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SMV Project | Self & Desire as Seeds of Virtue

Self & Desire as Seeds of Virtue

Paul Condon, Ph.D.
Southern Oregon University

Christine Wilson-Mendenhall, Ph.D.
University of Wisconsin-Madison

John Dunne, Ph.D.
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Lisa Feldman Barrett, Ph.D.
Northeastern University
Martinos Center for Biomedical Imagining, Massachusetts General Hospital

Wendy Hasenkamp, Ph.D.
Mind & Life Institute

Karen Quigley, Ph.D.
Psychology, Northeastern University
Veterans Affairs, Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Hospital, Bedford, MA

Project Summary

This project aimed to study self, motivation, and virtue in the interpersonal contexts that characterize daily life through the deep integration of innovative scientific measurement with fine-grained analysis of Buddhist constructs. In various ways, Buddhist philosophers point to the painful nature of experiencing oneself as an autonomous, independent agent, and they promote the benefits of experiencing oneself as a contingent person embedded in multiple, overlapping contexts. They likewise propose an array of contemplative practices integrated with philosophy that seek to lead practitioners to the maximal state of flourishing embodied by an “Awakened One” or Buddha. Two key virtues characterize a Buddha: wisdom and compassion. Wisdom consists in “seeing things as they are” (Skt., yathābhūtadarśana). As an ordinary being, one is said to be caught in the grips of “ignorance” (Skt. avidyā), whereby one is deluded about the nature of reality, especially the nature of one’s own identity. By cultivating wisdom, an ordinary being can come to see that one’s sense of autonomous agency and independence are illusory, and the full development of this realization leads to the endpoint that is Buddhahood. Compassion is a form of engagement with the world that is focused entirely on relieving others’ suffering and ensuring their happiness. This other-oriented style of engagement replaces the self-focused engagement of the ordinary being, and along with wisdom, it constitutes the state of Buddhahood.

The Buddhist traditions that inspire this project claim that ordinary beings already possess the core constituents of Buddhahood. Thus, achieving maximal flourishing does not require one to construct or acquire new virtues; instead, one cultivates core human capacities that are already present, if sometimes only to a slight degree, in all humans. Thus, inchoate forms of wisdoms and compassion can be understood as dispositions that are already present in varying degrees in humans. A second important claim is that the primary context in which virtue emerges is interpersonal relationships. As the influential Buddhist author Śāntideva says, “It is on the basis of other sentient beings that one achieves Awakening”. In other words, the field of interpersonal relationships is where the virtues that become Buddhahood are primarily expressed, and it is also where they are primarily developed.

To examine these ideas, this research team used experience sampling methodologies in which partners in a romantic relationship responded to a series of question on their own mobile device when alerted by a smartphone application during their daily life. Using this method, participants responded to a series of questions designed to indirectly assess inchoate forms of wisdom and compassion. The team also assessed interpersonal flourishing through self-reported relationship satisfaction in daily life and during various lab tasks, partner-directed prosocial behaviors measured in the lab, and physiological activity at rest and during relationship interactions. These paradigms provide objective measures that have been tied to relationship outcomes in previous studies. These data will evaluate the relationship between key Buddhist virtues, prosocial action, and flourishing. In the long-term, this work bears significantly on Buddhist theoretical claims and has the potential to impact the implementation of contemplative interventions in society, especially those geared toward close relationships.

Significant Research Accomplishments

Aim 1: Theory paper. The team’s primary goal stated for Year 1 involved time dedicated to deep integration and producing an original theoretical manuscript that bridged Buddhist philosophy and psychological science. This manuscript provides an overview of the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist perspective on the role of wisdom and compassion in human flourishing and develops the new contributions that this perspective makes to the science of virtue and the science of close relationships. The manuscript was accepted for publication in the SMV Project’s special issue of the Journal of Moral Education (forthcoming).

Aim 2 and Aim 3: Experience Sampling and Predicting Prosocial Action and Flourishing. The primary goal stated for Year 2 involved the implementation of data collection for our empirical project, data analysis for empirical manuscripts, and preparation for submission of empirical paper(s). The team accomplished several of these goals, and made progress toward completion of remaining goals.

