Human Flourishing in Unprecedented Times: Part I

In this two-part series, we explore the burgeoning field of human flourishing (or simply “flourishing”), and its real-world applications for bettering our physical and mental well-being.

In the last few years, how many self-help books have you bought? Perhaps authors like Brené Brown or Bessel van der Kolk ring a bell. Or maybe you have had friends talk about “forest bathing” or “setting boundaries.” If any of this is familiar, you are not alone. According to NPD Group, an international market research firm, the number of self-help titles on the U.S. market tripled between 2013 and 2019, and sales of books relating to physical and mental health have grown by 150 percent in the last three years alone. With mental health issues on the rise – particularly in young people – compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, many are seeking new ways to handle life’s current challenges.

Throughout our lives, we may cycle through episodes of high personal productivity, joy, and connectivity, as well as those of loneliness, grief, fear, or even apathy. Around half of the U.S. population will experience mental illness at some point in their lives, according to the CDC. Some seek comfort by spending time in nature or healing through music. Some seek clinical psychotherapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or art therapy. But is personal wellness enough? Some scholars across the spectrum of sciences and humanities don’t think so. Enter: a field of study known as “human flourishing,” or simply “flourishing.”

What is flourishing?

Human flourishing can be defined as “a relative attainment of a state in which all aspects of a person’s life are good, including the context in which that person lives,” says Matthew T. Lee, Research Associate and Director of the Human Flourishing Program’s Flourishing Network at Harvard University, Professor of the Social Sciences and Humanities at Baylor University, and editor of the book Measuring Well-Being: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from the Social Sciences and the Humanities. In other words, flourishing is about personal well-being in addition to the well-being of others and the environment around you. Lee notes: “It’s possible for me to have well-being at the expense of you, but I don’t think it’s possible for me to flourish at the expense of you.”

Innate in the word flourish is a reference to nature. Its definition, “to grow luxuriantly,” stems from its Latin origins in flōrēre: “to bloom, to flower.” To encourage a plant to bloom, it must meet a nexus of nourishment, daylight, warmth, and moisture. To encourage luxuriant blooms, its environment must be extraordinarily healthy, with other flora and fauna nearby to keep overgrowth in check and the ecosystem in balance. Ideally, flourishing should be applied to individuals as well as communities. So, how do scientists measure human flourishing?

Measuring Flourishing

A graphic that depicts the various dimensions of well-being

Joint dimensions of communal versus individual, and objective versus subjective measures of well-being.


“Flourishing is multi-dimensional, multi-level,” says Lee. “If you read all 20 chapters [of Measuring Well-Being,] you see the difficulty of this task because there are so many nuances.” From individual versus communal, to subjective versus objective, there is even nuance in definitions and terminology. While Lee and his associates at Harvard see some global recognition of flourishing and their definition as the scientific standard, well-being is still the more common term across disciplines.

Surveys and interviews are the most typical forms of measurement when studying well-being and human flourishing. For instance, a large, 22-country global flourishing study from the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard and Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion, in partnership with Gallup and the Center for Open Science, is surveying the same panel of people from each country annually to see how the various domains of well-being work in different cultures over time. (The results of the study will be publicly released later this summer.)

Harder sciences, like neuroscience, usually combine questionnaires with observational data. For example, researchers found that subjective well-being typically correlated with higher densities of gray matter in different parts of the brain. People who reported feeling happy much of the time had denser gray matter in places responsible for emotions, memories, and interoception, or an almost subconscious awareness of the state of our bodies. Other studies showed higher connectivity in parts of the brain responsible for executive functioning and certain kinds of daydreaming for flourishing people.

Examining Real-World Applications

One of the most famous applications to come out of studying well-being has been the World Happiness Report. For the past ten years, people from 150 countries have evaluated their happiness levels, among other factors, so governments and media can consider citizens’ well-being when making institutional changes.

This report does have its fair share of criticism, especially surrounding its ranking system. “It’s problematic,” Lee says. “I’m always reluctant to measure one country or one population against another.” According to Lee, they specifically had this criticism in mind when putting together their surveys for the global flourishing study. Pitting nations against each other seems exclusionary and archaic to him. “Where we’re at now is saying, ‘How do we measure what is healthy in every social setting?’ ‘Where do people feel fully alive?’ ‘Where are they relating to themselves and to others in healthy ways?’”

If you are asking yourself these questions, consider reading Harvard’s “Human Flourishing” blog on Psychology Today. And if you are curious about learning specific ways in which flourishing can better our health and well-being, be sure to check out part two of this series. We will hear from Dr. Margaret S. Chisolm, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and Director of The Paul McHugh Program for Human Flourishing at Johns Hopkins University, on how to not just survive, but thrive during times of emotional turmoil.

Lead image: Image by Patrick Tomasso/Unsplash

Inset image: Fig. 14.1 in Measuring Well-Being: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from the Social Sciences. an open access publication, available online and distributed under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution – Non Commercial – No Derivatives 4.0 International license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

This is Part I in a series focused on human flourishing. 

Written and reported by Rachel Lense. Rachel is a freelance science writer who enjoys exploring how science, nature, and technology intersect with culture, now and throughout history.

Flourishing Mental Health Psychology Wellbeing