Episode 5: Pathways to Global Flourishing, with Dr. David Johnson & Dr. Matthew Lee
We discuss flourishing with Dr. David Johnson from the Department of Education at the University of Oxford and Professor Matthew Lee from the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University, institutions which kindly sponsor this podcast.
We talk to David and Matthew about human flourishing in relation to their shared areas of expertise: well-being, education, and empirical research on flourishing worldwide.
David’s research focuses on learning and cognition, particularly tracking learning progression in national education systems worldwide over time. He leads a research program on “Education, Purpose, and Human Flourishing in Uncertain Times,” supported by the Templeton World Charity Foundation. He’s also a Chartered Educational Psychologist and a consultant to the World Bank.
Matthew’s research explores well-being and flourishing, benevolent service to others, and the integration of social science and the humanities. He has co-authored and co-edited several books, the most recent of which is Measuring Well-Being: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from the Social Sciences and the Humanities (Oxford University Press). He’s also a Professor at Baylor University, a member of the Global Study of Human Flourishing research team, and holds visiting positions at Stony Brook University and Massachusetts General Hospital.
“Flourishing is really about how we respond in ways that brings greater wholeness to ourselves and others, despite the difficult circumstances we find ourselves in.”
1. Flourishing as complete well-being
Our conversation begins with a discussion about what it means to flourish. Matthew describes the account and measure proposed by the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard. These were put forward in a 2017 article by the Program’s Director, Tyler J. VanderWeele, “On the Promotion of Human Flourishing,” in which flourishing is defined as “complete human well-being” – “a state in which all aspects of a person’s life are good,” and as “societal good,” broadly construed. This definition includes the individual and their environment, which is stressed in the Program’s developments of this definition, such as the following from articles published this year: flourishing is “the relative attainment of a state in which all aspects of a person’s life are good, including the contexts in which that person lives.”
Matthew points out that this requires that “we do or be well in areas of life that really matter to us.” The Program’s research has identified areas of life that almost all human beings desire and pursue as ends in themselves: things we pursue for their own sake rather than to satisfy some further goal. Consider happiness, for example: this is usually the end goal rather than a goal along the process towards something greater.
Happiness is part of one of the five central domains in the Program’s account. Their research has found that people worldwide place importance on all these:
happiness and life satisfaction;
mental and physical health;
meaning and purpose;
character and virtue;
close social relationships.
In his explanation of these domains, Matthew points out that character and virtue concerns whether we are becoming better people throughout our lives. To illustrate, he draws upon the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and notion of self-actualization, popularized through Maslow’s work. In his seminal 1943 article “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Maslow defines self-actualization as a state of reaching our “fullest potentialities and capacities” (p. 394). Matthew points out that Maslow was more concerned with self-transcendence than self-actualization, so, Matthew says, “losing ourselves in the service of a noble cause which benefits others is really important to our growth.” (For more on growth and self-actualization, see our episode with Scott Barry Kaufman.)
Matthew also mentions that a new field is gaining momentum, “life improvement science,” which focuses on how we can become well such that we can do well. It is defined as “the interdisciplinary study of well-doing,” which involves establishing the “psychological, sociological, and technological foundations for understanding and promoting effective well-doing and personal growth” (see the Life Improvement Science Manifesto, p. 7). Matthew explains that this connects with a practice emphasized by the Human Flourishing Program, reading great works in the humanities which can teach us how to improve ourselves and do more good in the world, such as Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (c. 350 BCE).
Emily Esfahani Smith made a similar recommendation in an earlier episode, in which she described how reading certain great works of literature, such as Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-2), helps us better understand how to lead a meaningful life.
2. Financial and material stability
The Human Flourishing Program propose a sixth domain for flourishing: financial and material stability. This is outside the core five because the Program holds that we don’t pursue financial or material stability for its own sake. It is rather a facilitator for flourishing, providing us with resources to enhance the core five domains.
This domain is needed because for flourishing to be sustained long-term, VanderWeele writes, “resources, financial and otherwise, [need to be] sufficiently stable so that what is going well in each of these five domains is likely to continue into the future for some time.” This requires financial and material stability, the level of which will be relative to where you live (given variance in the cost of living) and your needs (for example, if you need to provide for your family). The Program’s “Secure Flourish” measure assesses flourishing in adults in accordance with all six domains.
