You are here

The Recipe for Happiness

November 8, 2019

Valerie Tiberius (right) with Juliette Cherbuliez. Photo credit: David Ullman

“I think the recipe for well-being is value fulfillment. The specifics vary from person to person (more ‘salt’ for some, more ‘carrots’ for others) and the best cooks can adjust and improvise to put everything together in the best way... In my research, I’m exploring how we can help each other succeed in what matters to us so we can be happier humans and better friends.”

Valerie Tiberius, professor, and chair of the philosophy department has published extensively on well-being: what it means and how we value it. She believes that everyone has a personal recipe for well-being and that recognizing that can help you live a fulfilling life and be a better friend. She discusses how she developed her ideas, their influence on the way she teaches, and the ways in which they are proving to be useful to psychologists and psychiatrists. 

Could you explain your theory on well-being and fulfillment?

In the value-fulfillment theory, well-being, or a “good” human life, is achieved when you pursue and actualize, realize, or fulfill your values over time. Most people value things like family, friendships, meaningful work, skill development, and leisure activities. To live a good life is to succeed in doing those things—good relationships with your friends and family, work you enjoy and that uses your skills, and leisure activities that you like to do—and to fit those different values together in your life over time.

What first sparked your interest in this topic?

Trying to live my own life is what got me interested in this topic originally. I think everybody considers what it is to live a good life. Because I’m a philosopher, I'm probably more inclined to reflect on these questions. 

What drew me to the value-fulfillment approach, in particular, is questioning the desire satisfaction theory that’s really popular in philosophy and economics. The theory suggests basically that to live well is to get what you want. And I thought, well, there are lots of things I want that are not necessarily part of my well-being. For example, when I go to a place that has a big jar full of jelly beans, I really want there to be a popcorn-flavored Jelly Belly. That's not really part of a good life for me. It's just this silly, random little desire.

Well-being has to be about fulfilling things that are more important than just desires. And that's what got me thinking about people's values. I think people identify with their values—that if you ask someone about their values they will talk about those things that contribute to their well- being.

What do you hope others will gain from your work?

It depends on which other people. I work collaboratively with some psychologists, and I've been very interested in what's going on in psychological research on happiness and well-being. Some of the value-fulfillment ideas are helpful to psychologists. I think it helps make sense of the great variety of things that psychologists measure as part of well-being 

One of the ideas that I hope people take from reading my book or listening to a podcast about my work is the idea I developed about the importance of humility and friendship. One of the topics I talk about in that book is how to be a helpful friend. And to help another person pursue their values, humility becomes very important. 

It becomes very important to recognize that other people have different values from yours. And even when you have the same values as another person, you don't always interpret them in the same way. For example, for me, career success might mean becoming a professor and publishing a book. But for someone else, career success might mean climbing the ladder or making a lot of money. Most people value something to do with work, but people think about what it means to succeed in the work in different ways. 

If you want to be a helpful friend, it's really important to have some acknowledgment that there are these differences between us—and not just an acknowledgment, not just humility, about the differences, but also humility in your approach. That means you're not saying, "Oh, you value friendship, so you must value it exactly the way I do. And now I'm going to tell you what to do because I know everything about what it's like to be you." 

One of the most important things that I've learned from this work is that humility makes friendships better. And I hope that's one of the things other people get out of it as well.

How does your research influence your teaching?

A lot of people who teach Introduction to Ethics jump right into moral theories and talk about “the right thing to do.” Instead, I spend the whole first half of the course on well-being and happiness. Is a happy life a life of pleasure? Is a happy life the life in which you get everything you want? Is happiness just freedom from suffering? We talk about Buddhism a bit and the Stoic philosophy. I find students really like it. At the end of the semester, students say, “You know, I thought I knew what happiness was. I thought it was obvious. And then I found out that there are all these different theories about it.” It gets them thinking.

What does your research process look like?

