Investigating Human Flourishing at Harvard
The following is an interview conducted by Profectus Co-editor Clay Routledge with Brendan Case and Matthew T. Lee. Brendan Case, Th.D., is the Associate Director for Research of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University, and author of The Accountable Animal: Justice, Justification, and Judgment (T&T Clark, 2021). Matthew T. Lee, Ph.D., is the Director of Empirical Research of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University and lead editor of Measuring Well-Being: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from the Social Sciences and the Humanities (Oxford, 2021).
Clay Routledge: How do you define human flourishing?
Brendan Case: We define human flourishing as “a state in which all aspects of a person’s life are good.” We identify five key domains of flourishing which are near-universally valued: subjective well-being, physical health, close social relationships, character and virtue, and meaning and purpose. Cultures differ in how they develop and organize these domains – the specification and ranking of virtues varies across time and place, as does the relative importance of, say, close relationships compared to meaning and purpose – but virtually everyone values each of them for their own sake. We also identify a sixth domain – financial and material well-being – which, while not universally valued in itself, provides a necessary condition for sustaining flourishing in many of the other domains.
Matthew Lee: We also recognize that for religious and spiritual people, aspects of their faith will provide additional domains, organized around beliefs, service, communion, and so forth. These domains will be somewhat represented in the domains that Brendan mentioned. For example, engaging in service to others may provide a deeper sense of meaning and purpose. It may also foster more satisfying social relationships. But service itself is an important domain on its own merits in many religious traditions and is not reducible to the other domains. Our Program has developed a measure of Christian Spiritual Well-Being that might be used as a template for the development of measures in other traditions. In addition, recognizing that it is difficult for an individual to flourish in an unhealthy community, our Program Director (Dr. Tyler VanderWeele) has developed a measure of Subjective Community Well-Being which assess such issues as community mission, prevailing levels of trust, the structures and practices that allow for the resolution of conflicts, and so forth. We would not consider an individual to be flourishing, regardless of their self-assessment of the five domains that Brendan discussed, if they were actively reducing trust in their communities, violating the core beliefs of their religion, or harming the natural world that sustains us all. Flourishing includes, but goes well beyond, the subjective psychological well-being of individuals. We can think about it as healthy growth, a kind of blossoming that does not diminish others or violate deeply held norms.
CR: What is something about the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard that you think is unique in the study of wellbeing?
BC: The Human Flourishing Program stands out among other research institutions that focus on well-being in the emphasis we place on collaboration between the social sciences and humanities. Our researchers include philosophers, theologians, and an historian, all of whom actively participate in working groups with the Program’s epidemiologists, psychologists, and sociologists, investigating topics that include the Measurement of Love, Suffering and Moral Injury, and Social Connectedness and Loneliness. The basic conviction underlying our work is that, as Mark Alfano put it, “Moral philosophy without psychological content is empty, whereas psychological investigation without philosophical insight is blind” (Moral Psychology, 1). Our humanists, drawing on the distilled wisdom of the Western philosophical and theological tradition, propose important distinctions to consider in formulating psychological constructs or venture testable hypotheses to guide quantitative analysis, while our social scientists help our humanists keep their theoretical and normative reflections tethered to empirical realities. This has already paid significant dividends in HFH’s short career to-date, as in the “Comprehensive Measure of Meaning” which our Program Director Tyler VanderWeele and our Senior Philosopher Jeff Hanson have created, drawing extensively on recent work in the psychology and philosophy of meaning.
ML: This commitment to fostering collaboration across disciplinary boundaries is reflected in the recent, open-access, edited volume, Measuring Well-Being: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from the Social Sciences and the Humanities. We encouraged our contributors to address both conceptual and practical challenges in measuring well-being by leveraging insights across diverse disciplines that included the humanities, as well as engaging with recent empirical research. The chapters offer arguments for and against use of specific measures of well-being in different contexts, as well as a synthesis of existing research in order to make sense of the proliferation of different measures and concepts within the field. We conclude the volume with a set of recommendations on the selection of measures, along with space for a dissenting viewpoint. Disagreements are part of the process and we have tried to model hospitable dialogue, both in this volume, and in our many public events. Indeed, as our website puts it, “Scholars in the humanities and social sciences typically attend conferences within their own sub-specialties and disciplines. The Human Flourishing Program seeks to bridge this divide by offering annual conferences and symposia that intentionally bring together scholars from various disciplines to present papers and converse on topics central to human flourishing.”
CR: Is there a specific project you are working on right now or are planning that you are especially excited about and can share with our readers?
