“Are people who are moral happier?”
By Michelle Johnson (3/5/21)
What questions are really exciting you right now?
Right now, one of the questions I’m most interested in answering is how morality and well-being are connected. Are people who are moral happier? Is a life that’s good for the self also one that is good for others, or are there trade-offs between caring about others and the world at large and living your own best life?
[For example], you can think about someone who may lead a very meaningful and fulfilling life, perhaps devoted to helping the poor or some other social cause that consumes them, but they may not necessarily be happy in the popular sense of experiencing a lot of positive emotions or having an easy, comfortable life although it’s very meaningful. How is being devoted to a moral cause or caring more about morality related to one’s sense of meaning compared to one’s positive emotions? You can imagine that someone who doesn’t really care about any causes might enjoy their lives a little bit more because they don’t feel worried or outraged every time something bad happens in the world.
So maybe in some ways, ignorance could be bliss. I think it’s an open question as to whether there are trade-offs between morality and happiness or whether they go hand in hand. Some philosophers argue that you can’t be considered truly happy unless you’re also moral. There are also arguments that being moral and feeling moral is a basic psychological need, implying that it’s a need you have to satisfy in order to have high well-being.
What kind of impact would you like your research to have on the world?
I think it might depend a little bit on what we find. If we were to find that moral people are happier, or even that morality is not related to well-being (as long as it’s not a negative relationship), then I think this finding could inspire people to try to make changes in their lives to be better people.
I’m also interested in if there’s an optimal level of morality in which you’re doing a large amount of good in the world, but you’re also doing it in a sustainable way. This research could have practical applications if we can find out the reasons why some people are very moral and still happy while other people burn out and might not have the support they need for their own well-being.
What do you think people should know who are considering pursuing research?
It’s a very competitive field, but there’s a reason why it’s so competitive. It’s a great job, you get to spend your days being a “Finder Outer,” as Dan Gilbert said in a talk a few years ago. You get to ask questions about anything you’re interested in, and you can get answers to those questions while spending your days working with people who are super curious and passionate about their work as well as teaching students to share that knowledge. I think that is a really privileged position to be in.