Early in the spring semester, Samford University’s John Howard Scholars honors program hosted a virtual event featuring Brendon Case, associate director for research at Harvard University’s Human Flourishing Program. That program promotes human flourishing and the development of systematic approaches to the synthesis of knowledge across disciplines. Case described the work as “trying to find ways for humanities and social sciences to work together in a more robust and more coherent way.”
Case is the author of The Accountable Animal: Justice, Justification, and Judgment, and the forthcoming Least of the Apostles: Paul and His Legacies in Earliest Christianity.
The humanities scholar observed that the social sciences are relatively young, and until recently tended to be focused on ill-being rather than well-being, as with epidemiology, for example. But, he said, “in the last 40 years there has been a sea change within a number of disciplines, which has basically consisted of trying to shift some of the intellectual energy and effort toward understanding the positive end of the spectrum.”
“The rise of those disciplines–positive psychology, you might say, or positive epidemiology–has brought those disciplines into much closer alignment than they’ve ever had before with disciplines like philosophy and theology,” Case said. As a result, he said, there are new opportunities for dialog, and for describing what it means to flourish. It turns out to be effective to simply ask people how they’re doing in terms of their personal happiness and life satisfaction, physical and mental health, meaning and purpose, character and virtue and close social relationships. Case and his fellow researchers find that these categories represent a framework for flourishing, and that specific paths to flourishing include include family, work, education and religious community.
Case acknowledged that some scholars are skeptical of family and religious community in particular as genuine pathways to flourishing. “It’s important to be able to make a case in a rigorous, data driven way that these things matter a lot, not just for some people but for most people,” he said.
Toward that end, Case said his group’s research finds that people who are active in their religious communities on a weekly basis benefit from reduced health risks in a number of categories, including an 84% reduction in the risk of suicide.
Research revealed similar physical and mental health events within marriage, and negative effects for couples who divorce, and for the children of single parents.
Case noted that fewer people are getting married, birth rates are declining, and increasing numbers of children are growing up in single-parent or non-intact homes, presumably with negative consequences related to flourishing. It’s not simply a matter of narcissistic or selfish people rejecting these traditional institutions, Case said. “People are finding it harder to land secure, stable, well-paying careers right out of college than they used to. That makes them less marriageable, he said, particularly in the case of men.”
“The factors that are driving these trends are outside the control, in a lot of ways, of those who are experiencing them,” Case said. “People’s preferences, deep down, haven’t changed all that much in 60 years. These are really hard-wired urges people have–to form families, to settle down in the world–and people are just finding it harder to do that for reasons that are totally beyond their control.”
Case said public policies that support two other important pathways to flourishing–education and work–could reduce the stresses that damage marriage. “What we really need are economic policies that make it possible for a lot more people than currently seem to be able to, to find good permanent work. The marriage crisis will sort itself out if, to a great extent, if we can do that.”
Case acknowledged that his group’s research so far tends to support traditional views of how people flourish. “In a way, it would be more exciting if I could present deeply counterintuitive outcomes,” he said. “It’s sort of funny to produce these really rigorous papers confirming everything your grandmother could have told you about the world, but the situation we find ourselves in today is one in which you really do have to make a case, in data-driven way, for the value of these institutions, and not just take them for granted.”