Dr. Jack Bauers is a PI for the SMV-funded research project, “Eudaimonic Growth: How Virtues and Motives Shape the Narrative Self and Its Development within a Social Ecology.”
For the most part I go about my days exploring what makes life meaningful and otherwise good. I do this professionally by specializing in developmental and personality psychology, studying scientifically and philosophically how people create and recreate a sense of self-identity and meaning in life as they construct their life stories in conjunction with the people around them—all the while developing over the course of adulthood within their cultural and historical contexts—and then by writing about all this in very long sentences. My hope is that the study of such topics will nudge society toward a more humane understanding of personhood in all its varieties and conditions, leading to choices, actions, and interactions that promote human flourishing.
I’ve been deeply, even ludicrously fascinated by questions about life’s meanings and motives and virtues ever since I can remember. But I first became interested in studying people’s life stories when, as the editor of a small-town newspaper, I realized how much I loved writing feature stories of people’s lives. The problem was that I never had enough space to print the fuller story of how these people created a meaningful life of their own. So I went to grad school to study such things, where I came in contact with the life-story research of Dan McAdams, under whom I later studied as a postdoctoral fellow. Ever since, I’ve studied how people use the idea of cultural virtues as underlying, motivational themes in their life stories. Many influences have shaped and continue to shape my work: Dan’s work, Ed Deci’s and Rich Ryan’s self-determination theory, Jane Loevinger’s ego development (and neo-Piagetian development more generally, thanks to my grad program director, Jim Youniss), my dissertation advisor George Bonanno’s work on individuals’ adjustment to life’s difficulties, Erik Erikson, Abraham Maslow, Carl Jung, Chevy Chase, Garrison Keillor, Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, the Upanishads, the Bildungsroman genre in literature and film, philosophers of ethics who focus on meaning-making and human development (notably Julia Annas, Owen Flanagan, Martha Nussbaum, and Charles Taylor), and my Uncle Bud.
Peggy DesAutels and I met through the philosopher Owen Flanagan, whom I had invited to campus to give a keynote address. Peggy and I hit it off with our mutual interests at the intersection of philosophy and psychology. When the SMV grant opportunity came around, the ideas for our proposal flowed easily from our primary interests. Plus we both have a fairly strong background in each other’s fields, so we did not have the interdisciplinary language barrier that might otherwise be the case. Early conversations were peppered more with comments like an excited “Oh, that’s the term for” such-and-such phenomenon, rather than “What are you talking about?” Also, Peggy is a feminist philosopher, and I am a narrative psychologist. Narrative theory and methods in psychological science aim to understand lives not as objectivized ideals but rather in actually lived, non-idealized contexts, which feminist philosophy has been emphasizing for decades. She is interested in how cultural ideals of the good oppress women, and I’m interested in how cultural ideals of the good shape people’s life stories. So it has been a real joy for me to collaborate with and learn from Peggy.
This project addresses several burning questions of mine: How do we create a meaningful life? What does growth sound like in people’s life stories? What do wisdom, love, and happiness sound like? To the degree that we can shape our own lives and who we become, we need to create a story for our lives that leads to actions and subsequent interpretations that yield the virtues or goods with which we identify. (And then eventually we need to transcend that story.)
In the end, we want a good life. As a matter of how we come to know a good life, this amounts to ultimately wanting a good life story. But we don’t have to make one up out of thin air. When we read a novel, see a movie, or listen to political or religious discourse, we are engaging with cultural master narratives of a good life. We draw on these master narratives to construct our own life story. We do the same thing with our family’s master narratives. Such master narratives provide abstract ideals for a good life story. But actual life stories emerge in non-ideal circumstances. Through life stories and family stories, we hope that this SMV study will advance our fields’ understandings of the difficulties people face in constructing a good-life story, especially when marginalized by factors like gender or ethnicity, but also when facing life’s idiosyncratic, non-ideal circumstances.
I love the transdisciplinary nature of this project. We are studying the narratives both quantitatively and qualitatively, allowing for some studies in psychological science proper, some studies in philosophy proper, and some studies that combine both the sciences and humanities. The study of the “whole person” is not an easy task for either scientific or philosophical generalization. Such a study requires mixed methods and multiple levels of analysis. It’s a time-consuming approach, but I believe it’s needed, and it’s what excites me about this project.