Adobe Stock 363904890
Oct 26, 2021

How Can a Focus on Human Flourishing Accelerate Reaching the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals?

Towards a new field of research, policy, and practice focused on reaching human potential 

By Andrew Serazin, TWCF President

Over the coming months, Templeton World Charity Foundation will be publishing a series of articles with experts from a variety of academic fields exploring the relationship between the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and Human Flourishing research. This is the first article in that series.

In the winter of 2000, armed with my very first passport, I touched down on the red-dirt tarmac of Ouagadougou airport in Burkina Faso to begin a project on the evolution of malaria-carrying mosquitoes. The mission was to conduct a survey along a 500 kilometer line, stopping in every few villages to collect mosquitoes from around and inside people’s houses. My purpose was to embark upon a new kind of genetics research, and we used the same new technologies that fueled the genomics revolution in biology.  

This study held promise to understand the basic biology of the world’s deadliest animals and also set the stage for future tools to combat them. But also, our mission was clear: we were part of a greater social movement generated by the announcement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000. The MDGs galvanized activity across disparate fields and industries, including everyone from health workers to policymakers to researchers like myself. In the case of malaria research, we knew we contributed to MDG6 to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases. 

This surge of activity and collaboration would give birth to the field of global health. It happened, in large part, because the MDGs inspired people to take action and use their various gifts and talents. For me that meant using my love of science, data, and applying new technologies. For others, it meant advocating to generate more resources through efforts such as the United Nations Foundation’s Nothing But Nets campaign. And for others, like the  President’s Malaria Initiative, it meant using skills in logistics and organization to deliver much needed medicines. Now, twenty years later, a similar movement is growing from the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Since their adoption by the United Nations in 2015, the SDGs have served as a set of guiding principles for creating a better world. They include grand aspirations such as ending poverty and hunger, ensuring healthy lives and well-being for people, and making communities safe and sustainable by 2030. The SDGs are admirable, and there is little disagreement that they are worth pursuing. Yet achieving such high aims as ending poverty or averting climate change requires planning and action. It is much easier to express the goal than it is to achieve it. Once the SDGs were agreed upon, the question became, how do we get there?

I believe that the emerging field of human flourishing as a union of research, practice, and policy is the best accelerator of progress towards the SDGs. As discussed in our recent working paper, "Harnessing the Science of Human Flourishing to Accelerate Sustainable Development," research across many cultures suggests that flourishing encompasses at least five broad domains of human life: (1) happiness and life satisfaction, (2) health, both mental and physical, (3) meaning and purpose, (4) character and virtue, and (5) close social relationships. And while this may sound abstract, these dimensions of flourishing can also be measured, as pioneering research is showing. As the old saying goes, what can be measured can also be managed. At Templeton World Charity Foundation, we are actively supporting new innovations that extend research into practice. 

In Pakistan, we are funding research on how millions of frontline health workers can use ‘inner strengths’ to improve the health of the communities they serve. In particular, the research will focus on how a stronger sense of purpose among frontline health workers in low- and middle-income countries may help them deliver higher-quality care, including investigating the effect on service delivery and patient outcomes. 

Similarly, there is a growing body of research on how people’s moral attitudes, and in particular their capacity for gratitude towards the natural world, may increase their capacity for taking on the grave threat of climate change. Encouraging a greater sense of gratitude for the gifts of the earth—on the basis of already existing philosophical and religious traditions—may in fact help people to make sacrifices to protect it and future generations.

The utility of human flourishing as an approach to study is apparent even in the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent research suggests that a high level of intellectual humility, “a virtue characterized by nonjudgmental recognition of intellectual fallibility,” is a key factor in people’s willingness to get the COVID-19 vaccine. People who are intellectually humble are more willing to trust doctors and public health experts. Conversely, a lack of intellectual humility goes hand in hand with vaccine skepticism. Using the insights gained from this work, we are able to learn something that may help in vaccination campaigns.

There is a pattern in these examples. What makes the field of human flourishing different is the focus on how progress is made as much as what progress is achieved. Our partners at the Ekskäret Foundation have a similar approach in their formulation of the Inner Development Goals. Thus, mental and physical health can be supported by meaning and purpose. Humility can aid public health. Action on climate change is accompanied by awe, wonder, and gratitude at the natural world. The key point here is the creation of a virtuous circle between research and practice, that can drive better outcomes in service of global goals. 

While it may sound far-fetched, it is no different than what happened with the rise of global health as a field in the years following the creation of the MDGs. Prior to the rise of global health, researchers were often unaware of the practical implications of their work and  policy objectives felt disconnected from cutting-edge science. The shift to a global health mindset allowed for rapid advancement in a myriad of areas from improved HIV/AIDS treatments to reduced maternal mortality. The creation of global health as a field provided a way to look at health holistically and go beyond simply looking for policy fixes to actually seeking radical new ways of thinking about problems. 

My work in high-technology genomics in Burkina Faso could be connected to a broader social movement that included policy initiatives and the delivery of healthcare services to improve people’s lives. In other words, global health created a system for innovation. In the same way, this is the playbook for human flourishing and the SDGs.  Connecting research to practice and policy, supported by the world’s best minds inside and outside of the academy and outside we can set up the same dynamic system of innovation that has powered progress around the world.