By Peter Reuell, Harvard Staff Writer
Ask most scientists about the factors that contribute to public health, and chances are you’ll hear plenty about topics like quitting smoking, eating a healthy diet and exercise, but one item that probably won’t come up is going to church.
In recent years, though, research conducted by Tyler VanderWeele, the John L. Loeb and Frances Lehman Loeb Professor of Epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a faculty affiliate of the Harvard Institute for Quantitative Social Science has suggested that regular attendance of religious services can have profound impacts on both physical and mental health.
It was that finding, VanderWeele said, that set him on a path to exploring a number of questions that aren’t often contemplated by empirical scientists.
“It got me thinking…we don’t talk about religion very much in public health, but there are other things that shape public health outcomes that we don’t talk very much about either,” he said. “That interest led to work on parenting practices and subsequent health and wellbeing, and work on forgiveness.”
It also got VanderWeele interested in establishing a Human Flourishing Program at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science (IQSS) with support from IQSS and a donor. The two-year-old program is aimed at fusing empirical, data-driven approaches with a deep, philosophical understanding of issues related to human flourishing.
“I had been thinking about these questions of human flourishing and had pondered them over the years, but hadn’t pursued them in a substantial way,” VanderWeele said. “But as I started to think about it, there are outcomes that we don’t often think about as an academic community. We study health a great deal, but people don’t just care about health, they also care about happiness, life satisfaction, having meaning or purpose in life, being a good person, and having positive relationships, but we don’t study these things empirically very much. That’s what led to this idea of trying to pursue research on flourishing broadly construed.”
For IQSS Director and Albert J. Weatherhead III University Professor Gary King, the program is part of an important effort to gain a new understanding of the world and humanity’s place in it.
“Tyler VanderWeele, a world class statistician and causal inference scholar, has taken on one of the most difficult issues of importance to human society,” King said. “We are thrilled to have him as part of IQSS, and look forward to learning how he will improve the world for all of us in it.”
Though often seen as questions reserved for philosophers or theologians, questions of what drives happiness, meaning and purpose in life have been addressed – though in limited ways – by fields as diverse as sociology, political science, economics, and medicine. But that scattershot approach, VanderWeele said, has left much to be desired.
To get a more nuanced understanding of the impulses and drives that foster human flourishing, VanderWeele last year developed a new approach to measure flourishing based on five central domains - happiness and life satisfaction, mental and physical health, meaning and purpose, character and virtue and close social relationships.
“Our argument is not that this is the whole of what flourishing is,” VanderWeele said. “But however else we think about what flourishing constitutes, almost everyone would say it includes these ideas as well. In and of themselves, they are pretty much universally desired, so we think these five domains can provide some common ground on what to study.”
While that work represents an effort to empirically measure flourishing, its design, VanderWeele said, was informed by a long tradition of philosophical thought about what it takes to live a good life.
That sort of cross-disciplinary design is exactly the point of the program, said program Associate Director Matthew Wilson.
Though it does attempt to collect empirical research from a variety of fields, the program’s goal isn’t to simply serve as a clearinghouse for that work, but to give equal weight to both the empirical and the philosophical. The hope, he said, is that researchers can integrate philosophical and theological insights into the empirical studies, and subsequently use those empirical findings to evaluate philosophical ideas.
“Part of the mission of the program is to integrate knowledge from different disciplines that is relevant and pertinent to these types of questions,” states Wilson. “Human flourishing has long been contemplated and thought about by philosophers and theologians, and it’s been more recently that empirical sciences have done research on these questions…so I think one of the exciting things about this program is the effort to bring together different disciplines, and that’s why one of the initial steps for the program was to hire several philosophers.”
Among those philosophers was Research Associate in Philosophy Jeffrey Hanson.
“What’s exciting about the program is the scope and ambition of it,” Hanson said. “The vision of it being a two-way street, where philosophy can contribute clarification and conceptual depth where it might be lacking (is important.)“I like to think that philosophy can contribute by challenging the quality of the way the questions get asked, and the depth with which they get asked, because there are conceptual resources and there are distinctions that can be made, and have been made, in the conversation of philosophy that would be relevant...when we go out and try to assess things in the social sciences.”
L-R: Matthew Lee, Ying Chen, Tyler VanderWeele, Matthew F. Wilson, Jeffrey Hanson.
Photos: Rose Lincoln
Just as importantly, Hanson said, the program’s collaborations can run in the other direction as well.
“If indeed we can craft measures in social science that are a little more ambitious…then I think we can put some of those philosophical theories to the test,” he said. “Philosophers may resist that, but we’re trying to balance both sides of this, because it’s very hard to be an expert in both. But by putting together the team we have, we have a better shot at drawing on the strengths of both.”
Hanson has recently worked on a book-length examination of the history of philosophical thought on the role of work in people’s lives, and he is now investigating philosophical thought related to meaning in life. Hanson is currently working with VanderWeele on assessing current empirical measures that attempt to assess people’s meaning in life.
In addition to Hanson’s efforts, the program has undertaken a number of other research projects.
Among them, VanderWeele said, are four longitudinal studies, involving thousands of participants, aimed at understanding what brings meaning and purpose to people’s lives at different points in their life.
VanderWeele and colleagues at Harvard’s SHINE program have also conducted studies using his five-dimension flourishing measure in countries as varied as the U.S., Mexico, Sri Lanka and China, as well as at large corporations like Levi Strauss & Co. and Owens Corning. The program has also partnered with Aetna on a multi-year project in which the company will gather data, which will be analyzed by researchers affiliated with the program.
The goal of those studies, VanderWeele said, isn’t simply to measure whether people think happiness or meaning is important to living a good life, but to uncover – just as he did with attending religious services and physical and mental health – those factors that might be determinants of either positive or negative outcomes.
In addition to those research efforts, VanderWeele said, the program has undertaken efforts to bring together a community of empirical researchers across multiple disciplines with philosophers and theologians to consider challenging questions.
To do it, the program has hosted two conferences – the first on human suffering, and the second – held this past April, on happiness, well-being and measurement.
“Those attending were thought leaders who have been writing on this topic from psychology, sociology and other fields, as well as a number of philosophers and theologians who attended,” Wilson said. “It was a wonderfully open dialog that brought some rich insight into thinking about the topic…so it was a very productive conversation.”
“As a broader research community, we have made tremendous progress with regard to understanding the determinants of health and the dynamics of the economy…but when we turn ourselves to other topics, like finding purpose or meaning in life, or what it means to be a good person or live a good life, the empirical literature is much, much smaller,” VanderWeele commented. “Everyone wants a sense of purpose in life, yet we know far less about what leads to that sense of purpose than we do about the determinants of cardiovascular disease, and it’s puzzling that so little rigorous research has gone into trying to understand what brings people purpose.”