In the book-writing process, you might expect to find me sitting at the computer with coffee. Actually there is some action because I have a treadmill desk at home; sometimes I am walking while I am typing. However, writing is a big part of the process in philosophy—writing and rewriting and reading things—synthesizing lots of information in a clear, logical, organized way. There's a tremendous amount of information from the 2000-year history of philosophy, and now we’re also coming at these subjects from psychology, anthropology, economics—all over the map. It's important to learn as much as I can about what's happening in other academic environments, in other academic programs and research, and there are different ways of doing that. 

I find that talking to the researchers is an efficient way of getting up to speed and finding out what else there is to know besides what I know as a philosopher. I seek out interdisciplinary conferences. I try to go to Melissa Koenig’s weekly lab meeting at the Institute for Child Development. I meet with other UMN psychologists and just talk to them—you know, buy a psychologist a beer and find out what they think about personality or what they think about happiness. I'm involved in international organizations that bring scholars from different topics together on these topics of well-being and happiness. 

All of that infuses what I’m thinking so that when I go to sit at my desk and write, I'm informed by that broader perspective. 

Can you point to a pivotal point or any surprising things in your research?

In my earlier research, I was very much focused on the individual person and how to live your own life. It's probably because I was young and thinking about myself, my life, and how I lived it. Because that was my focus, it was very individualistic. The more you live, the more you recognize how dependent we are on each other, so my thinking has shifted to topics like friendship.  

And the surprise came as I worked more with the psychologists, especially Colin DeYoung here in the Department of Psychology. I had always thought that things that are values—like well-being—are something that's good. I'd always thought it's not possible to give a fully psychological explanation of that thing because I thought there's a difference between the facts and the values, and we have to preserve that division. 

The more I talked to psychologists, especially Colin, about how similar our theories were and how much they overlapped, the more surprising I found the results. I am not sure how to think about the division between facts and values. It's not that I think now there's no division between facts and values. I still think there is. But I think it's a lot more complicated and there's a lot more overlap than I thought before. I know I need a different answer to that question now. And that's been surprising because I thought I had it all figured out in grad school.

Can you share any examples or stories you uncovered in your research that show why it's important to study this topic?

More than a decade ago The Reflective Life was published. I had a lot of nice emails from therapists who said, “Your book is really helpful to us and to what we're doing and how we're trying to help our patients.” 

Well-Being as Value Fulfillment has led to a long exchange with a professor of psychiatry in Texas, who said, (to paraphrase) “This book is really useful for us, because we are trying to think about how our patients have different values from us, the therapists, and we need to negotiate these differences between their values and our values. We're supposed to be neutral, but what does that mean?” 

I have written about how to help friends. I'm not talking about a therapeutic relationship. As any woman knows, friendships—close friendships—are often therapeutic when people have serious problems. So, this psychiatrist really thought the work was helpful in thinking about how therapists should engage with their patients. I'm excited about that. 

How do you see your research evolving from here? What are you looking forward to?

I want to address what my approach to well-being has to say about "ill-being." I want to turn from happiness to suffering—which doesn't sound like a lot of fun. But there are interesting philosophical questions about what it is for life to go really badly—can a life ever be so bad that it's not worth living? I'm interested to see whether the value-fulfillment approach transfers to the bad side of life. 

I also want to keep pursuing collaborative projects with psychologists. Colin and I have been working together on a theory that merges his empirical theory of personality with my value-fulfillment theory of well-being. I also have a colleague at George Mason University, Lauren Kuykendall, who's looking at applying my theory to work-life balance questions in industrial-organizational psychology. It's exciting to think about how the theory I've developed can feed into the work that psychologists are doing.

If you could have the answer to any question you are pursuing in your research, what would it be?

There are a bunch of little questions about ill-being about which I'd like the answers. For example: Is there a zero point? How does ill-being work? Is it on a scale? Do you do better, less-better, less-well and even less-well, until you're really doing badly? Or is there a switch that flips and from this point up, you're doing well, and from this point down, you're doing badly? Is there an answer? I mean to figure it out.