Matthew describes this domain in terms of us being able to secure core needs, such as food, water, shelter and healthcare. He points out that while everyone needs a level of material stability, this varies considerably across countries and cultures.
Matthew points out that when we look at results from well-being surveys worldwide, certain communities in countries where there’s a lot of financial precarity and self-reported concern about financial and material stability, there’s nonetheless very high levels of the other domains. By contrast, in the USA, where there’s high financial and material stability, the average scores on the other domains are significantly lower than for some countries which much lower financial and material stability. Of this, Matthew says, “it seems like that they’re managing the human condition better than many in the USA, where we’re so focused on the financial aspects of our lives but might be neglecting our growth as people or our ability to relate to others.”
Matthew points out that it’s an open question how much we need each domain in our lives. It will vary based on where we live; cultural norms and practices; and subjective preferences. But he says that there’s a baseline for all these domains to which almost anyone can agree. For example, there are factors concerning physical health we all need to flourish – sufficient sleep, hydration, nutrition and so on; there’s a basic level of financial and material stability we need to flourish – enough to at least ensure our basic needs are met; and we all desire some form and level of close social relationships.
Matthew mentions an article written by Arthur Brooks for the Atlantic in 2020, in which Brooks writes about a paradox in American life today: while the quality of life in the USA has been increasing year on year, the level of self-reported happiness or and being well among Americans has decreased. This indicates that objective conditions are increasing but subjective experiences of happiness or being well are declining. Matthew draws attention to the final section of the article, “Don’t Trade Love for Anything”, to point out that if we’re placing a great deal of emphasis on financial and material stability at the cost of less emphasis on cultivating relationships or our characters, then “we’re probably aiming at the wrong target.” (See here for our episode with Matthew and Arthur Brooks.)
Matthew draws attention to this to emphasize that the domain of financial and material stability is a means to an end but we probably wouldn’t want to turn it into an end in itself. If it enables us to contribute more good to the world, it facilitates flourishing. But if it becomes our focus as an end in itself, this can contribute towards lower levels of other domains and thereby reduce flourishing.
David makes the point that to avoid making financial and material stability an end itself rather than a means to an end, we need to look at the ways in and the degree to which we focus on these. He describes Bhutan – a nation in which he’s done extensive research – as an example of a nation that has broadened its focus on how we should assess the growth and development of a population to shift the focus away from economics as the primary measure. Bhutan is particularly interesting for studying flourishing because since the 1970s it has measured the “Gross National Happiness” of its population, which it regards as a more important measure than Gross Domestic Product. This is measured using a “Gross National Happiness Index,” which assesses the Bhutanese population’s psychological well-being, as well as socioeconomic areas including environmental protection levels, health, education, living standards and economic development. It has been described as a “holistic approach to sustainable development that gives as much weight to human flourishing as it does wealth.” (See here for a recent overview.)
3. Flourishing as a process
It’s intuitive to see flourishing as a process of growth towards something, given the primary meaning of “flourish,” denoting a living organism growing “in a healthy or vigorous way” or developing “develop rapidly and successfully.” David notes that in this sense of growth, flourishing typically refers to human beings becoming more expansive in their self-understanding and understanding of how to live. He suggests that we should also understand flourishing as a process of growing deeper – for example, becoming more deeply contented or fulfilled, and building the skill to reflect deeply.
“It is possible to see flourishing, not only as growing upwards towards something, but also growing deeper so that you’re not moving from A to B only on an upward trajectory, but also downwards, deeper.”
David thinks of flourishing as a journey with three key steps: being, becoming and transforming. This starts from where we are – being – to where we are going – becoming – and what happens to us and others along the way – transforming.
David defines flourishing as a “contentedness with being and with who we are.” He means a “critical contentedness,” such that we possess an ability to see the world in a way that we understand ourselves and the situation in which we find ourselves, and can critically reflect on ourselves and our situation. Our situation could involve adversities that affect us directly or indirectly, such as humanitarian crises in other countries. He emphasizes that this is not a contentedness in accepting adverse conditions, but in understanding where we are and why things are the way they are. David also thinks of flourishing as “a soberness in becoming”: objective, rational and critical deliberation of the possible pathways out of adversity or uncertainty.
