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Nov 2, 2021

A Fearless Mind and a Bright Future: Uncovering the Ingredients for Adolescent Flourishing

What does it mean for youth to flourish? How can we better understand adolescent flourishing in cross-cultural contexts, in relation to gender, or as a component of generational differences?

By Jamie Humphrey, Rebecca Tiessen, Melani O’Leary, Judy White, Carol Henry

This post is the fourth 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.

When 18-year-old Sompa Rani Roy from Bangladesh was asked what is necessary to feel happy and to achieve her dreams, she shared that her inspiration comes from her peers, parents, teachers and community. She also pointed to two crucial ingredients required for adolescent flourishing: “a fearless mind and a bright future.”

Sompa’s insights shed light on her personal experiences but also expose an important gap in our knowledge about youth expressions or experiences of human flourishing. While these ingredients may share similarities for positive futures elsewhere, little is known about how youth define happiness and wellbeing and how they imagine ‘the good life.’

What does it mean for youth to flourish and how can we better understand adolescent flourishing in cross-cultural contexts, in relation to gender, or as a component of generational differences? These are some of the questions we are addressing in our exploration of adolescent flourishing.


Understanding Adolescent Flourishing
In order to support adolescents in their pursuit of flourishing, our team believes we must not only measure the barriers to progress and well-being but also the positive enablers that support agency, autonomy, and empowerment. Given the diversity of expressions of flourishing, we need to expand our knowledge in cross-cultural contexts beyond psychological and behavioral research produced by and with WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) populations. Research that is dominated by a WEIRD perspective often implicitly assumes there is little variation across diverse global populations, making broad claims about the human experience. While there may be an abundance of existing flourishing research available, its predominantly narrow worldview limits its potential for far-reaching relevance, particularly in contexts where conflict, chronic stress, and poverty are prevalent. 

We need adolescent flourishing frameworks that listen to and amplify the voices of youth and incorporate their diverse perspectives. This will enable future researchers and community practitioners to understand what is required for youth to thrive, make strides towards equality, and facilitate a more positive adolescent experience for those most vulnerable.

In partnership with communities in Northern Canada and Uganda, we are developing a conceptual framework that will guide our shared understanding of how physical, mental, spiritual, and social dimensions of wellbeing intersect to express flourishing. Our work captures the dynamics between individuals and society, focusing on the relationship between structural oppression and individual agency. We know that peers, family, community, and other societal groups can all play significant roles in promoting or limiting the ability of youth to make decisions that they value. So too can cultural and gender norms, socioeconomic status, or various identities such as Indigeneity and citizenship status, sexuality, (dis)ability status, education level, and so on. Through a lens of intersectionality, we must also pay close attention to the multidimensionality of youth experiences in order to understand the unique barriers and enablers of flourishing.

Pictured Left to Right: 16-year old Isabelle, works on math equations on the blackboard her parents installed at the entrance to the new home they are building in Kisaro, Rwanda. Photography credit: Jon Warren; “I feel like football has made me stronger. Football makes me the happiest. When I play, I don’t think about anything else, I just concentrate. When I go to school, I can concentrate better too,” says 18-year-old Dina from South Sudan. Photography credit: Mark Nonkes.

How can we do this most effectively?
We need to actively engage youth in the data collection process as co-researchers. There is no one better placed to tell their stories and define their wellbeing than youth themselves. 

“We, as children and young people, investigate topics that matter to us; we look for the reasons and causes, and with this information we provide ideas for solutions and recommendations.” - Amal, age 16, Lebanon

Our approach responds to some of the challenges experienced in the global development community related to meaningful youth participation and limited long-term success of youth-centered interventions, including an overall lack of relevant tools to evaluate youth inclusion efforts. It also aligns with Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) which recognizes the participatory rights of youth, including the right to express a view and the right to have that view given due weight. To truly foster an adolescent-led framework, innovations in research on flourishing require methodologies that are participatory. Our team will ground our approach in community-based participatory research, employing methods such as photovoice, focus groups, and online discussion forums to provide opportunities to more fully engage with youth as co-researchers. In addition to their active participation in data collection, youth will also be involved in the governance, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation of our research.

We also recognize that age intersects with gender to create uniquely challenging experiences for adolescent girls. Patriarchal gender roles restrict the agency, opportunities, aspirations, and social networks of young girls to a far greater extent than boys. In an attempt to understand these gendered dynamics, our work adopts a gender-transformative framework. This is an approach that shifts beyond a single focus on individuals. Instead, our research looks more broadly to the transformation of power dynamics and structural challenges that reinforce gender inequalities. For us this means understanding the cultural and gender norms that impact youth agency, recognizing who are the gatekeepers in the community, and identifying opportunities to challenge discrimination.

