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Jennifer Frey: An Interview on Virtue and the Meaning of Happiness

Dr. Jennifer Frey is an assistant professor in the philosophy department at the University of South Carolina. She studies the intersection of philosophy of action, ethics, and meta-ethics, and has contributed to a book titled Self-Transcendence and Virtue. She participated in the University of Chicago’s Virtue, Happiness, and Meaning of Life project, a collaboration of philosophers, religious thinkers, and psychologists seeking to understand self-transcendence. Dr. Frey also writes for The Virtue Blog and hosts a popular philosophy and literature podcast called Sacred and Profane Love.

This Spring, Dr. Frey will speak at Vanderbilt’s annual Veritas Forum event. Synesis was privileged to speak with her in advance. The following is a revised transcript of our conversation.

Is happiness a virtue?

In philosophy, it’s important to be clear about terms and concepts. I think of virtues as those stable dispositions of character—of thought, action, and feeling—that enable us to live well, and I think of living well as living a good or happy life. So happiness is not a virtue; happiness is the goal that the virtues help us to attain.

What priority should we put on pursuing personal happiness?

I don’t think we need to prioritize happiness, because everyone already wants to be happy. Happiness isn’t something we need to put on the to-do list; we do things because we think or hope they will make us happy. A more important question we might ask is “What is happiness?”

I think of happiness as complete human fulfillment, of living the sort of life that is satisfying given the kind of creature we are. What is unique about us, as opposed to other animals, is our desire to know and to understand and to want to attain what we take to be our good.

Many people make decisions based on a false conception of happiness. For example, they might think that money, pleasure, or honor will make them happy. Money, pleasure, wealth, honor—these are goods, but they cannot be the highest good. A life that is devoted to pursuing these goods above all else is bound to be dissatisfying to some extent. To me, the interesting question about happiness is this: what might actually fulfill you? What is the highest good you can seek?

Should we prioritize pursuing wisdom or happiness?

I would say this is a classic false dilemma, because wisdom is a virtue that you need to be happy. So the choice is not between wisdom or happiness; in choosing to pursue wisdom one chooses happiness. The wise person understands what is truly good, and this is necessary to make good choices, and good choices are the stuff of a happy life. But while virtue is necessary for happiness, I do not think it is sufficient. My virtue is not going to prevent me from getting cancer, and it cannot inoculate me from tragedy or bad luck. Happiness is imperfect and fragile because we are finite and our control over what happens to us is quite limited.

Virtue itself isn’t entirely under one’s own control. Virtues are habits, and it takes time and training to come to possess them. Suppose that you are born into an indecent society and your parents neglect your education. It’s going to be very hard for you to become virtuous.

Can we measure happiness on a societal level?

I think it makes sense to talk about whether a people group is happy, yes, but happiness is hard to quantify, so I’m not sure how we can measure it. But we can still get a good sense of whether a society is happy if we understand what true happiness is. I think of the happy life as the life of friendship, because I think happiness is a common good one participates in with others. Friends will each other’s good and participate in shared activities aimed at common ends. No matter what else is going on, a happy person is going to put her relationships with her friends first. A happy society will be grounded in civic friendship. A society whose citizens are deeply alienated from each other is not happy. A society whose public discourse is deeply partisan, angry, and bitter is not happy. In a happy society, citizens work together cooperatively to attain common goods, and they do this with affection for one another.

Is ignorance bliss? Can optimism make you happy?

I would want to distinguish between optimism and hope. Hope is a virtue; optimism is more about seeing things in a positive way, or perhaps being disposed to believe that things will work out somehow. Sometimes I worry that someone who is optimistic isn’t properly in tune with reality. If things are terrible, we have to acknowledge this or we cannot fix them. I prefer for that reason to focus on hope, which concerns future goods that one believes it is difficult to attain. I can hope for something that I know is very hard to get; indeed I can hope for happiness, even as I acknowledge that things are going very badly. Hope strikes me as a deeper relation to the good than mere optimism.

I categorically reject the thought that ignorance is bliss. A happy life requires wisdom. Practical wisdom is the ability to order your life well through sound decisions. Theoretical wisdom is an ability to understand reality in a deep way. I don’t think you have to be a scientist or a PhD to be wise. A wise person is simply one who grasps reality and lives accordingly. I would say that if you can see the kind of thing you are and understand what’s good for you on the whole and you are able to order yourself and your life accordingly, you are certainly wiser than most.

Can you describe the relationship between religion and happiness?

I think of religion as a virtue—it concerns what one believes, feels, and does. When we practice religion, we give to God what is owed to him as the principle or source of all being. In a way, religion is a matter of justice, about what is owed. If religion is a virtue then its about a certain way of living. One cannot say, “I’m a religious person,” and fail to worship God regularly, or pray, or fail to believe in, hope for, and love God. A religious person cannot be satisfied with a life that isn’t properly oriented to God.

What do you think about Jonathan Haidt’s argument in The Happiness Hypothesis that one of the keys to happiness is being a part of something larger than ourselves?

I absolutely agree with that absolutely, but I would qualify it. Consider a soldier in Hitler’s army who is marching for the sake of the Third Reich. He is acting for the sake of something greater than himself, but I certainly wouldn’t want to call such a soldier happy. So while I agree with Haidt that happiness is about self-transcendence - engaging in activities that transcend the self- I think we must go further than Haidt and distinguish between true and false transcendence. Psychologists like Haidt are loathe to make normative claims, but this is a mistake, because happiness is a normative term, it refers to the highest good and the best life. Too often psychologist have a completely subjective account of happiness—at the end of the day, happiness is all about how one feels. But this severs our lives from reality, and this is the opposite of self-transcendence. There has to be a robustly objective and normative aspect to happiness—it must be about a type of subjective fulfillment that is grounded in what is objectively choice-worthy and good.

What advice would you give to college students regarding happiness and virtue?

I think a good place to start is cultivating the right kinds of friendships or loving relationships, those that are going to be mutually fulfilling and beneficial. We are social and political animals, and we find our happiness when we live with and for others, rather than for ourselves. If you want to be happy, you have to have friends, and if you want to have friends, you need to cultivate the virtues. In loving our friends, in sacrificing for them, I believe that we grow in virtue. Within the university context, we also need to think about and try to pursue intellectual friendship. In the university, our goal is to discover the truth, but we need to do this together and in a cooperative way. Sadly, on campus today, the art of friendship is dying. Students today report historically high rates of anxiety, depression, loneliness, and suicidal thoughts. In my mind, the loss of friendship and community and the loss of personal happiness are fundamentally related.

What would it look like to cultivate communities of intellectual friendship?

I think we have to start by reclaiming the meaning of our terms. What is a university? What is a successful university career for students? Students often operate under a false notion of success on campus; many have lost sight of the purpose of their education, which is to discover and be transformed by the truth. I think we first need to recover the sense that education is not an instrumental good, it is not something you get because you want something else, it is good in itself insofar as it relates one to the truth. A good education transforms us. So first we need to recover the role of truth in education. Second, we need to think more deeply about what the truth is and why it is so important. Here I would stress that truth is a common good. Among other things, this means that it is not a competitive good; my pursuit of truth does not detract from anyone else's. When we focus on truth as a common good, we are more likely to think about our pursuit of it in a cooperative way. There is much more to say here, but fundamentally, we need to reclaim the meaning and value of truth on campus before we can make any progress in facilitating intellectual friendship.

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