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Harvard Researchers Launch $43M Global Human Flourishing Study

Researchers at Harvard's public health school and Baylor University launched a $43.4 million research initiative last month to examine the causes of human flourishing.
Researchers at Harvard's public health school and Baylor University launched a $43.4 million research initiative last month to examine the causes of human flourishing. By Zadoc I. N. Gee
By Ariel H. Kim and Vivi E. Lu, Crimson Staff Writers

Researchers at Harvard and Baylor University launched a $43.4 million research initiative last month to examine the causes of “human flourishing.”

The initiative, announced on Oct. 29, is the largest-ever of its kind.

The study involves 240,000 individuals hailing from 22 countries. The study will annually collect data on various measures relating to their well-being over the course of five years. Gallup, an analytics and advisory company known for its public opinion polls, and the Center for Open Science, a non-profit that aims to increase transparency in research, have also joined the partnership.

Human flourishing means “living in a state in which all aspects of a person’s life are good,” according to Tyler J. VanderWeele, a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and director of Harvard’s Human Flourishing Program.

VanderWeele, who is a co-director of the study, said he hopes the study can more rigorously assess the wide variety of factors that affect a person’s well-being.

“We often do a really good job at studying physical health and studying income — those are really important, but people care about more than that,” he said. “They also care about being happy, and having a sense of meaning and purpose, and trying to be a good person, and about their relationships.”

The study’s co-director, Byron R. Johnson, who directs Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion and serves as a professor of social sciences there, said the concept of flourishing is “much broader than happiness.”

“That’s why the survey instrument itself is so important – because it does gauge a number of things,” he said. “‘Do you have meaning in your life? Do you have a purpose for your life? Are you satisfied with where you’re headed?’”

The survey will test six domains to establish a “flourishing index” – including questions on life satisfaction, purpose, and mental and physical health – and will use nationally representative sampling.

“It’s not a convenience sample, it’s based on Gallup’s survey infrastructure, which they’ve developed over the last 15 years,” VanderWeele said. “We’ll be recruiting into the study a group of people that at least approximately represents the demographic and cultural characteristics of the entire country.”

The study will be the “first-ever global longitudinal panel,” meaning that it collects multidimensional data over time, according to Joe Daly, a senior partner at Gallup.

“These kinds of studies are increasingly rare because they’re so expensive and they’re so labor intensive,” Johnson said. “We wanted to do something that would help us move the needle on causal kinds of analyses, so that we’re not always having to rely on correlational studies.”

Daly also said the study will be one of the first that examines all major world religions, in contrast with previous religion studies that tended to focus on Judaism or Christianity.

“We’re going to get to look at the construct of spirituality and religion and human flourishing across all those major religion sets and cultural sets in the same methodology, with the same questionnaire, so that there will be the ability to start to see what these things look like across those different religions,” he said.

In partnering with the Center for Open Science, the flourishing study will make its data publicly accessible.

“We really hope that it contributes not only to our own research, but to the research of others and the study and promotion of well-being around the world,” VanderWeele said.

Johnson said the researchers are “optimistic” that the study may extend beyond five years or expand to include more countries.

“We hope that we’ll have 30 countries before it’s all said and done,” he said. “If we can keep it going for 10 years, and 10 waves of data — at that point, nothing’s ever happened like that before.”

—Staff writer Ariel H. Kim can be reached at ariel.kim@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Vivi E. Lu can be reached at vivi.lu@thecrimson.com.

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