Understanding Human Flourishing

Baylor professor earns landmark grant to study human wellbeing

Human flourishing is important to researchers, policymakers, religious leaders and anyone who aims to make life better for individuals or communities. They investigate the factors that truly lead to human thriving, holistic health and wellbeing. Uncovering those factors is a lofty goal that could become a significant achievement.

The determinants of human flourishing are often elusive to pinpoint. Why do some people thrive in the midst of challenges while others struggle amidst creature comforts? What roles do religion, marriage, relationships, economics, character and more play across different nations, religions, backgrounds and contexts? These complex factors require a level of rigorous inquiry and have not yet been comprehensively studied on a global scale.

Byron Johnson, Ph.D., is director of Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion (ISR) and Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences. He first expressed the idea that became the Global Flourishing Study, and responses ranged from “it’s a pie in the sky” to “you must be crazy.” Despite those initial reactions, the vision of creating a massive global study that yields groundbreaking insights into the causes of human flourishing around the world captivated researchers.

Three years, $43.4 million in research funding and countless hours of planning and recalibrating later, that dream is a reality. The Global Flourishing Study (GFS), the largest initiative of its kind ever to investigate the determinants of human flourishing, is underway.

Johnson is the director of the study, which is the largest funded research project in University history. His role is a natural step for someone who has long asked and answered questions about human flourishing throughout his decorated research career.

“When you think about our Christian mission, it’s a perfect fit — to investigate what it truly means to flourish and live well,” Johnson says. “The implications are staggering because we’ve never before taken this kind of approach.”

The study features teams from Baylor and Harvard University along with partners from Gallup and the Center for Open Science. Johnson anticipates data that could impact most sectors of human life. The project’s scope — a longitudinal study surveying over 240,000 people in 22 nations over five years with substantial funding from eight external organizations — will see to that.

Map illustrating 22 countries that will be part of the survey
The study will include 22 Geographically Diverse Countries totaling approximately 240,000 individuals globally

A Holistic View

According to Global Flourishing Study collaborators, many blind spots exist in our collective understanding, despite decades of scientific research on human flourishing. GFS co-director Tyler VanderWeele, Ph.D., is the John L. Loeb and Frances Lehman Loeb Professor of Epidemiology and director of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University. He says flourishing relates to the health of the body and the person as a whole, and researchers try to identify factors that contribute to positive outcomes.

“We’ve applied scientific analyses to these questions here at Harvard for many years, but it’s a dream come true to gather data in this manner on a global scale with Byron,” VanderWeele says.

Johnson says flourishing takes on a holistic view of what makes a person whole. This broader concept demands a new approach.

“We would love to be able to speak more authoritatively about the connections between different variables and flourishing,” Johnson says. “For instance: What role does religion play? We know from thousands of studies that religion is a force for good in all kinds of outcomes, but we have only done correlational research.”

Baylor hosted a GFS launch event in October at which Johnson and VanderWeele shared the longitudinal aspects of the project. A distinct murmur rippled through the crowd of guests from throughout higher education. Rajesh Snirivasan is Gallup global research director and GFS partner.

“Longitudinal data is like the holy grail of causality explanation,” Snirivasan says. “Any time researchers want to be able to definitively state why something is happening, you have to track the same individuals over time to see how their attitudes change or their behaviors are impacted. What we’re embarking on with Baylor and Harvard is incredibly complex, but it’s going to be remarkable in the knowledge that will come out of it.”

Longitudinal data, however, is incredibly challenging and expensive to gather. The project’s funding — $43.4 million from eight funding agencies — speaks to the work’s scope and the funders’ faith in the importance of the data gleaned.

The Global Flourishing Study’s longitudinal approach is its strength. Gallup’s role in accomplishing this is pivotal, providing the infrastructure and historical knowledge of the most rigorous polling methods to apply to a study that is truly representative. The Gallup World Poll, created in 2005, is the world’s largest nationally representative study, covering 96 percent of the globe. GFS will utilize their framework to build out the survey panels and execute the surveys in partnership with researchers.

Understanding the Role of Faith

Faith’s role in human flourishing is a key focus of the study, and Johnson has built a long-established reputation as one of the nation’s top scholars at the intersection of religion and public life. Johnson and VanderWeele’s backgrounds make them natural fits to study the role of faith in human flourishing, which will not be limited to Christianity. The Global Flourishing Study’s size and scope will provide enough samples to examine the gamut of religious traditions — Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, et al. Johnson and VanderWeele bring scientific rigor and insight into what role faith plays in people’s lives.

Mohammed Mohammed, senior program officer at the Fetzer Institute, a GFS-funding organization, says not enough research about religion’s role exists.

“That’s why this study is exciting; it takes religion and spirituality seriously in terms of understanding human flourishing,” Mohammed says. “This has the potential to change the conversation about human flourishing. So much of the current model of wellbeing is within a secular framework, but we want to see that change. There is a spiritual perspective here that is exciting as we see a shift in the ways we understand human flourishing.”

Johnson and VanderWeele see opportunities to gather real causal data to questions and topics they’ve long studied and to dramatically contribute to understanding of religions that have gone under-examined in higher education.

“The global aspect of this research enterprise will provide us with the opportunity to more accurately map the religious landscape,” Johnson says. “When we do a typical national survey here in the U.S., we have too few respondents outside of Christianity for us to answer important questions dealing with Hinduism or Islam or Judaism. This project will eliminate that limitation.”

Quality, Visibility, Impact

“In some ways, I see this as Baylor’s gift to the world, to look at human flourishing,” Johnson says. “This is a gift that keeps on giving. It’s a topic that’s overwhelmingly important. If we can help figure out what makes people flourish or what hinders them from flourishing, maybe we’ll become more thoughtful as a society. That’s where this gets really exciting. There’s no better place than Baylor to lead a project that will touch so many different aspects of our lives.”