Experience sampling (or EMA) enables a more three-dimensional, life-like picture of the relationship between virtue and flourishing.
Over the past several years a number of “virtues” have been positively related to a flourishing life—or, that is, to a deeply fulfilling, well-lived life of health and growth, physical and psychological. This connection shouldn’t be surprising given that, according to certain traditional definitions (importantly including Aristotle’s), virtues are morally-relevant, stable characteristics that flourishing people have. They are stable characteristics that contribute to—and increase the probability of—a full life of health and growth, physical and psychological.
Up to this point, most psychological research relating virtues and flourishing have been one-dimensional. Most studies relate peoples’ scores on a virtue questionnaire and their scores on a flourishing questionnaire. So, for example, higher degrees of gratitude, hope or kindness have been correlated with flourishing (e.g., Kesebir and Diener 2014).
Experience sampling (or EMA) provides a way of uncovering another dimension to the relationship between virtues and flourishing. How? By enabling us to assess not just:
- the degree to which a person expresses a virtue,
- the variability with which they express a virtue,
across daily life. So, for instance, instead of just learning whether a person is, generally-speaking, moderately grateful, hopeful or kind, we can also learn whether they have dramatic swings in their gratefulness, hopefulness or kindness. We can also learn about the situations that may influence these swings. And we can learn similar things about flourishing. In doing this, we can see how:
- both the degree of, and variability in, virtue expression
relates to the
- degree of, and variability in, flourishing
throughout day-to-day life, and across day-to-day situations.
Here are the possibilities concerning how a person may express a virtue across daily life:
|Variability in expression|
|Degree of virtue expression||High degree of expression, Low variability||High degree of expression, High variability|
|Low degree of expression, Low variability||Low degree of expression, High variability|
If Aristotle and those who have followed his lead are correct, as people gravitate toward the upper left quadrant of the table above (in bold), the likelihood and extent to which they flourish should increase. Experience sampling, by adding the “variability” dimension to the study of virtues, allows us to further test this in everyday life. In the process, we are sure to gain a deeper understanding of the relationship between virtues and flourishing.
Three questions readily come to mind, which experience sampling can help us address:
- What is the time course for virtue expression—or stability in this expression—in relation to flourishing across daily life?
- What life conditions must be in place for virtues & flourishing to be positively related?
- What, if anything, mediates the relationship between virtues and flourishing in everyday life?
Addressing these questions will help us gain a more three-dimensional, life-like picture of the relationship between virtue and flourishing. Addressing these questions will also allow us to delve deeper into the causal nature of this relationship.
Aristotle. (2011). Eudemian Ethics. Trans. A. Kenny (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Fleeson, W., and Noftle, E. (2008). The end of the person–situation debate: an emerging synthesis in the answer to the consistency question. Social and Personality Psychology Compass 2: 1667–1684.
Fowers, B. J. (2012). An Aristotelian framework for the human good. Journal of Theoretical Philosophy and Psychology 32: 10-23.
Kesebir and Diener. (2014). “The virtues cycle: The relationship between happiness and virtue.” In N. Snow and F. Trivigno (Eds.) The Philosophy and Psychology of Character and Happiness (London: Routledge).
Peterson, C., Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification (New York: Oxford University Press).
Runyan, J., Steinke, E. (2015). Virtues, Ecological momentary assessment/intervention and smartphone technology. Frontiers in Psychology.