Philosopher Candace Vogler, of the University of Chicago, is a principal investigator in a project grappling with virtue, happiness and the meaning of life. 

Prof Vogler is seeking to establish if self-transcendence – the sense that life is part of a bigger good – helps to make the cultivation and exercise of virtue a source of profound human fulfillment. 

A keynote speaker at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues’ annual conference at Oriel College, Oxford, Prof Vogler speaks to journalist Richard McComb about the project.

Why do some people who have everything one could wish for – a successful job, beautiful home, loving partner and healthy children – feel there is a big empty hole in their lives?

And why do other people with similar lives, or with lives lacking some of these features, feel happy?

Candace Vogler believes the key to the riddle may lie with self-transcendence, that spiritual dimension of human life in which individuals feel connected to a greater good.

Prof Vogler’s 28-month network project, due to finish in November 2017, is comprised of an inter-disciplinary team of scholars including psychologists, philosophers and religious thinkers. Its members are seeking to establish if self-transcendence “helps to make ordinary cultivation and exercise of virtue a source of deep happiness and meaning in human life.”

Participating in a greater good could mean campaigning for a cause, such as environmentalism, or following a faith. Self-transcendence might be achieved via participation in a large, generational family. As Vogler says, “The good you enjoy is partly made possible by the struggles, work and effort of people who came before you. Your hope is to carry something forward in the future, maybe something that is good in a way you can’t yet imagine. You identify so strongly with family that they become a part of you.”

As part of the project, professionals working in diverse field, from cognitive neuroscience to Islamic studies, come together with ‘work in progress’ which is shaped by shared questions. During week-long sessions in the winter and late spring, the scholars discuss their work in a dynamic, creative atmosphere. “The collaboration happens at the point the work is taking shape,” says Vogler.

Updates and insights are disseminated via the project’s blog, The Virtue Blog, public lectures and media interviews. A capstone conference takes place at the University of Chicago in October, which will be free and open to the public.

At a time of socio-political upheaval and uncertainty, both in Europe and the United States, it is perhaps not surprising that public interest has focused on the project’s pursuit of happiness.

Prof Vogler is wonderfully candid in her responses when asked about the secret of happiness.

“Stage one is, ‘Get over yourself!’” she says. “Don’t worry so much about self-actualisation, self-expression, self-development, self-this, self-that.

“See if you can break the fascination of your own ego for a little bit. See if you can turn your attention to something that is genuinely self-transcendent, that connects you to a world bigger than your intimate circle – and engage there. That is likely to be where you will develop in virtue and character. Your character develops when you get opportunities that are expressive and productive of goods bigger than you are.

“Do you engage at the soup kitchen a couple of times a week because you know you are supposed to be charitable? No, you volunteer at the soup kitchen by opening yourself up to the possibility that you could be drawn out of yourself rather than affirmed in a sense of your own goodness. The self-transcendence provides the context in which virtue is at home.”

Prof Vogler has little time for self-righteous navel-gazing, adding: “You don’t have a beautiful soul if it’s useless to everyone around you. You don’t have a beautiful soul if you can’t be bothered to think about how to engage more effectively in the world that you find yourself in, not just for the sake of your own success but for the sake of contributing to what is good in that world and helping it struggle against what is bad.”

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