My research is about the good life, encompassing topics like happiness, virtue, and meaning in life. A particular focus of my work is the connection between well-being and morality. Across programs of research, a clear theme has emerged—namely, that individual well-being is closely intertwined with moral goodness and virtue, suggesting that the interests of individuals and their societies are often complementary.
Integrating philosophy and science
I have argued that research on the good life must cross disciplinary boundaries, mingling methods and incorporating insights from different fields. The science would benefit from more public and inclusive discussion of the values that shape and direct the research. Conversely, because the plausibility of philosophical theories of well-being depends on assumptions about what humans are like, empirical investigation is equally important for philosophical theory. Fortunately, it seems that philosophers interested in well-being are increasingly engaged with empirical research. In a bibliometric analysis, I found that philosophy papers on happiness, well-being, and "the good life" are increasingly citing scientific sources. In fact, papers that don't cite scientific sources are now a minority in the literature.
In my own work, I have contributed to abstract, theoretical debates about the nature of moral judgment and human well-being, as well as the empirical literature on happiness and mental health. Often, I use psychological methods to gain insight into philosophical questions. For instance, in a series of experiments (see below) I have sought to clarify the concept of happiness by investigating why people judge morally good individuals to be happier than morally bad individuals.
Moral influences on emotion attributions
(How) do we matter?
The idea that a person could matter in the grand scheme of the universe might seem odd, at least to those who are not religious. After all, the observable universe is incomprehensibly vast. Against that background, does any human being really matter? And should this matter to us whether we do? In the experiment reported in this video, I found that prompting people to reflect on the enormity of the universe reduced their sense of significance and meaning in life. Yet, though some people responded negatively to such reflection, others responded positively. Recognizing humanity's cosmic insignificance can feel threatening. But it can also feel consoling.
Individual and planetary well-being
Mitigating climate change is one of the most serious challenges facing humanity today, and will require action at many levels: governmental, corporate, and individual. I believe that one of the major hurdles to widespread behavior change is the mistaken belief that pro-environmental behaviors are self-sacrificial. To the contrary, sustainable behaviors and lifestyles are generally good for a person’s well-being. For example, physically active modes of transportation (like walking or biking versus driving) reduce emissions and improve physical and mental health. Living with other people reduces per person household energy use and often typically leads to greater social support. Lower-emissions diets (i.e., those low in animal products and processed foods, and high in fruits and vegetables) are generally healthier than higher-emissions diets. Although there are bound to be plenty of exceptions to this generalization, there seem to be many "win-wins" for individual and planetary well-being.
Hence, I have argued that we need to change the way that we think and communicate about sustainable behavior. Focusing on personal benefits of sustainability could be a powerful motivational tool. Indeed, in a pair of experiments, I found that well-being messages—i.e., messages about how going green can be good for you—improved attitudes towards, and strengthened intentions to engage in, pro-environmental behavior. In the second of these experiments, I also found that when people learn about the potential personal benefits of sustainability, it doesn't just affect them. It also affects the people they subsequently interact with. These “ripple effects” could begin to reshape social norms, and perhaps prompt more vigorous climate action.
Although there is now a large body of evidence that pro-environmental behavior is positively correlated with happiness, experimental evidence is needed to establish causation. I am currently running such an experiment. Preliminary results should be available soon.