaction) to those immoral people. Moreover, participants attributed less happiness and positive psychological states to immoral people only when they believed that “deep down” the immoral person was good. Hence, although “happiness” appears to be a descriptive term after all, belief in the innate goodness of human beings (which is common, though not universal) leads some people to see immorality as a barrier to true happiness.
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 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).