$4.5M project focuses on hope and optimism

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Syl Kacapyr
Andrew Chignell

A  $3.8 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation will fund “Hope and Optimism: Conceptual and Empirical Investigations,” a new research project co-directed by Cornell philosophy professor Andrew Chignell and University of Notre Dame’s Samuel Newlands, associate professor of philosophy.

With additional funding from Cornell and Notre Dame, the cost of the collaborative venture will total $4.5 million. 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.”

The grant is the largest received by the philosophy departments of the universities to date, according to Chignell. It will fund three research initiatives (social sciences, philosophy and philosophy of religion) with residential and non-residential fellowships for faculty, postdoctoral researchers and graduate students. Many of the visiting fellows will be hosted by Cornell’s Program in Ethics and Public Life.

Chignell receives fellowship to study hope

Associate professor of philosophy Andrew Chignell has received a 2014 Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies for his project, “Hope at the Intersection of Philosophy and Psychology.”

The fellowship, funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, supports scholars embarking on large-scale research projects at critical stages in their academic careers. Burkhardt Fellows spend an academic year at one of the 13 national residential research centers participating in the program; Chignell will work at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in 2015-16.

It will also sponsor a weeklong collaborative conference for grant participants in summer 2016, as well as other major conferences, publications and a series of workshops and 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 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 and make the winning videos available on the project website.

Hope and optimism play fundamental roles in human psychology, Chignell said. “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.”

While numerous studies have shown significant correlations between optimism and overall physical and psychological well being, more research on their nature and sources is needed, according to Chignell and Newlands.

“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 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.

The project’s advisory board includes Cornell professors Hirokazu Miyazaki (anthropology) and David Pizarro (psychology).  A 2013 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.”

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