Integrating philosophy and science
My research focuses on human flourishing, encompassing topics like happiness, well-being, and meaning in life. My approach these topics crosses traditional disciplinary boundaries, integrating methods from philosophy and psychology. For instance, I have advocated for perfectionism as a philosophical theory of well-being and defended a philosophical analysis of the idea that life has "meaning". I have also empirically investigated the ordinary concept of a meaningful life, how people form judgments about whether someone is happy, as well as the causes of happiness, a sense of meaning in life, and other aspects of well-being.
I believe that an interdisciplinary approach is important because claims about human flourishing and well-being involve both empirical assertions and value judgments. I’ve also argued that scientific research on human well-being would benefit from more, and more public and inclusive, discussion of the values that shape and direct this 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 theorizing.
Fortunately, it seems that philosophical work on well-being is increasingly empirically-engaged. In a bibliometric analysis, I found that papers in the philosophy of happiness and well-being are citing scientific sources increasingly often. In fact, papers in this area that don't cite scientific sources are now a minority.
(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.