Our research in Uganda will allow youth to share their experiences of flourishing, the challenges they have encountered and the opportunities for addressing systemic barriers. In Canada, Indigenous communities are actively engaged in addressing systemic inequities and are drawing on cultural strengths and traditions to transform their communities. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, along with the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action also provide recommendations for addressing the multiple inequities experienced by Indigenous peoples in Canada and elsewhere in the world. Listening to — and learning from —Indigenous youth offers an important pathway towards reconciliation and social justice. This is what is meant by transformative change. It’s meaningful, long-term shifts in levels of empowerment, agency, autonomy, and flourishing on a structural level.

Adolescent Flourishing at a Pivotal Moment
In a stage of life marked by an increased level of physical and psychological changes, adolescents around the world are forced to endure increasing levels of inequality as they prepare to inherit a world marked by worsening global crises. Many of the remarkable challenges contributing to experiences of chronic adversity for adolescents have been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change. For example, extreme poverty is on the rise for the first time in 22 years and unemployment rates have skyrocketed, especially for adolescents. World hunger hit a 15-year high in 2020 and nearly 24 million children and youth are at risk of being unable to return to school. Adolescents, especially girls, are facing an increasing risk of sexual and gender-based violence which further increases the danger of experiencing unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, and emotional trauma, changing the trajectories of their lives forever.

In the midst of these immense global challenges, a focus on adolescents is particularly critical. Throughout adolescence, youth are living in “waithood,” a liminal space between childhood and adulthood where they are largely excluded from socioeconomic institutions and political processes. And yet, adolescents feel the impact of their political, social, economic, and environmental realities affecting their lives every day. Contemporary global crises require careful attention to the distinct experiences of diverse populations, genders, and other drivers of intersectionality.

Despite the challenges of adolescence, it is important not to assume it is strictly a period of vulnerability. In fact, adolescence is also a life stage of opportunity that warrants great optimism. Equating poverty with languishing overlooks the diversity of happiness and further entrenches Western dominance in conceptualizations of flourishing.

After infancy, adolescence is the second most dynamic period of brain development. Following positive youth development theory, when viewed as a strength, this stage of rapid development provides ample opportunity for positive growth and enrichment. When nourished with growth-promoting resources, youth develop the “five C’s” - competence, confidence, connection, character, and caring. Equipped with these internal resources, youth are more likely to experience positive relationships within their peer networks, families, communities, and with themselves.

Adolescence is also a crucial time for challenging current norms and values. They are developing capacity for problem-solving, embarking on the quest for purpose in life, demonstrating curiosity, and have the potential to foster resiliency and resistance to injustices. This suggests a promising level of receptivity to flourishing frameworks.

With a current global youth population of 1.8 billion accounting for the largest generation of youth in history, the time to prioritize adolescent flourishing is now. Failing to invest in the flourishing of adolescents jeopardizes the progress of previous investments in maternal and child health, erodes future quality and length of life, and exacerbates suffering, inequalities, and social instabilities. However, as a global community, we have the power to alter the course. With investments in adolescent flourishing, we can support youth efforts to lead healthy and happy lives, as defined by them. In doing so, we hope to welcome far-reaching benefits today as well as for decades and generations to come.

Jamie Humphrey is an MA student at the University of Ottawa’s School of International Development and Global Studies where she is researching gender-transformative approaches to women’s empowerment. She holds a BA in Global Studies from Vancouver Island University.

Dr. Rebecca Tiessen, University of Ottawa, is a senior researcher in gender and development. Her research areas include gender analysis, feminist theory, feminist and participatory methodologies, women’s and girls’ empowerment, and youth civic engagement. 

Melani O’Leary, World Vision Canada, is a public health professional with over 15 years of experience designing, assessing and implementing international health and nutrition programs. With a specific focus on gender equality in nutrition and health programming, Melani is committed to achieve ¨health for all¨ by working with women and girls around the world, as agents of change.

Dr. Carol Henry, University of Saskatchewan, is a community engaged scholar, working with adolescents across multiple contexts in the Caribbean, Africa and Saskatchewan, Canada. She has led several successful projects in Sub-Saharan Africa aimed at scaling up agriculture-health delivery models to improve the livelihoods of small holder farmers and their households.

Dr. Judy White, University of Regina is a researcher with expertise in the areas of gender, mental health, social work, qualitative research and participatory arts, and community engagement.