BC: In October 2021, we launched the Global Flourishing Study (GFS) in partnership with Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion and Gallup, and with generous support from the John Templeton Foundation, the Templeton Religion Trust, the Templeton World Charity Foundation, and other funders. The GFS will collect data on many aspects of well-being from approximately 240,000 participants from 22 countries (representing about half of the world’s population) annually for five years. Once complete, the GFS will represent the largest longitudinal dataset on global well-being ever assembled, and will enable exponential growth in our understanding of the variation in the dimensions and drivers of flourishing around the world.
ML: I am especially excited about how the GFS has incorporated survey items on love, including an assessment of people expressing love in their communities, the experience of God’s love, and the feeling of having been loved by parents during childhood, as well as a wealth of related items on healthy relationships and social support. This aligns with our Program’s commitment to research on interpersonal love, which was recently supported by a planning grant from the John Templeton Foundation. This has helped us to embark on a long-term study of love as the “disposition towards desiring the good of the other” where the intentionally ambiguous phrase “the good of the other” may itself be understood either as “good for the other” or as the “good constituted by the other.” This focus on “contributory love” (desiring the good of the other) and “unitive love” (desiring union with the other) will bring empirical methods to bear on the normative understanding of love advanced by Aquinas. Our appraisal of the multi-disciplinary scholarship suggests that these two aspects are perhaps essential to the experience and expression of love and might help to launch a formal epidemiology of love. To date, disagreements about the construct and assessment of love have prevented the development of this specialty within epidemiology.
CR: What is an under researched or under appreciated area of research in the study of human flourishing?
BC: There has been surprisingly little work done to-date to experimentally assess the effects of theistic prayer practices on flourishing. The scientific study of meditation and mindfulness practices has been pursued extensively in recent decades, and with great success, both in increasing our understanding and in popularizing meditation. This work includes intensive neurophysiological assessment, as well as clinical randomized controlled trials (e.g., in relation to mental health disorders). Hundreds of studies have documented that mindfulness practices produce a number of long-term beneficial outcomes, such as reducing depression and anxiety and increasing compassion and life satisfaction. (For overviews of the state of empirical research on mindfulness and meditation, cf. Andrew Newberg’s Neurotheology (2020) or James Kingsland’s Siddhartha’s Brain (2016).)
By contrast, the study of corresponding practices in monotheistic traditions has made comparatively little progress, notwithstanding that Christianity, Islam, and Judaism together comprise 55.5% of the world’s population, compared with the 22% belonging to Eastern traditions most typically associated with meditation (e.g., Hinduism and Buddhism), and that well-designed observational studies have found that daily prayer practice among Christians is associated with significant public health benefits. We’re long overdue for rigorous experimental exploration of how prayer affects flourishing among Christians, Jews, or Muslims.
ML: Research on flourishing seems disconnected with ethics and politics. This is one reason why our measure of flourishing includes character and virtue. The emerging interdisciplinary field known as “life improvement science” seeks to better connect well-being and well-doing in a manner that is ethically and politically beneficial for all. Our work is aligned with this approach. Flourishing is an end in itself, of course, but flourishing individuals and groups have great potential to advance healthy community and intergroup relations and pursue beneficial, self-transcendent ends. Promoting good even in difficult situations and reliably doing what is right as a leader in a community are necessary for the expansion of flourishing. A shared awareness of system stewardship is integral.
CR: What is one misconception you think people have, either scholars or the general public, when thinking about human flourishing?
BC: Scholars of well-being and the general public alike are often too restrictive in how they conceptualize flourishing. One common approach is simply to equate it with subjective well-being, whether that’s construed as “happiness” or (more adequately) “life satisfaction.” However, even broad and theoretically sophisticated frameworks such as Martin Seligman’s PERMA theory of well-being (an acronym standing for “positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement”) initially left out crucial domains such as physical health, and continues to omit character and virtue. In our view, if most people value an aspect of life for its own sake, it needs to figure in an adequate theory of human flourishing as such.
ML: Another misconception is that flourishing is only experienced by socially advantaged groups. In some of our research conducted throughout the world, we find higher self-reported flourishing among financially disadvantaged groups on core domains like meaning and purpose. The old saying that money does not buy happiness seems to apply to flourishing as well.
CR: Do you have any practical insights or ideas about human flourishing that readers could consider to enhance their own flourishing or that of those around them in their day to day lives?
BC: Positive psychology and other areas of well-being research have developed a number of useful exercises, many of them drawn from ancient spiritual traditions, from Christianity to Buddhism, which people can easily incorporate into their daily lives. These might include keeping a gratitude journal, practicing “lovingkindness (metta)” meditation, or developing habits of stopping to “savor the good” from a day or moment. However, these exercises are probably better thought of as ways of enhancing a life that is basically going well than a recipe for transforming a languishing life into a flourishing one.
