Human Flourishing Under Extreme Adversity

Deborah Carr
Boston University
North America


Studying persons living under conditions of extreme physical, economic, or socioemotional adversity will challenge, advance, and refine what is known about flourishing.
The concept of human flourishing has deep roots in positive psychology, which has been critiqued because it often focuses on persons with social/economic advantages that foster flourishing and on individual-level traits and strengths rather than macrosocial and community- or network-level resources. We seek to expand the paradigm for understanding flourishing by integrating persons living under adverse conditions in which flourishing – which encompasses personal growth, purpose, happiness, social connectedness, and generativity – may appear elusive, if not impossible.
We seek to: understand how people facing profound adversity flourish or languish over time; identify the social systems and resources they draw on; and discover novel and unexpected pathways to flourishing seemingly against the odds. Innovative research requires
a new generation of scholars with knowledge, skills, and sensitivities essential to studying human flourishing in hard-to-reach populations including incarcerated persons, economic and political refugees, risk-immersed youth, and persons suffering major illness.
An understanding of the multifaceted nature of flourishing requires interdisciplinary teams and expertise in population-level/epidemiologic, ethnographic, and intervention approaches, enabling us to generate rigorous and path breaking discoveries.


Urgent problems like poverty, mass incarceration, gun violence, pandemics, and a global refugee crisis spurred by climate change and political unrest call world-wide attention to persons for whom optimal well-being may be profoundly challenged. All individuals should have the right and opportunity to flourish, although research has not adequately embraced persons living in extreme adversity.
To build a more inclusive paradigm, we must develop new theories, measures, methods, research training, and evidence-based interventions to promote human flourishing. We do so by building on existing data collection infrastructures, expertise, and established relationships with hard-to-reach populations and the institutions that serve them.


Understanding pathways to flourishing among persons living in adversity poses conceptual, methodological, and ethical challenges. Surveys fail to include sufficient numbers of hard-to-reach populations, and standard survey measures may not capture their distinctive hardships and protective resources. Ethnographic studies yield nuanced insights that may be idiosyncratic to their particular site, preventing the development of a grand theory of flourishing under adverse conditions. Recruiting study participants requires that researchers earn the trust of potential participants and the institutions or programs serving them. Ethical and culturally sensitive recruitment and retention throughout the multi-year study period require thoughtfully designed and innovative protocols.

Breakthroughs Needed

A thorough review of sampling, recruitment, and data collection strategies employed to study flourishing among disadvantaged and hard-to-reach populations.
Innovative data collection approaches that adapt to the lifestyles, material conditions, and concerns of our study populations, such as app-based techniques that obtain quantitative (i.e., self-rated health, economic data, momentary mood, social network data) and qualitative (i.e., self-reflections, narratives) data;
The development of interlocking research projects focused on distinctive populations that can generate both subgroup-specific findings and general conclusions that may inform a new theoretical paradigm of flourishing under conditions of extreme adversity; and
A formal pre- and post-doctoral training program for future cohorts of scholars committed to methodologically innovative, theoretically informed, and culturally sensitive work on flourishing under conditions of adversity.
These breakthroughs require experience working with vulnerable and hard-to-reach populations including current/formerly incarcerated persons, terminally ill persons, economic and political refugees, risk-immersed youth, linguistically diverse populations, and those exposed to trauma, and use of app-based approaches to data collection and the development of evidence-based interventions.

Key Indicators of Success

Success means understanding how people flourish despite significant hardship, and articulating strategies to promote human flourishing across current and future contexts of adversity (Years 3 through 5).
The development of a new paradigm and innovative measures and methods that are widely disseminated to and used by scholars and practitioners across diverse academic and professional disciplines would be a critical indicator of success (Years 5 through 10).
Political, economic, and environmental changes mean new and unexpected forms of adversity will arise. Establishing infrastructures for field-building, research, training, and outreach will enable the paradigm to grow and keep pace with changing realities.

Additional Information

Boston University faculty spanning disciplines including theology, social sciences, natural sciences, medicine, humanities, fine arts, data science, and law bring expertise in population-level/epidemiologic, ethnographic, and intervention approaches, enabling us to generate rigorous and pathbreaking discoveries.
The University's culture and leadership actively promote and invest in interdisciplinary work among its faculty, students, and community partners. Recent investments include the Kilachand Center for Integrated Life Sciences & Engineering, supporting interdisciplinary life sciences research, and the Hariri Institute for Computing and its Software Application and Innovation Lab (SAIL). These and other units build partnerships across our 17 schools and colleges to advance scholarly innovation. Faculty committed to collaboratively understanding flourishing under adversity include:

Deborah Carr, Professor and Chair of Sociology. Dr. Carr is an expert in aging, mental health, and end-of-life issues. She has published widely on the challenged faced by persons with disability and terminal illness, and end-of-life decision-making and bereavement among their survivors. She has served as principal investigator, co-investigator, or consultant/advisor on many large-scale population surveys of health and well-being, including the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS), and National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 (NLSY79)

Catherine Caldwell-Harris, Associate Professor of Psychology. She uses innovative methods including experimental and neuroscience approaches to understand emotion and language. She has developed and tested the Personality-Culture Clash hypothesis, that mental health is facilitated by having a personality in tune with cultural values. She is a member of BU's Center for Mind and Culture, and is dedicated to addressing real-world problems. Recent foci include survivors of rural suicide victims and those targeted by sex trafficking.

Nicolette Manglos-Weber, Assistant Professor of Religion and Society. She is an interdisciplinary sociologist who studies the practical and relational aspects of religious community life. Her work highlights moments and spaces where religion supports social trust and collective care, as political practices of mutual empowerment; while noting as well where dynamics of religious institutions lead to division and inequality. She brings expertise and enthusiasm for developing best practices for sampling, recruitment, and data collection among vulnerable and marginalized population

Jonathan Zaff, Research Professor in Applied Human Development and Director of the CERES Institute for Children and Youth. Dr. Zaff specializes in community-engaged, applied research on positive educational and developmental ecosystems for children and youth. His work explores the role that relationships in a young person's life (a "web of support") and the multiple institutions within which they learn and grow can encourage their academic, vocational, and civic engagement and success, particularly those "risk-immersed" young people who are off track in school and life.

Harvey Young, Dean of the College of Fine Arts, is a renowned theater historian and advocate for transformative experiences of the arts. His research focuses on race and aesthetics. He has played an integral role in bringing arts programs to disadvantaged and incarcerated populations through BU's Prison Arts program and for hospitalized persons via the BU Medical Campus Arts Outreach Initiative.

Relevant references (DOIs):


These research ideas were submitted in response to Templeton World Charity Foundation’s global call for Grand Challenges in Human Flourishing, which ran from September through November 2020.

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