Introduction to Global Human Flourishing
What does it mean for all to flourish?
What constitutes human flourishing differs across individuals, cultures, and religious and theological traditions. The Oxford English Dictionary defines flourishing as "growing in a healthy or vigorous way.” The etymology of the term comes from the Latin florere, to bloom, blossom, or flower. The World Health Organization's definition from 1948, still in place today, is that health is "a state of complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." At Harvard's Human Flourishing Program, the working definition of flourishing is "living in a state in which all aspects of a person's life are good."
Directed by Professor Tyler VanderWeele, The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University's Institute for Quantitative Social Science has developed a measurement approach to human flourishing.
Beyond the general definitions above, VanderWeele sees positive psychology as a viable tool with which to assess flourishing. He notes, however, two important keys missing from that discipline. The first oversight has to do with health — it's important to explore if "we're flourishing when we're bedridden or seriously ill." The second is the omission of character or virtue. This is "contrary to [what] Plato, Aristotle, or most Western philosophical traditions, and religious traditions worldwide" often associate with flourishing.
Harvard's Human Flourishing Program has designed an approach based around five central domains characterizing flourishing across cultures and contexts: happiness and life satisfaction; mental and physical health; meaning and purpose; character and virtue; and close social relationships. Each of these is nearly universally desired, and each constitutes an end in and of itself. "I would not argue that these exhaust flourishing, but each is a part of it," clarifies VanderWeele. "They help shape consensus around what to measure."
To delve deeper, the study has created a Flourishing Index based upon questions within each of these five domains. These are drawn primarily from the existing work on wellbeing that has received some degree of empirical validation. The Index also features two questions newly proposed by Harvard's study. Those are "in the character domain, where we worked with philosophers to develop more global assessments based on the tradition of the cardinal virtues, i.e. practical wisdom, justice, fortitude, and moderation," says VanderWeele. To learn about the questions, watch VanderWeele's presentation in the above video and download them here for use under The Human Flourishing Program's creative commons license.
In the video, VanderWeele shares data collected from the United States in a roughly nationally representative sample, both prior to the WHO's declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic and in the midst of it. He also discusses the recent partnership between the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard and Baylor University's Institute for the Studies of Religion. This research initiative features data collection carried out by Gallup and is funded by the Templeton philanthropies. Learn more about the study, which will consist of 240,000 individuals in 22 geographically, culturally, and religiously diverse countries representing roughly half of the world's population. It will be an Open Access Data resource hosted by the Center for Open Science, so the data will be publicly available.
Broadcasting journalist, Redi Tlhabi turns to a panel of global thought leaders to react to VanderWeele's presentation. The speakers share how their respective experiences find common ground with the studies VanderWeele describes, and where the field of flourishing research might expand to consider a wider scope. Here are a few highlights:
- Yuria Celidwen is a Senior Postdoctoral Fellow at the Other & Belonging Institute at University of California, Berkeley, who's focused on the intersection of Indigenous studies, cultural psychology, and contemplative science. She responds with a call to include the Earth's state of health as a determinant of human flourishing. "Indigenous worldviews agree that human flourishing originates from a healthy environment. That is, there's no human flourishing without planetary flourishing." She mentions One Health, an approach endorsed by the CDC, the WHO and other NGOs, that recognizes that the health of people is closely connected to the health of animals and our shared environment. "The wider environment is really what's important for our flourishing," she shares. "Just last year there was a UN resolution to recognize the human right to a clean healthy and sustainable environment."
- When asked what he thinks could be given more emphasis in contemporary flourishing research, Thupten Jinpa Langri, President, Compassion Institute, and principal English translator to the Dalai Lama, says "taking compassion seriously," both in communities and at the individual level. Diane Gashumba, Ambassador of Rwanda to the Nordics, echoes the idea of compassion's importance. "We live in a selfish world. We just want, and want. What is missing is this component of thinking about others. And most importantly, respecting others. We are all part of the same community, the same world, and we need to support each other."
- In crisis moments, says Langri, offering compassionate leadership is important to the community, but awareness of compassion begins and is strongest at the personal level. He says: "Caring for others benefits our own self-interest because at the end of the day, before going to bed, looking into the mirror, we want to feel good about ourselves. There, if you are less selfish, if you care more for people in your life, if you're a bit more compassionate, you feel better about yourself. It’s in this way that we change one person at a time."
- Another way to instill a sense of compassion begins with education. "It's in education spaces where we create the younger generation of citizens. How we educate children is really going to impact the kind of culture and society we're going to produce," says Langri. "His Holiness has been a big advocate of bringing the teaching of ethics, and compassion, and social-emotional awareness to the school level, so that children learn to regulate their emotions and tap into the better part of human nature.”
Play the above video to hear the Introduction to Global Human Flourishing at The First Global Scientific Conference on Human Flourishing, organized by Templeton World Charity Foundation.
Tyler VanderWeele, Professor, Harvard University
Yuria Celidwen, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of California, Berkeley
Diane Gashumba, Ambassador of Rwanda to the Nordics
Thupten Jinpa Langri, President, Compassion Institute; Principal English translator to the Dalai Lama since 1985
Redi Tlhabi, Broadcasting Journalist
Visit HumanFlourishing.org to learn more.