Shaun Nichols (Philosophy, University of Arizona)

Nina Strohminger (Cognitive Science & School of Management, Yale University)

Fan Yang (Psychology, Yale University).

Yarrow Dunham (PI) (Psychology, Yale University) 

Joshua Knobe (Philosophy & Psychology, Yale University)

George Newman (Cognitive Science & School of Management, Yale University) 

Our project investigates folk intuitions underlying ordinary judgments of happiness. In particular, we examine the extent to which people view happiness as eudaimonic, and interrogate the specific cognitive structures underlying such judgments. We offer a novel framework for understanding why existing theories of happiness have difficulty accounting for actual judgments concerning who is and is not happy. Our proposed research focuses on three interrelated issues:

  1. Past work has revealed eudaimonic influences on judgments of happiness but has left open several critical distinctions, most centrally whether this eudaimonia is Aristotelian (in which excellence in any trait influences happiness) or Stoic (in which excellence in moral traits influences happiness). We hypothesize that lay views are Stoic, grounded in a notion of fulfilling one’s inner virtue. We test this hypothesis in several ways. Study 1 provides participants with information about different types of traits (including moral and non-moral virtues) and measures the extent to which these traits contribute to judgments of happiness. Study 2 asks whether such inferences are bidirectional, i.e. when provided with information about happiness do participants infer moral qualities? Finally, Study 3 asks whether links between happiness and the moral self are restricted to judgments of others or if they also extend to self-judgments. Participants reflect on different aspects of the self (including moral and non-moral virtues) and we measure the effect of this reflection on judgments of happiness and life satisfaction.
  2. To what extent is the view of happiness advanced here rooted in Western cultural models of the self? We address this quest via cross-cultural comparison, predicting that while the general mode will hold, it will play out in different ways due to differences in self conceptions and culturally salient moral virtues. Initial evidence will come from comparing results of the studies described above with Chinese participants (Study 4). A more focused test of our hypothesis (Studies 5 & 6) will then examine how differences in culturally central moral virtues, as well as general conceptions of the self as inter- versus independent, play out in judgments of happiness for US and Chinese participants.
  3. Finally, we harness developmental methodologies to test the hypothesis that judgments of the moral true self are the basis for judgments of happiness. We do this by charting the developmental emergence of the moral true self and linking it to the emergence of eudaimonic views of happiness. We predict that a moral conception of the self will be a developmental precursor to, and thus a strong predictor of, a Stoic-eudaimonic view of happiness (Study 7).

In summary, we investigate culturally and developmentally situated relationships between views of happiness, virtue, and the self. Our interdisciplinary team draws on central concepts from philosophy as well as cognitive, cross-cultural, and developmental psychology, fields that rarely co-mingle. In so doing we contribute to a broader understanding of happiness by illuminating the specific cognitive models that underlie lay views of it.