On the Promotion of Human Flourishing: Measuring Human Well-Being in the Social and Biomedical Sciences

A lecture by Tyler VanderWeele, Professor of Epidemiology, Harvard

November 5, 2018


With the majority of studies focusing on narrow definitions of well-being, how well do they actually capture a true sense of human flourishing? Are there, in fact, better indicators that paint a more complete picture? Harvard professor of epidemiology Tyler VanderWeele is attempting through research to better identify major determinants to human flourishing and, in turn, consider how public policy can leverage the findings.

In his presentation, Professor VanderWeele defined flourishing as growing or developing in a healthy or vigorous way. In most instances, measure of well-being is highly subjective and either oversimplified (“happy versus unhappy” or “overall satisfied”) or, alternatively, well-being is defined by a “whole host” of over 100 measures used inconsistently in health research. Notably absent are the concepts of physical and mental health, as well as virtue or character.

Highlighting a dataset originating from residents of North Carolina, VanderWeele demonstrated his findings showing five measures, or domains, of flourishing are universally desired: (1) happiness and life satisfaction, (2) mental and physical health, (3) meaning and purpose, (4) character and virtue, and (5) close social relationships. VanderWeele further identified four areas considered “pathways” to these domains of human flourishing: family, work, education, and religious community. Within each of these pathways, his findings revealed varying correlation among the flourishing domains but all had a statistically positive effect.

How can this research be applied in a meaningful way? Professor VanderWeele discussed how support of these four pathways to flourishing can be institutionalized into public policy. For example, family can be supported through eliminating penalties in the welfare system for marriage versus domestic partners and also by encouraging counseling. The pathway of work can be enriched by policy changes that do not disincentivize working while supporting employment programs for the disadvantaged/mentally ill and encourage better working environments. The education pathway can be benefited by ensuring access to good teachers while letting go of poor-performing teachers, disconnecting education funding with real estate taxes, and higher pay for teachers working in disadvantaged neighborhoods. In areas of religious community, VanderWeele spoke about policy in support of religious liberty.

In conclusion, Professor VanderWeele discussed further needs toward the exploration of human flourishing. A broader range of flourishing outcomes should be examined while enhancing the measurement tools. More study can be applied to finding pathways and interventions that enhance flourishing across domains. Moving forward, human and financial resources should be reallocated to longitudinal studies to collect data over time. Combined, these efforts would promote human flourishing and a better-functioning society.

Following Professor VanderWeele’s presentation, Duke Professor of Economics, Thomas Nechyba, responded. Nechyba’s inquiry focused around the question of what significance religious community has over any other social or work community. Furthermore, he asked for clarification from VenderWeele concerning the importance of family as a pathway in light of its changing definition. VanderWeele and Nechyba then fielded questions from the audience.

(Watch the video here)