Is Being Virtuous the Key to Happiness? Here's Two Million Bucks to Find Out

Does virtue put us on the path to true happiness? That’s the subject of the latest not-so-typical research grant from a not-so-typical foundation that’s often chasing concepts like the meaning of life.

The John Templeton Foundation is a funder that’s difficult to pin down, and makes some people uncomfortable, which is exactly how they like it. The funder has a driving focus on the “Big Questions” of existence, a loosely defined term that translates to funding for physics, psychology, genetics, and theology, to name a few. 

Related: What Makes Templeton Tick? And Just How Scary Is This Place? An Inside Look

Mainly, Templeton likes to fund nebulous or risky ideas that haven’t often been explored in a rigorous setting, or that might challenge the comfort level of those in a field of study. 

The latest such grant from this sizable funder ($3.3 billion in assets), goes toward a two-and-a-half-year study of how virtue is connected to happiness and the meaning of life. The project is led by two philosophy researchers, Jennifer Frey of the University of South Carolina and Candace Vogler of the University of Chicago, and started in August. 

The goal of the project is to advance research on how happiness is related to virtues like justice and fortitude, and how those virtues contribute to meaning in a person’s life. 

“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 stated in a university release. 

Nailing down evidence for those kinds of linkages sounds like a daunting mission to us, but this is a prime example of Templeton’s approachtaking a concept that usually lives outside the realm of academic research and funding work to explore it in a more rigorous domain. It also commonly funds interdisciplinary work, and this project is no exception. It will involve an international team of social scientists, philosophers, and religious scholars, and include public talks, meetings and conferences. 

Templeton catches some heat for the subject matter it funds, and program staff say that means they're extra careful about who the foundation backs. The goal is to fund the edgier concepts, researched by respected academics. In this case, it’s an extension of these researchers' interests, but on a level that might scare away other sources of funding—just the way Templeton likes it.