This project is about the life story and how it fosters human flourishing in a world of others. As people create their own life stories, they create a sense of what’s personally meaningful in their lives—a sense of self, of who they are as a person. In this way the life story is a narrative self. Like any story, the life story has themes—such as power or love—that give the story meaning. In life stories, themes convey what people value and thus what motivates them. Just as any one person might have multiple, even conflicting values in life, the life story can have multiple themes of motivating value. Some of the values can be called “virtues” in the moral sense. In this study, we interview people about their life stories, focusing especially on the stories dealing with virtue-relevant concerns like major life decisions, interpersonal conflicts, and moral dilemmas. By also measuring virtuous personality development in other ways, we can study how motivational themes of virtue in people’s life stories might facilitate virtuous personality development more generally.
To make sense of the myriad virtues in people’s life stories and personality more generally, we look to the ancient concept of eudaimonia, or human flourishing. Different theories of eudaimonia in contemporary philosophy and psychology focus on different sets of virtues. But overall, these virtues can be organized in four categories: wisdom, happiness, love, and growth (i.e., growth in wisdom, happiness, or love). In our study we examine how various themes of virtue in people’s life stories are organized in terms of these four categories of eudaimonic virtue, especially themes of growth. We are especially interested in how these virtuous themes predict the development of wisdom, happiness, and love in these people’s lives.
The process of virtuous self-development does not happen in a social vacuum. Each person develops within a social ecology of families, social institutions (like government, education, religion, media), and broader cultural values. In addition to the life stories of individuals, we interview their families as well. Together, the life stories and family stories offer an extraordinary opportunity to learn how virtuous self-development ensues within family dynamics. The idea of virtuous development might sound rosy, but human flourishing requires certain luxuries, such as food, shelter, and social support. We focus on social support: How do family stories support or not support flourishing in the individual’s life story? Furthermore, family stories are filters for cultural master narratives of how to live a good life (think novels, films, and religious texts). While everyone in a culture has exposure to the master narratives, not everyone has the same opportunity to live out the ideals of those master narratives. Even in middle-class life, society imposes values based on gender and ethnicity that can hamper eudaimonic growth, which is palpable in both life stories and family stories. We look to these life stories and family stories to get a better understanding of flourishing in both idealized and non-idealized circumstances.