Every other Monday, New Wine New Wineskins, a fellowship of early-career moral theologians, shares posts from members. This week, Nicholas Norman-Krause shares from some of his recent work on human flourishing. Check back each Monday for more content from NWNW!

For much of history, human happiness has been the subject matter primarily of theologians and philosophers. The eudaimonistic tradition of virtue ethics, Greek and Roman writing on the good life, Chinese Taoist, Indian Vedantic, and Islamic traditions of reflection on virtue and human flourishing are only a few of the many moral traditions in antiquity for which happiness was a central concern.

In recent decades, however, happiness has increasingly become an interest of empirical and social scientific study. Especially with the rise of “positive psychology,” championed since 1998 by Martin Seligsman, then President of the American Psychological Association, calls for a new “science of human flourishing” have been heeded by scholars across a range of disciplines beyond the humanities. One influential measure of flourishing, put forward by Seligsman, is the PERMA model, which aims to measure happiness as a mode of well-being constituted by Positive emotion, Engagement in goal-oriented activities, Relationships of support and belonging, Meaning in life, and Accomplishment. 

The new “science of happiness” has successfully begun to map the complex ways human well-being is cultivated, experienced, and shaped by various social determinants. What is unclear, however, is how these recent empirical and scientific explorations in happiness and flourishing relate to the centuries-long conversation on the meaning of happiness in philosophy and theology. Are the two even talking about the same thing? If they are, can they speak to one another?

Miroslav Volf and others have recently proposed a way of integrating these different approaches to happiness—what might be called the “subjective” and “objective” senses of happiness—with the following definition: a happy or flourishing life is one that is lived well (in virtue, with good character and right action), goes well (supported by desirable life circumstances, natural, social, and personal), and feels right (affectively experienced as meaningful and satisfying). In other words, happiness includes agential, circumstantial, and emotional dimensions. What’s more, these three dimensions are always mutually informing and transforming one another, since they are experienced by unified selves who are moral, embodied, social, and affective creatures. 

But how exactly do these moral, circumstantial, and subjective dimensions of happiness relate to another? And what would it mean for moral theologians to take seriously the ways ethical life is shaped by these other factors that contribute to human flourishing? 

The Global Flourishing Study, a collaboration between Harvard University’s Human Flourishing Program and Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion, is aimed at answering questions like these. A five-year longitudinal study of some 240,000 people in 22 countries, the study aims at a comprehensive investigation of human flourishing in global perspective. The study uses a way of measuring flourishing introduced by Tyler VanderWeele in 2017 that focuses on six key domains: happiness and life satisfaction, mental and physical health, meaning and purpose, character and virtue, and close social relationships. Because it is both a longitudinal study and a cross-cultural one, the GFS will be the first study of its kind in its ability to yield insights about causation and the social determinants of flourishing.

One of the key problems theologians and philosophers working on the project (of which I am one) will be facing regards how exactly the circumstantial determinants of flourishing shape and impact the moral dimensions of flourishing. How, in other words, do things like systemic poverty, environmental degradation, participation in thriving religious and political communities, intergenerational friendships and relationships, or cooperative forms of human work shape moral character? What are moral theologians to make of the empirical data that demonstrates the power of circumstance, material conditions, and powers beyond human control in agents’ moral development and behavior? 

By integrating detailed consideration of the social, material, psychological, and affective dimensions of human happiness with careful moral theological reflection on character development, moral psychology and action, virtue and vice, etc. our hope is to begin to build a fuller, empirically-grounded, and philosophically and theologically sophisticated account of what a happy life consists in. 

Nicholas Norman-Krause is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University and serves on the Board of Directors of New Wine, New Wineskins.