A wide body of research, including much of our own work, suggests that, for most people, the most important pathways to flourishing are to be found in the pillar institutions that have sustained virtually all societies from time immemorial, notably religion, family, and productive work. So, the best general advice is at once disarmingly simple and yet devilishly tricky to apply (I write from hard experience!): if, like the vast majority of Americans, you’re a religious believer, join a local congregation and participate in it as actively as you can; if you don’t have a special calling to celibacy, get and stay married, and, if you can, raise kids with your spouse; and if you work outside the home, look for meaningful work, or look for ways to find meaning in the work you have.
This advice applies in general, of course, and has to be applied discerningly in individual cases. For instance, divorce generally makes a person’s life worse rather than better, but unfortunately, it sometimes is the lesser evil. On the whole, however, and with a little luck, these institutions will likely help to make you a more generous, grateful, forgiving, patient, loving, and happier person. And if you want a single rule to observe in all things, then, as our faculty affiliate Arthur Brooks likes to say, whatever you do and wherever you go, don’t trade love for anything.
ML: Beyond what an individual reader might do to enhance flourishing for themselves or the near and dear in their lives, there is great value in contributing to a self-transcendent cause that is effective in solving the deep social problems that we collectively face. For example, it is difficult for anyone to flourish if groups around the world continue to become more polarized and wars proliferate. I often hear people say that they are bored, or there is “nothing to do.” So many people seem unaware of the opportunities to contribute to solutions to global problems, or feel that the problems are too big, or that they lack the necessary skills. I have had many conversations lately about reorganizing educational systems so that the promotion of flourishing is more of a core goal. This does not mean replacing the core subjects with courses on flourishing. Instead, there is a powerful argument about mathematics – to take a subject that may not immediately spring to mind – being a pathway to greater flourishing. We can look at the existing school subjects with fresh eyes and ask of each one, “How might this subject be revitalized so that it aims at flourishing for all?” This imaginative move would have to encompass skillbuilding to solve local and global problems. This is happening already, so this is not a purely theoretical issue. For example, climate science is becoming a standard part of the curriculum. But I continue to hear the lament that education is preparing students for a world that no longer exists. If mathematics can serve human flourishing, why not all subjects, and indeed, all human endeavors?
CR: In addition to human flourishing, research and inquiry into the topic of human progress has also gained attention recently. How do you view the relationship between these concepts? Are they functionally the same or are there significant differences between them?
BC: I don’t regard flourishing and progress as equivalent concepts, no. For a start, the two ideas are differently related to time: flourishing is a state, which can in principle be assessed at a single point, while progress is a process, which involves a comparison between at least two timepoints. The two concepts are certainly related, however: progress has to be toward something, and most people instinctively connect it with at least some aspects of human flourishing, whether physical health, material well-being, or (less often) close relationships, character, or meaning.
Subdividing flourishing into these distinct domains actually lets us reflect more carefully about the extent of progress and the tradeoffs involved in it. The modern West’s most enthusiastic boosters – I’m thinking particularly of Stephen Pinker in his influential The Better Angels of Our Nature – tend to focus on recent progress in the domains of health, life-expectancy, safety, and wealth. Even allowing for controversy at the margins about some of Pinker’s figures – recent trends in violent deaths would look less impressive if he had included the millions of unborn children around the world who are (at least arguably) killed each year as a result of abortions, for instance – it’s true that we have made a great deal of progress in promoting flourishing in these domains over the last couple of centuries, thanks in great measure to technological developments that increase human productivity and extend our lifespans, and to novel political forms that contrain our worst impulses.
However, if we consider trends in other domains of flourishing, the picture is considerably more mixed than Pinker or his ilk allow. For instance, much of the developed world, and especially the United States, is facing an acute crisis of social connection, evident in rising rates of self-reported loneliness, and in declining rates of family formation, religious participation, civic engagement, and social trust. Social disconnection is arguably a key driver of the sharp recent increases in political polarization, depression and anxiety, and “deaths of despair” (caused by drug overdose, alcohol abuse, or suicide). Even as we make progress in promoting flourishing in the domain of physical health and material well-being, we are losing ground in other domains.
Expanding our reflection on progress to consider all aspects of flourishing doesn’t suggest that the modern world is somehow uniquely good or evil, but rather underscores that every development involves trade-offs. We can be grateful for modern dentistry and plumbing, and even for the GoogleMaps app on our smartphones, while at the same time recognizing that many aspects of our lives – including some features of those very smartphones – have actually reduced our ability to flourish compared to our parents and grandparents.