David argues that flourishing is ultimately about transformation. He means this primarily in a collective rather than individual sense: aiming towards working with others collaboratively, to facilitate the desires and wants of others such that other people and collectives of people are better positioned to thrive.
So, the three steps David describes – being, becoming and transformation – involve several roles, aligned with each step respectively: contentedness, soberness and collaboration.
4. Distinguishing between flourishing and well-being
Flourishing, on David’s and Matthew’s accounts, is not just about the individual – it’s about groups, communities, and our relationships with one another and the environment. Matthew points out that it seems wrong to increase our own well-being if this comes at the expense of the well-being of others or the environment. This raises the question of how responsibility connects with flourishing and suggests connections between flourishing and justice. It also points to a distinction between flourishing and well-being.
We can be physically and psychologically well even if our footprint on the world is harmful. But flourishing suggests that there’s a connection between ourselves, others and the environment, such that increasing the well-being of an individual or group doesn’t come at the expense of lower well-being for other individuals, groups or the environment.
Matthew points out that we can think of flourishing at the individual, community or ecological level, and we should be thinking of it in the broadest scope possible, to encompass all these interconnected areas. If we flourish at the expense of the natural environment, this involves short-term gain for long-term loss. So we should think about flourishing over the life course and across generations. Flourishing, Matthew argues, is “multi-dimensional and inter-systemic.”
Matthew also points out that flourishing unfolds throughout our lives in ways that “often require us to make trade-offs.” We want to enhance each domain of well-being as much as possible, but sometimes we must compromise on domains, such that increasing one or more comes at the cost of decreasing others. He gives the example of how parenting during a child’s early years often negatively impacts a parent’s physical health (for example, disrupting sleep) but also often positively impacts their sense of meaning and purpose, and the quality of their close relationships.
There are also cases in which people experience long-term decreases in some domains but this does not prevent them from flourishing, partly because other domains may increase. For example, as we age, we experience increasing physical health issues, but we can still flourish, if other areas of our lives important to our well-being are maintained or increase. A person might even experience severe physical health issues later in life but nonetheless flourish, which could be facilitated by building on close relationships – for example, with their grandchildren. This may in turn increase other domains, such as their sense of meaning and purpose.
Matt points out that this is going to be the next big focus for flourishing research: moving away from narrow understandings of well-being, to looking at flourishing as a notion encompassing our relationship and responsibility to others and the natural world, and the role of spirituality in flourishing. Matthew points out that the “convergent thinking” he’s witnessed around the world when he’s had collaborative research conversations points towards this level of integration.
5. Flourishing and suffering
The points above suggest that a person could flourish but have experienced suffering or even be suffering, to a degree. Connectedly, Matthew suggests that although suffering and flourishing are sometimes seen as opposites, there are possibilities for integration, such that flourishing can include suffering. He refers to Francis Su’s recent book Mathematics for Human Flourishing, which argues that flourishing should be understood as wholeness amidst adversity. Matthew suggests that flourishing involves us responding well despite adversity, such that we bring greater wholeness to our lives and the lives of others. (We’re releasing an episode with Francis Su in January.)
These points concerning suffering connect with several previous episodes, such as our conversations with Todd Kashdan, Emily Esfahani Smith and Anna Lembke, each of whom emphasized the important role that enduring difficult emotional experiences plays in living good lives. It particularly connects with our episode with Arthur Brooks (on which Matthew also featured as a guest interviewer), in which Arthur put forward his conception of happiness as being comprised of three parts, which we need in balance and abundance to be truly happy: (1) enjoyment and (2) meaning and purpose in your life, and (3) life satisfaction. Interestingly, Arthur holds that true happiness is paradoxical: meaning and purpose requires us to have values and make sacrifices, which involves a degree of suffering; therefore, pursuing happiness involves some unhappiness. So, on Arthur’s conception of happiness, suffering plays an important role in happiness and flourishing. (A recent book on the role of suffering in living a meaningful life is Paul Bloom’s The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning. Matthew also mentions Paul Wong’s work on suffering and well-being, such as this.)
