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 If you're interested in seeing any of the unpublished material, please email me at prinzing@live.unc.edu.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

What makes life worth living? And how can people live better lives? My research is attempts to answer these questions. I'm interested in happiness and well-being, meaning in life, virtue, and the relationships between them. Of course, these are very big topics, and I think that no single discipline has all the tools needed answer them. One the one hand, understanding human flourishing involves, in part, understanding human functioning. Empirical research is therefore vital to theorizing about the good life. Yet, understanding human functioning involves, in part, understanding what counts as flourishing for such beings. Hence, empirical research on human flourishing cannot be value-free. In short, neither the normative nor the empirical takes precedence. For this reason, my research crosses traditional disciplinary boundaries, integrating normative and empirical methods.

Mist covered mountains

Meaning in life

Most people want their lives to be meaningful. But what is the content of this desire? I have recently defended an answer to this question. My answer begins with the thought that meanings in general are learned through correct interpretation. We can apply this idea to understand the diversity of ways in which people think and talk about life’s "meaning", as well as some empirical findings from the psychology of meaning in life.


In my dissertation, I explore how people ordinarily answer the question of what makes life meaningful. The dissertation begins with six experiments ("vignette studies") on the factors that influence judgments about the meaningfulness of a life. (See here for a very brief overview of the studies.) On the basis of my empirical findings, I argue that most people implicitly hold an "independent-additive" theory of meaning in life. Mental states (feelings of interest, engagement, and fulfillment) and subject-independent factors (including social contribution and morality as well as non-welfarist value) each make independent and additive contributions to the meaningfulness of a life. This view is similar to "hybrid" theories (such as the one advocated by Susan Wolf) in claiming that subjective and objective factors are both relevant to meaningfulness. But it differs in claiming that the subjective and objective are each sufficient (rather than individually necessary and jointly sufficient) for meaningfulness. I argue that this theory captures the intuitive appeal of competitors 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).


In other work, I'm investigating a number of other issues related to meaning in life, including why religious faith can make life feel more meaningful, and whether adopting a cosmic perspective makes life feel meaningless.

People smiling at each other

The role of positive social connection in individual and societal flourishing

Humans are social animals. We live better when we are in harmony with others. With my colleagues at the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab, I have been investigating how high-quality social interactions—characterized by shared positivity, warmth, and synchrony—are associated with well-being and virtue. We found that, during the COVID-19 pandemic, highly resilient people maintained better overall mental health partly by creating such moments of connection with others. We have also found that these moments of connection predict prosocial tendencies that in turn predict compliance with public health guidelines, and intentions to get vaccinated. A key finding from these studies is that, when it comes to social interaction, quality matters more than quantity. In fact, in some of my ongoing research, I have found that social media use (a form of interaction in which positive connection is hard to come by) is associated with worse overall mental health.

Green trees

Doing good for others, oneself, and the planet

Because humans are inherently social, pursuing one’s own good often involves or requires pursuing the good of others. This idea seems to be built into ordinary thinking about happiness. Other researchers have found that people believe morally good people to be happier than morally bad people. In my own research, I have found that this is because people believe that humans are fundamentally good (even if they behave badly, deep down, there is good within them). This implicit assumption explains why people attribute more positive mental states to those who behave more virtuously.


In the future, I will investigate how self-interest and the interests of others can align when it comes to climate change. Other researchers have found that—across countries and even while controlling for demographics—environmentally friendly lifestyles are associated with greater happiness. Thus, I think that, an effective rhetorical strategy for motivating individuals to go green is to focus on how going green can be good for you. I am currently working on spelling out the details of this proposal: Which kinds of activities are good both for the climate and for individuals? In what ways are (or can) such activities be good for people? Do people realize that many pro-environmental behaviors are "win-wins"—or can they be brought to? If so, how does this affect their motivation for pro-environmental behaviors?