ITHACA, N.Y. – A grant from the John Templeton Foundation will fund a new research project called “Hope and Optimism: Conceptual and Empirical Investigations,” to be co-directed by Cornell philosophy professor Andrew Chignell and Notre Dame philosopher Samuel Newlands.
The three-year interdisciplinary effort will explore the theoretical, empirical and practical dimensions of hope, optimism, and related states by supporting new research in the social sciences, philosophy, and religion.
“Grants of this size in the humanities are unusual,” said Chignell, associate professor in Cornell’s Susan Linn Sage School of Philosophy. “Grants that range across the humanities and social sciences and are shared between two universities are extremely rare. So this is an exciting project that offers new opportunities for everyone involved.”
Newlands, the William J. and Dorothy K. O’Neill Collegiate Associate Professor of Philosophy in Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters and co-director of the Center for Philosophy of Religion, agreed: “I am very excited about this project. There are not a lot of topics in academia that have such broad appeal and invite careful, specialized research at the same time.
The $3.8 million research grant from the Templeton Foundation is the largest received by the philosophy departments of the universities to date, according to Chignell. With additional funding from Cornell and Notre Dame, the cost of the collaborative venture will total $4.5 million.
Grant activities will include three separate research initiatives (social sciences, philosophy, and philosophy of religion) with residential and non-residential fellowships for faculty, post-docs, and grad students. Many of the visiting fellows will be hosted by Cornell’s Program in Ethics and Public Life.
The grant will also sponsor a weeklong collaborative conference for all grant participants in the summer of 2016, as well as other major conferences, publications, and a series of workshops and other informal collaborations.
As part of an effort to reach out beyond academia, the grant will also provide $60,000 in funding for playwriting and amateur video competitions. Selection criteria will include both artistic merits and success in depicting hope and/or optimism in an innovative and compelling way.
The grant will sponsor the premiere of the winning play in Ithaca, NY, and will make the winning videos available on the project website.
Hope and optimism play fundamental roles in human psychology, said Chignell. “Let’s suppose hope involves the belief that something you desire is really possible, and perhaps a willingness to act in certain ways given that belief and desire,” he said. “It’s clear that hope of this sort —the belief that at least some of the things you desire have not been ruled out — is essential to our psychological health and ability to keep going. But we’re interested in taking the analysis further, and in making connections to some of the big questions in epistemology, ethics, action theory, economics, and the philosophy of history.”
According to Chignell and Newlands, numerous studies have shown significant correlations between optimism and overall physical and psychological well-being, but more research on their nature and sources is needed.
“Optimists tend to have longevity, be very healthy, have great life satisfaction, and be successful. And this is holding fixed for economic, religious, and socio-status measures,” said Newlands.
The project will involve an advisory board of scholars and scientists, including Cornell professors Hirokazu Miyazaki (anthropology) and David Pizarro (psychology). A planning workshop in 2013 brought together many of these leaders to discuss recent research.
“For the last decade hope has become a significant subject of social scientific investigation,” said Miyazaki. “The ‘Hope and Optimism’ project will offer a truly integrative approach to this notoriously slippery and yet profoundly crucial aspect of humanity.”
Michael Scheier, professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, attended the workshop and looks forward to further work on the initiative. “The hope and optimism project promises to facilitate interaction between scholars and researchers of diverse disciplines to further our understanding of optimism and hope in significant ways,” he said.