About Us

Self-transcendence

Our 28-month project uses research focused on self-transcendence to advance understanding of the interrelations of virtue, happiness, and the meaning of life. We believe that self-transcendence is the missing link in current research, crucial to the spiritual dimension of human life.

Research in the humanities and social sciences suggest that individuals who feel they belong to something bigger and better than they are on their own—a family with a long history and the prospect of future generations, a spiritual practice, work on behalf of social justice —often feel happier and have better life outcomes than those who do not. Some scholars have labeled this sense of connection to a larger force “self-transcendence.” To read more about this concept, click here.

By fostering intensive collaboration between philosophers, religious thinkers, and psychologists, we will investigate whether self-transcendence helps to make ordinary cultivation and exercise of virtue a source of deep happiness and meaning in human life.

Big Questions

Our research will be guided by three big questions, in light of specific hypotheses.

1) Does self-transcendent orientation help ordinary virtuous activity—the exercise of acquired, settled dispositions with cognitive, conative, and behavioral aspects which jointly coordinate pursuit of human good—provide a source of happiness and meaning?

By self-transcendent orientation, we mean a cognitive, conative, and behavioral structure that expresses attachment to an overall good an individual cannot attain alone and whose benefits go beyond measures of personal welfare. We hypothesize that self-transcendent orientation allows virtuous activity to be the stuff of eudaimonia, and that self-transcendence helps to imbue virtuous activity with a sense of meaning. Cultivation of virtue is difficult and the task is ongoing. We hypothesize that seeing one's efforts as directed at participation in self-transcendent good renders the work of character-building meaningful and connects it to deep happiness.

In researching these hypotheses, we will rely on interfaith dialogue, philosophical criticism, and religious scholarship to provide a sound conceptual understanding of self-transcendence that can inform a new self-transcendence construct, new tools for self-transcendence assessment, and new operational definitions for psychological research.

2) When and how does cultivating virtue produce a purposeful, fulfilling human life?

Research in philosophy, religion, and social science directs us to virtues in order to understand what it is to have a good character and good moral judgment. We hypothesize that the goods at issue in exercising virtues are self-transcendent goods, that virtue (in the rich, Thomistic sense of building an overall well-functioning character directed at doing and being good) is reasonable to the extent that it is undertaken for the sake of self-transcendent goods, and that a self-transcendent orientation is needed to underwrite the sacrifices sometimes required by virtue—allowing even burdensome activity to contribute to a sense of purpose, fulfillment, and eudaimonia.

Drawing from existing work, and creating a collaborative network in which scholars can develop improved instruments for assessing self-transcendence, we expect to discover whether there are positive correlations between self-transcendence, senses of purpose or meaning, and virtuous thought, action and feeling, and whether there are negative correlations between self-transcendence and depression, alienation, and loss of meaning. Researching these questions will require refining the self-transcendence construct and developing new instruments or experimental designs to assess self-transcendence.

3) What kind of happiness comes of virtue (understood in the rich, Thomistic sense) in the context of orientation to a self-transcendent good (e.g., the good associated with religious practice or the good associated with working on behalf of future generations)?

This question links self-transcendence to eudaimonia. We hypothesize that the happiness traditionally associated with virtue—eudaimonia—has its source in self-transcendence.

Researching our big questions through these hypotheses requires integrating the insights from religious thinkers, the conceptual rigor of philosophers, and the empirical methods of psychologists. Read more about our Scholars.

The project's enduring impact will be to bring focus on self-transcendence to the forefront of cutting-edge research and public discourse about virtue, happiness, and the meaning of life, and to develop a new self-transcendence construct for empirical research, thereby providing a key insight that links prior research to new emerging knowledge.