Self-obsessed people who just can’t “get over themselves” hardly sound like a subject worthy of academic research. But Candace Vogler, from the University of Chicago, and Jennifer Frey, from the University of South Carolina, disagree.
The importance of “getting over yourself”—or self-transcendence—is key to their major 28-month project on virtue, happiness, and the meaning of life. The research proposal received a $2.1-million grant from the John Templeton Foundation and unites a team of around 20 international scholars, working in philosophy, religion, and psychology.
Vogler tells Quartz that the inspiration for the project came from noticing how many privileged people seemed dissatisfied with their lives. “There was a hollowed-out place in the middle of their life where some purpose or happiness was supposed to be,” she says.
And Vogler has an intuition, shaped partly by the work of Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century medieval philosopher, that self-transcendence is a key to understanding that hollowness.
“I think the biggest difference between people who are okay with the life they’ve built and people who are not is that you have to kind of get over yourself,” says Vogler. “There’s lots of anecdotal evidence to show that people devoted to self-advancement, self-expression, self-actualization, authenticity, major ambitions—people who are too wrapped up in themselves and their immediate families—are not inhabiting a big enough world for human good.”
The concept of self-transcendence has not received sufficient attention in philosophy, says Frey, and is far more prominent in both religious theology and psychology. And so the project will aim to unite the work in these three fields. “One of my deepest conviction is if there’s a question worth thinking about, it’s worth thinking about it in more than one way,” adds Vogler.
Much of the philosophical groundwork comes from Aquinas, a figure who is relatively under-studied in philosophy, in part because of his focus on God. But Frey and Vogler believe that, even for those who don’t share Aquinas’s religious views, his ideas are hugely important. For while Aristotle set out the importance of virtue, Aquinas expanded on the notion of self-transcendence.
Aristotle believes that for any living thing to flourish, it should be the “fullest realization of its potentiality,” Frey tells Quartz. Just as an oak tree has fully realized the potential of an acorn, humans can become fully realized by developing certain virtues—such as courage, wisdom, justice, and temperance. “If you don’t cultivate these virtues, it’ll ruin your life,” says Frey. “You need virtues to live well and achieve potential.”
But this idea, which seems to reduce the importance of virtue to self-improvement, has certain selfish qualities. “Aquinas is more attuned to the idea that the benefits of virtue can’t be reduced to measures of individual personal well-being,” she adds. “Aquinas thinks being happy and living a good life is about getting over yourself. That cultivating virtue is being able to see that a good life is, in really important ways, about looking outward and not being worried about whether it’s good for you.”
This is where the idea of “getting over yourself” becomes worthy of serious philosophical contemplation. “If you really want to be participating fully in the kind of good there is for human beings in your life,” Vogler says, “you need to have a life that’s connected to something bigger and better than you are.”