The project team completed the development of a new experience sampling app, in February 2017, and began collecting data shortly thereafter. From March 2017 through July 2017, the team collected complete data sets from 53 couples (106 participants), who each completed two laboratory visits and an intensive experience sampling protocol (encompassing 64 surveys across eight days). Overall, the retention rate was excellent (less than 5% of couples dropped out of the study) for a study of this magnitude.

The team conducted additional follow-up surveys on those couples in January 2018 (to assess relationship status and quality). 85% of the original sample (n=90) completed the follow-up survey, which will allow the team to assess whether our measures of wisdom and compassion in the original project predicted flourishing over the long term. Many couples from the original study remain in relationship, but some ended their relationship. This variation will help the team determine if their measures of wisdom and compassion predicted the outcome of the relationship.

The grant enabled the team to devote significant time to deep integration that resulted in important theoretical contributions. The theoretical integration of Buddhist philosophy and psychological science has received considerable attention in previous scholarship, but this project allowed the team, for the first time, to highlight the fact that mindfulness and compassion are often studied in isolation. Here, they revealed that the integration of the two is key to flourishing. In addition to this theoretical development, the project team carried out a complex, multi-methodological experiment that involved measures of dyadic psychophysiology, intensive experience sampling, and real-world interpersonal behavior among couples in romantic relationships. Finally, the team has amassed a rich and unique data set that will make important empirical contributions.


  • Condon, P. (May 2018). The science and practice of mindfulness and compassion. Continuing Education Workshop prepared for the Eastern Oregon Psychological Association. Wallowa Lake, OR.
  • Dunne, J. (November 2017). Constructing emotion for action in the world: A Buddhist perspective. National Meeting of the American Academy of Religion.
  • Condon, P. (June 2017). Building stronger ties through wisdom and compassion. Invited presentation at the 2nd Self, Motivation, and Virtue conference, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK.
  • Condon, P. (April 2017). Compassion and science: Integration, evidence, and questions. Invited presentation at the 22nd Annual Festival of Faiths, Center for Interfaith Relations, Louisville, KY. (See presentation on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ROcKiVPGKA and follow-up discussion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nCDRTIi3MTE)
  • Condon, P. (January, 2017). Forces for good: Compassion, meditation, and social connectivity. Invited presentation at the Department of Psychology, Southern Oregon University, Ashland, OR.
  • Lavelle, B., Condon, P., Dunne, J., Makransky, J., & Coan, J. (November 2016). Meaning and method: Scientific and contemplative perspectives on compassion. Panel presentation at the International Symposium for Contemplative Studies, San Diego, CA.
  • Wilson-Mendenhall, C. D., Condon, P., & Dunne, J. (May 2016). Self, desire, and virtue in romantic relationships: A novel integration of Buddhist philosophy and relationship science. Invited presentation at the 1st Self, Motivation, and Virtue conference, University of Notre Dame, South Bend, IN.
  • Dunne, J. (Feb 2016). Zen Brain: The Extended Mind—Perspectives from Buddhism and Cognitive Science. Upaya Zen Center, Santa Fe, NM. Podcast available athttp://www.upaya.org/dharmatalks
  • Wilson-Mendenhall, C. D. (Feb 2016). Constructing affective experience. Invited talk at the Center for Healthy Minds, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI.
  • Wilson-Mendenhall, C. D. (Dec 2015). Concepts in mind (Emerging Dialogue Between Young Western Scientific Scholars and Monastic Scholars). Invited talk at the Mind and Life Dialogues with Dalai Lama: Foundational Issues in Cognitive Science from Contemporary and Buddhist Perspectives, Bylakuppe, India. Online program: https://www.mindandlife.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/2015-SERA-Brochure-Web.pdf

Publications & Manuscripts

  • Wilson-Mendenhall, C.D., Condon, P., & Dunne, J. (under review). Virtue in context: Flourishing in the situations of everyday life. Invited book chapter for SMV edited volume.
  • Condon, P., Dunne, J., & Wilson-Mendenhall, C.D. (in press). Wisdom and compassion: A new perspective on the science of relationships. Journal of Moral Education.


2015 IMF