Research

Below is a thematic summary of my current research. Links to relevant publications are embedded in the text. Much of this work is currently ongoing, in preparation, or under peer review. If you're interested in seeing any of the unpublished material, please email me at prinzing@live.unc.edu.

​Integrating empirical and normative methods in the study of human flourishing

My research is about what makes life good, and how people can live better lives. I'm interested in happiness, well-being, meaning in life, virtue, and the relationships between these things. Of course, these are very big topics. And I think that no single academic discipline has all the tools needed to answer them. Understanding what is good for human beings requires understanding the kind of thing humans are, and how we operate. Empirical research is clearly vital to answering these questions. Yet empirical research, if it is to have any bearing on the topic of human flourishing (i.e., what’s good for people), cannot be a value-free enterprise. Motivated by this line of thought, my research crosses traditional disciplinary boundaries, integrating normative and empirical methods.

Mist covered mountains

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).

Meaning and mattering

Much of my other recent work has been about meaning in life. One of the things that makes this a difficult topic of study is the multitude of ways in which people seem to talk about life having "meaning." In a recent paper, I argued that understanding can be gained by beginning with the idea that meanings in general are learned through correct interpretation. To see a life's meaning, therefore, involves interpreting that life. I argue that this theory not only illuminates ordinary discourse, but also helps to make sense of some empirical findings from the psychology of meaning in life.


In another project, my collaborators and I investigated why religiousness is associated with the feeling that one’s life is meaningful. We tested the popular claim that this link is explained by social factors: feelings of belonging and interpersonal significance that can come from membership in a religious community. However, our results suggested that social mattering was only a small part of the explanation. Instead, we found that the bulk of the explanatory work is done by perceptions of cosmic mattering. Religious faith is associated with the sense that one is significant, even in grand scheme of the universe. Such feelings are in turn associated with perceived meaning in life. In other work, my collaborators and I investigated these different ways in which people can feel that they matter . We differentiated several forms of perceived mattering, each of which displayed a unique pattern of association with personality traits and mental health outcomes, including suicidal ideation. Whereas perceived mattering to the cosmos and to one’s society were each independently associated with narcissism, perceived mattering to close others (i.e., the others that a person knows well) was not. In contrast, whereas perceived mattering to close others and to one’s society were associated with suicidality, perceived cosmic mattering was not.

People smiling at each other

The role of positive social connection in individual and societal flourishing

Humans are fundamentally social beings, and we live better when in harmony with others. With my colleagues at the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab, I have been investigating how positivity resonance—a feature of high-quality social interactions, characterized by shared positivity, warmth, and synchrony—is associated with well-being and prosociality. We have found that an experimental intervention designed to boost moments of positive social connection led to increasing levels of positivity resonance and prosocial tendencies over the next five weeks, as well as an increased coupling between the two.

We also found that, during the COVID-19 pandemic, highly resilient people maintained better overall mental health partly by creating such moments of connection with others, and that these moments of connection predict prosocial tendencies that in turn predict compliance with public health guidelines.


In a current project, I have begun to investigate longitudinal links between positivity resonance and perceived meaning in life. The hypothesis is that, over time, high quality social interactions support flourishing relationships and communities that, in turn, make life feel meaningful. In another ongoing project with our collaborator, Jonathan Gratch (an expert in affective computing), Barbara Fredrickson and I are testing whether interactions with artificially intelligent agents can enhance the effectiveness of our interventions designed to boost positivity resonance. Many have expressed concern that increasing reliance on technology is eroding human social skills. Yet, if technology is designed with the goal of human betterment, perhaps it could instead help people to be better humans.

Green trees

Doing good for others, oneself, and the planet

Another serious concern for the future of humanity is climate change. Although only a small minority of Americans deny that the global climate is changing (15%) and a majority (64%) report being concerned about climate change, few have taken significant action. I hypothesize that this partly because people don’t think that anything they do personally will make a difference. For this reason, I argue that environmentalists should seek new ways of motivating people to engage in pro-environmental behavior. One promising strategy would be to find ways in which pro-environmental behavior is conducive to individual as well as planetary flourishing. Past research has found that, across countries and controlling for a variety of demographic factors, environmentally friendly activities are positively associated with happiness. In an ongoing project, I am using publicly available, multinational datasets to further investigate this correlation, and I am planning future studies that will investigate causal pathways. I am interested in determining which kinds of activities might be good both for the climate and for individuals, and in what ways they are (or can) be good for people. I’m curious also whether and how learning about this research can affect individuals’ motivation for pro-environmental behavior. Given the multitude of moral concerns facing people today, the moral reasons favoring pro-environmental behavior may not be decisive. But, if such behaviors are prudentially valuable, then this may tip the scales in favor of going green.