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Pursuit of happiness leads to a $2.1 million grant award for USC

A pair of philosophy researchers from the University of South Carolina and the University of Chicago has been awarded a $2.1 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation to study the connections between virtue, happiness and the meaning of human life and society.

Jennifer A. Frey, an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy at USC, and Candace Vogler, the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago are the project leaders for a 28-month grant titled "Virtue, Happiness and Meaning of Life." The grant will bring together an international team of philosophers, religious scholars and psychologists to do interdisciplinary research on questions relating the development of virtue to deeper human happiness and a sense of purpose in human life.

While sociological and psychological research suggests that happiness can lead to positive outcomes such as better physical and mental health, higher productivity and life satisfaction, more work is necessary in order to understand how happiness connects with the cultivation of virtues like justice and fortitude, and how the virtues contribute to a sense of life's ultimate meaning for individuals.

It will be a huge breakthrough if our team can begin to show in a rigorously interdisciplinary way that virtue, happiness and meaning in life are related not merely in theory but also in practice. The implications for social policy and education could be considerable. —Jennifer Frey

A principle aim of the grant is to help move research in this direction, by drawing upon the methods of philosophers and religious scholars. Frey says this kind of interdisciplinary research is critical because all people—regardless of education, income or cultural background—want to be happy and try to understand the purpose of their existence. A more complete understanding of these most basic and shared human desires will be at the heart of the team's research.

"It will be a huge breakthrough if our team can begin to show in a rigorously interdisciplinary way that virtue, happiness and meaning in life are related not merely in theory but also in practice," Frey says. "The implications for social policy and education could be considerable."

Frey first became interested in virtues when studying ancient philosophers Aristotle and Plato as an undergraduate. Virtues have played a major role in her research and teaching ever since.

"I distinctly remember the feeling of having stumbled upon a cultural treasure that had been lost to us for no good reason. I was determined to try to recover it," Frey says.

She believes that a rediscovery of virtues can help students better understand why they should do "the right thing," even when it's very hard.

"Socrates tells us that it is better to suffer injustice than commit it, and in Plato's dialogues he gave his life for that principle. Why? Because he was convinced that doing the wrong thing – the greedy or cowardly act—could never be the means to true happiness," Frey says. "Young people continue to be intrigued by this story, and I think the appeal lies in the fact that on Plato's account virtue can transform us from selfish creatures bent narrowly on our own short-term gain to wise men and women who have transcended this perspective and see the meaning of our actions in much larger and more significant contexts."

The grant project will include public lectures each December and a philosophy workshop for scholars and students in spring 2016. The team will come together for four weeklong meetings and conclude the project with a two-day conference in October 2017 to share their research results.

Frey earned her doctorate in philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh. Prior to joining the university's faculty in 2013, she was an assistant professor of humanities and Harper Schmidt Fellow in the Society of Fellows at the University of Chicago. Her research focuses on ethics and the history of philosophy. She is writing a book on action, virtue and human good.

Joining Frey on the team from USC will be Mari Stuart, an assistant professor who specializes in Hinduism and South Asian religions.


2 November 2015

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