By Kate Stanley
Photos by Darin Back
Valerie Tiberius is all about happiness. A philosophy professor, she's spent years describing happiness and exploring the circumstances that produce it.
For her—for all of us—happiness is a substanial concept. In the United States, the pursuit of happiness is a right. Happiness drives personal relationships and serious politics. For lack of happiness, people hate and fight each other, and nations get swept into the black hole of war and ethnic conflict.
Some years back, having pondered the views of the ancients and of her contemporaries on the subject, Tiberius, the philosopher, took a rather unorthodox leap. She started swapping notes with psychologists. The venture acquainted her with the field of positive psychology, whose practitioners have spent decades investigating what makes people happy (and what doesn't) and how well (or poorly) people know themselves.
This inquiry led to her book The Reflective Life: Living Wisely Within Our Limits (Oxford University Press), which invokes empirical psychology in considering what makes for a good life, or happiness. She continued her work with the University of Chicago's acclaimed Defining Wisdom project, which is funded by the John Templeton Foundation. It helps philosophers like Tiberius, as well as psychologists, linguists, computer scientists, pharmacists, and other scholars investigate wisdom, its benefits, how to cultivate it, and how to apply it.
But Tiberius found that psychology's findings about happiness don't add up to a recipe for living well; some philosophy is in order. This is, she says, because "it partly depends on how one defines happiness"—a philosophical question. There is a difference between experiencing pleasure, and the happiness one associates with "a good life"—what the Greeks called eudaimonia.
Not that Tiberius knows what's best for the rest of us. That's a decision we must make for ourselves. "Most of us would like to be able to look back at how we've lived and honestly say that we did our best with what life dealt us," she's written. "[T]here are some things we can do to meet the goal of living a life that we can review with satisfaction--and this is the domain of wisdom."
Associate professor of Philosophy
In her office, Heller Hall
Photo by Darin Back
But what is wisdom? Her conclusion thus far is that wisdom is not purely cerebral. It merges rational and emotional intelligence. So our best tool for reaching wise conclusions is reflection, Tiberius says—but the right kind, and not too much. According to psychological research, human beings aren't terribly good at it.
"The rational self," she says, "makes inaccurate predictions about what we'll find satisfying, is plagued by biases, and has a tendency to distraction. When we try to be reflective about our choices, we end up confused about our reasons, and we choose things we don't ultimately like."
In the end, Tiberius urges not that we reflect more, but rather that we reflect wisely.
It's a formidable undertaking, of course, to reach into a folk concept like wisdom and pull out a list of its parts. Her approach is, with the help of two graduate students, to look into practices and ideas—ranging from values clarification and mindfulness to cognitive behavior therapy and emotional intelligence—that appear connected with wisdom.
Her work is significant because it explores a radically new tool people can use to make their lives happier and help them get along together—a new way to imagine ethics. Traditional ethics are based on principles that align with outcomes like good and evil, right and wrong. But Tiberius imagines an ethic based on using wise process to make decisions.
She knows this is a project of a lifetime, or two, or three. That doesn't bother her. "I often ask myself," she says, "what our culture would be like if we didn't have people asking these questions. Answering is important, but maybe not as important as asking.
"I think some of these philosophical questions—about what it means to have a good life, what it is to flourish, what it means to be wise—aren't really meant to have final answers."
>> Kate Stanley, B.A.'80, is a Minneapolis journalist. She was editor-in-chief of the Minnesota Daily from 1979 to 1980.