David mentions Viktor E. Frankl’s influential 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning as a book that significantly influenced his early work. David was more interested in the collective challenges we face than individual challenges, and what these can tell us about suffering and the human condition. In his explanation of how Frankl and other thinkers influenced his work on flourishing, David suggests that flourishing involves being able to appreciate and fully empathize with individual and collective suffering. This is part of what David means when he speaks of the depth of understanding he argues is important for flourishing: this involves the ability to empathize with the pain and suffering of others, including groups far away and from different backgrounds to ourselves. While we might not be directly affected by some acts of suffering, he argues that to flourish we need to cultivate an enormous degree of empathy for those among other groups.
6. Global flourishing
Matthew is involved in the Global Flourishing Study, a joint research program between Baylor, the Human Flourishing Program and Gallup. The five-year study will track 240,000 individually across 22 countries worldwide, gathering data annually on a broad range of well-being outcomes, to investigate the determinants of flourishing. The study will follow the same people for five years, with a nationally representative sample from each country, to assess how things change within each country and among the individuals.
A key focus in the study is how the flourishing survey items, written in English, are interpreted around the world and what they mean in other languages, as they’re understood through other cultural lenses, and how the results can be compared across cultures. Ultimately, the study investigates the extent to which the findings from a global study could be generalized to human beings worldwide, to tell us what all people need to enhance their well-being and ultimately flourish.
Matthew acknowledges that this study won’t provide definitive answers to which countries are the most flourishing since there are more ways to study people than survey research. But, he points out, it will help us to understand how people from different countries understand flourishing and some of the variables that relate to it.
In our discussion of the factors that affect flourishing and the factors that influence how flourishing varies across nations and populations, Matthew points out that workers tend to report higher well-being scores than the general population. Among the reasons for this are that their financial and material stability is often higher and they’re not prevented from working by debilitating health conditions. However, he also suggests there’s a limit to the stress a person can endure through their work and this may be reflected in some of the data.
Matthew points out that in research in the USA, the worst self-reported physical health from any collected samples is among medical students and medical residents. Their emotional health is also quite low. Around half the students and residents reported being exhausted. Yet these are typically adults in their twenties.
Matthew suggests that this may be because there’s “a certain kind of load that the human body and human emotions can withstand, which is being pushed beyond the limits for medical students and medical residents.” They’re working late, learning large volumes of content quickly, and being put in situations where they’re responsible for a person’s life. This, Matthew remarks, “creates an enormous amount of stress.” Of this, Matthew asks: “How much stress can we manage? And in what contexts do human beings manage stress much better?”. These are among the questions he’s investigating in his research, and the factors that alleviate or mitigate stress in such situations, such as having close social relationships.
David has done extensive research in various nations and cultures worldwide, and we asked what some of the main similarities and differences were in flourishing he’d observed globally. To answer, David invites us to imagine a diagram of a plus symbol with vertical and horizontal lines and four quadrants. At the top of the vertical line is a construct such as “meaning-seeking,” and the bottom a construct such as “wealth-seeking,” “prosperity-seeking” or “well-being seeking.” On the left of the horizontal line, “collective” and on the right, “individual.” David suggests that a visualization like this may help to profile certain nations and cultures in terms of their flourishing, help us understand how we perceive flourishing and what we need to do to improve our own flourishing.
7. The Flourishing Question
We ask all our guests “the flourishing question”: What’s the one lesson on flourishing you want our listeners to walk away with, and what might be a practical step for putting that lesson into action?
For this conversation, we connected this with a related question focused on this episode’s theme. “What do you each think the pathways to flourishing are, and are there any others that research has not yet identified but might be identified in the future?”
Matthew suggests that when we consider pathways to flourishing, we focus on how we spend our time and look at ways to improve flourishing in those contexts. Children spend most of their time in school and adults in the workplace, so Matthew recommends we look at how to improve flourishing in these contexts.
Matthew mentions the Sustainability and Health Initiative for NewPositive Enterprise (“SHINE”) at Harvard, which is researching how to promote flourishing in the workplace, and trying to show that if an organization focuses on flourishing it’s more effective at achieving its goals, but becomes less efficient if neglecting it. He also mentions Gallup survey data on percentage of workers worldwide who are engaged in their work, in the sense of being highly involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace. For about a decade now it’s been around 12-22%.
Matthew makes a similar point about schools. Gallup has identified the “school cliff” through research on US schools: engagement falls as children work their way through school. 80% of elementary school students are engaged, which reduces to 60% in middle school and 40% in high school. Teachers report the lowest level of engagement.
