Understanding the link between morality and happiness

Andrew Miles
Friday, October 5, 2018 - 9:30am
Sharon Aschaiek

We all know it feels good to help people in need. But do other types of principled behaviour also make us feel happy?

That’s what Andrew Miles wants to figure out with his new study, "Living Right, Feeling Good: The Effects of Moral Action on Positive Emotion", which recently won a Connaught Fund New Researcher Award of $35,000. The assistant professor of sociology wants to determine whether moral behaviours that aren’t care-based can also generate positive emotions. He says by better understanding the dynamics of moral living, society can do a better job of promoting mental health and well-being.

“There’s significant research on how care-based moral behaviour, such as doing something nice for a friend or donating to a charity, can make you feel good. But how do the other dynamics of morality shape the way we live and our emotions?” Miles says.

Miles explains how the idea of what constitutes morality has evolved in human history: in earlier times, justice was viewed as the epitome of morality, and in recent years, prosocial behaviour such as caring for and helping others has become the dominant meaning. Such behaviour is understood to increase positive feelings because it meets our basic psychological needs for relationships, competence and autonomy, and because it garners social approval.

In reviewing the current body of research on the subject, Miles noticed significant gaps when it comes to what we know about other types of moral behaviour, and how it affects our pursuit of “the good life.” To address that gap, Miles is evaluating the impact of actions relating to two types of morality: loyalty – either to a nation or group – and purity, whether physical or metaphorical.

“What if someone feels like it’s morally important to show proper respect to authorities, or read a sacred text of their religion?” Miles says.

The study began with the initial stage of conducting various online surveys that assess how respondents think about the  care, loyal and purity forms of morality, and their level of commitment to these moral ideals. To learn whether moral behaviour is related to positive emotion, Miles will test whether those who engage in certain moral behaviours experience more positive emotion if they also endorse the relevant moral principle.

The final stage of the study will involve placing participants in one of three groups and asking them to recall a recent experience where they engaged care-, loyalty- or purity-based moral behaviour; there will also be a control group. Participants will describe the experience and report their levels of positive and negative emotion. They will also indicate the extent to which their actions fulfilled needs for relatedness, competence, autonomy and self-verification, or living up to the identity they’ve created for themselves.

For Miles, there are several benefits to better understanding moral behaviour. In academia, he says, it helps advance the discipline and allows scientists to pursue more relevant research. In society, it enables those working in health and wellness fields to provide more informed guidance to clients or patients about how to live a happy life. For the public, having a better handle on morality helps us better understand each other, and allows us to make better choices about the way we live our lives.

“Morality is a topic that most of us care deeply about, and many people get up in arms when they feel their moral values are being threatened,” Miles says. “By recognizing the diversity of moral commitments, it helps us better appreciate other’s opinions. It could also demonstrate that morality has a larger role to play in promoting emotional well-being than we previously thought.”