Nov 16, 2021

Against the Odds: Flourishing Despite Adversity

Multidisciplinary lenses and mixed methods expand flourishing science to include those who thrive amidst difficulties.

By Deborah Carr

This post is the sixth in a series from the 11 Awardees of the Templeton World Charity Foundation's Grand Challenges for Human Flourishing. The Foundation is investing US $60 million to grow the field of human flourishing to encompass scientific research, practice, and policy. Check back as we launch further requests for proposals under this important rubric.

Is flourishing possible “against the odds?” Can people achieve happiness, a deep sense of purpose, personal and spiritual growth, and affirming social bonds—even against a backdrop of political turmoil, economic distress, geographic displacement, social isolation, racial or religious oppression, and serious illness? 

At the October 11, 2021 webinar “Human Flourishing through Adversity,” I had the privilege of discussing and debating these urgent questions with Dr. Shigehiro Oishi, a personality and social psychologist at University of Virginia, and Dr. David Addiss, director and founder of The Task Force for Global Health’s Focus Area for Compassion and Ethics. Our conversation was sparked by our shared observation that human flourishing has its conceptual roots in positive psychology, an academic subfield which has been critiqued because of its focus on individual-level traits and strengths rather than macrosocial and community- or network-level resources. Methodologically, research on flourishing has focused largely on people and populations that can be characterized as “WEIRD” (Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic.) Drs. Oshi, Addiss, and I shared an animated conversation about ways to expand and refocus the paradigm, by integrating persons living under adverse conditions in which flourishing may appear elusive, if not impossible. 

A major theme that emerged from our conversation was the recognition that multidisciplinary lenses and mixed methods are needed to truly understand flourishing, its roots, obstacles, and supports. My Boston University collaborators and I are taking on this mission, and are using methods including population surveys, digital ethnography, qualitative interviewing and emic mapping approaches to generate distinctive yet complementary insights into the meaning, measurement, experience, and sources of flourishing amidst adversity. For example, Catherine Caldwell-Harris (Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences) is carrying out a thematic analysis of online discussion boards maintained by women with autism. This textual analysis of sites like Twitter and Reddit is revealing the ways that women who suffer the stigma of neurodivergence flourish through creative pursuits, and what they call their “superpowers” like meticulous attention to detail and an unwavering commitment to honesty that allow them to thrive in solitary employment settings.

Jonathan Zaff (Wheelock College of Education and Human Development) is carrying out in-depth interviews with juvenile justice-connected youth in Massachusetts. Through a mixed-methods approach, including in-depth interviews with these youth, Dr. Zaff is building off of his previous work in identifying factors that can lead to flourishing, revealing the power of webs of supportive relationships, formal school supports, and skill-building programs that help risk-immersed youth to thrive. Brenda Phillips (BU Lab for Contemplative Studies) also is carrying out in-depth interviews, adopting a community-based participatory approach to understand the experiences of low-income urban Black women with cancer. While Dr. Zaff’s research has revealed the power of a constellation of social supports to enhance flourishing, Dr. Phillips’ work points to the value of connectedness to nature, an experience which affords women an opportunity to feel empowered by contemplative practices, such as prayer, even as they suffer through their disease and invasive treatments.

Nicolette Manglos-Weber (BU School of Theology) is adopting a social ecology approach to understanding whether and how refugees can flourish, despite their past traumas and difficult relocation to the United States from Afghanistan, Haiti, Congo, Somalia, and other nations. By combining an emic mapping approach with in-depth interviews, Dr. Manglos-Weber is exploring not only the experiences of individual refugees, but the contextual factors like refugees’ concentration in particular neighborhoods and the community centers, religious congregations, and businesses that support their integration into U.S. society, and provide a foundation in which they may ultimately flourish. 

These in-depth explorations can cast light on both universal and idiosyncratic pathways to flourishing in four distinctive communities that have withstood considerable adversity. Alongside these rich and nuanced portrayals, we also are documenting the social patterning of flourishing in large population-based surveys such as the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS), in which we can evaluate levels of flourishing and psychological well-being among diverse subgroups of persons facing adversity, including those living in extreme poverty, persons with multiple chronic health conditions and functional impairments, victims of domestic violence, and more. By triangulating our methods, and considering a broad range of disciplinary vantage points—spanning developmental psychology, theology, epidemiology, sociology, and more—we hope to develop a new paradigm of flourishing amidst adversity, that encompasses individual-, network- and community-level supports. We are hopeful that our research findings will set the stage for the development of interventions, policies, and practices that will have a lasting impact on human flourishing. 

Deborah Carr is Professor of Sociology and Inaugural Director of the Center for Innovation in Social Science at Boston University.