Building on Matthew’s point, David suggests that in addition to pathways for flourishing, we should focus on settings for flourishing, such as schools and workplaces. We can flourish, he suggests, if issues about work and the workplace are exposed and addressed. David draws upon the work of Brazilian educator and philosopher Paolo Freire, who, in his 1970 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, offers examples of ways to teach children in Brazil what a meaningful experience is through imagery. Through this he points out that the school and workplace are contexts for the activities in which people collectively find meaning for what they do.
David uses this example to suggest that we need to find ways to show how to facilitate flourishing in schools, workplaces and communities by showing how, for example, these can function as contexts in which meaningful activities take place. He suggest we also need to create settings in which people work or play together, to find meaningful activities and a sense of purpose through their action.
“When we consider the pathways to flourishing, the most important question is,
‘How do we spend our time?’.”
About our guests
Dr. David Johnson is Sub Warden and Professorial Fellow of St Antony’s College, and University Reader in Comparative and International Education in the Department of Education at the University of Oxford. He was also until recently University Proctor at Oxford. He convenes Oxford’s Centre for Comparative and International Education and recently held the position of Chen Yiden Global Visiting Fellow at Harvard. David is a Chartered Educational Psychologist who studies learning and cognition and is particularly interested in tracking learning progression in national education systems over time. He is a consultant to the World Bank and has led national learning assessments in Sudan and Nigeria, curriculum renewal in Rwanda, and time series studies of learning in Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Sudan. He was until recently the Programme Research Lead for the ESRC-DFID Raising Learning Outcomes in Education Systems research programme. David studies the impact of uncertainty on education and has directed research on this topic for the Aga Khan Foundation funded research program on Education and Uncertainty. He recently launched a research program on “Education, Purpose, and Human Flourishing in Uncertain Times” with support from the Templeton World Charity Foundation.
Dr. Matthew T. Lee is Professor of the Social Sciences and Humanities at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University and Director of the Flourishing Network at the Human Flourishing Program in the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University. He is also a Distinguished Visiting Scholar of Health, Flourishing, and Positive Psychology at Stony Brook University’s Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics and a Visiting Scholar at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. He previously served as Chair of the American Sociological Association’s Section on Altruism, Morality, and Social Solidarity and as President of the North Central Sociological Association. His research explores topics such as flourishing and well-being, benevolent service to others, and the integration of social science and the humanities and has been published in journals such as the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, the Journal of Positive Psychology, Social Science & Medicine, and the Journal of Transformative Education. He is the lead editor of Measuring Well-Being: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from the Social Sciences and the Humanities and lead author of The Heart of Religion: Spiritual Empowerment, Benevolence, and the Experience of God’s Love, both published by Oxford University Press. He is currently co-editing a book for Routledge titled, Transcending Crisis: Carework, Emotions, and Human Flourishing.
David’s webpage at Oxford’s Department of Education
David’s webpage at St Antony’s College, Oxford
David’s Twitter page
Matthew’s webpage at Baylor
Matthew’s webpage at Harvard
Matthew’s LinkedIn page
David’s research project on Education, Purpose and Human Flourishing in Uncertain Times, sponsored by the Templeton World Charity Foundation, and videos of talks from the project’s seminar series (including talks by David and Matthew)
Matthew’s most recent co-edited book, Measuring Well-Being (Oxford University Press)
Matthew’s co-authored book, The Heart of Religion (Oxford University Press)
Articles by David and Matthew in a recent issue of the Eton Journal for Innovation and Research in Education, on “Human Fulfilment and the Aims of Education”
David and Matthew are both contributing to a forthcoming book published by Oxford University Press on The Future of Education: Reimagining its Aims and Responsibilities
 Tyler J. VanderWeele, “On the Promotion of Human Flourishing,” Proceedings of the American Academy of Sciences, 31, p. 8149.  VanderWeele 2017, p. 8153.  Tim Lomas & Tyler J. VanderWeele, “A Flexible Map of Flourishing: The Dynamics and Drivers of Flourishing, Wellbeing, Health, and Happiness,” Psychological Review, forthcoming (2022); Tyler J. VanderWeele & Tim Lomas, “Terminology and the Well-being Literature,” Affective Science, 2022.  VanderWeele 2017, 8149.  See the first sense of ‘flourish’ in the Oxford English Dictionary.