The Role of Virtuous Acts on Meaning in Life

Faculty Mentor(s)

Dr. Daryl R. Van Tongeren, Psychology

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Research has focused on how creating and maintaining a sense of meaning in life is humankind’s primary motivation (Heine, Proulx, & Vohs, 2006). These desires for meaning are assumed to reduce the existential anxiety that is derived from one’s awareness of their own mortality (Greenberg, Koole, & Pyszczynski, 2004; Pyszczynski, Greenberg, Koole, & Solomon, 2010). Research suggests that mortality salience can elicit greater prosocial behaviors (Jonas, Schimel, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 2002). Similarly, other research has found that prosocial or virtuous behavior is associated with meaning in life (Van Tongeren et al., 2016). The purpose of this research is to examine the degree to which a virtue intervention may provide a sense of well-being, religiosity and meaning in life. In this two-week longitudinal virtue intervention (instructing participants to commit to acting virtuously for the next two weeks), undergraduate participants completed measures of meaning in life, well-being, and religiosity. Participants were then randomly assigned to one of two conditions: (1) participants were asked to commit to acting as virtuously as possible in all of their daily interactions for the following two weeks (virtuous condition; VC), or (2) participants were asked to commit to being fully present in all of their daily interactions (present condition; PC). Data were collected at baseline (T1), one week later (T2= 7 days after T1), and two weeks later (T3= 14 days after T1). Accordingly, participants completed these follow up surveys by indicating how virtuously (VC) or fully present (PC) they acted during the week. Participants then completed the same prior measures on meaning in life, well-being, and religiosity. We predict that those assigned to the virtue intervention—being instructed to act more virtuously—will report greater meaning in life after T3 than at T1 and in comparison to those who acted fully present. Data collection is ongoing (N~80; target N=100) and we plan to use multilevel modeling in our analysis of the data. This research will help us better understand the ways in which virtuous behaviors affect well-being, as well as identify potential experimental and clinical interventions to increase virtue, and, in turn, enhance meaning in life.


This work is supported by The John Templeton Foundation.

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