I am part of an interdisciplinary team exploring human wellbeing. Our specific interest is wellbeing at work, and my colleagues and I are currently focusing on four helping professions: educators, humanitarian workers, health care professionals, and clergy. Our team comprises experts from social psychology, anthropology, human development, sociology, theology, philosophy, clinical psychology and we have also rich collaborations with practitioners from each of these helping professions. Our goal is to go beyond just bringing these different perspectives together, we are trying to be truly interdisciplinary. Our deep belief is that a true understanding of human flourishing will emerge only through a rich integration of these, and other, perspectives. It is a challenging, sometimes wild, but almost always wonderful experience.
We are interested in learning what makes work a life-enriching rather than life-depleting experience. While we are interested in understanding how to help people avoid negative experiences such as exhaustion, debilitating strain, and burnout, our larger goal is to understand how to help these professionals thrive in their work. And so we focus not only how to sustain someone in their work, but even more, our interest is in how to help them flourish.
Our goal is to find answers to questions such as: What are the signature characteristics of flourishing at work? How can we know when someone is flourishing, and how can we know when someone is languishing? What are the intra-personal and inter-personal manifestations of flourishing in and at work? What factors and conditions give rise to experiences of flourishing, and what factors and conditions impede or diminish flourishing? We want to understand whether there are universals in flourishing, some pattern of experiences that typify flourishing across people and contexts, and we are also seeking to understand the ways flourishing differs across cultures and contexts.
Our team has been inspired by a recent TED talk given by BJ Miller, an inspiring hospice physician. He frames his image of flourishing this way: "[t]o feel fully human,’ he says, “[is] to experience life as more wonderful rather than just less awful." My colleagues and I want to understand what makes work more wonderful and also less awful.
To pursue these answers, we use a rich mix of methods, including large-scale surveys, field ethnographies, contextual interviews, and daily life studies. Large-scale surveys allow us to capture a snapshot in time of the wellbeing of hundreds of people. Through surveys we can also obtain data from many organizations and many contexts. The data from these many snapshots provide a wide-angle view of the wellbeing of many people. Surveys, however, can also provide insights that are a mile wide and an inch deep. And so we also get out in the field, to live and to be with these helping professionals in the contexts where they work and live. We are story collectors: we gather the narratives people tell about their lives. We craft thick descriptions of the social, material, spiritual and other contexts of their lives. We experience those contexts ourselves, and we reflect on how we have responded to those experiences. And we invite people to provide us with rich records of their daily lives. Using a combination of apps on smart phones and daily diaries, we gather, day-by-day, the thoughts, feelings, activities, and experiences of real people doing the real work of a helping profession. By bringing all of these methods together, we want to map the signature characteristics, the highs and lows, and the ebbs and flows of flourishing among the amazing people in these helping professions.
We think that the perspective from flourishing can complement existing understandings of integral human development in at least four ways:
1) First, the perspective from flourishing provides rich new ways to think about integral human development.
As scholars understand it now, flourishing comprises at least two important dimensions: The first is what scholars sometimes refer to as happiness in one's daily life. Scholars view the state of happiness as manifest in experiencing, on most days, more positive moods and emotions than negative ones. Part of happiness is feeling good. Happiness also comprises positive evaluations of the conditions of one's daily living. And so another part of happiness is thinking well about one’s life. You might think of happiness as occurring when you are thinking and feeling good about your life.
The second dimension of flourishing is more complex and probably more important. This dimension, which we call thriving, comprises several important experiences. The first is experiencing meaning in life and sense of having some purpose within that larger meaning system. It also seems to include having a conception of virtuous living, a deep understanding of what it means to live a good, abundant, worthy life and to feel that one has the capacities to live in consonance with virtue. And finally, thriving involves experiencing deep and positive connections with others, a sense of belongingness, mutual concern and care, of living well in community.
These conceptions of flourishing can enrich current definitions of integral human development. One example is research on the connections that money and material goods have to happiness. As some of our distinguished speakers have shown in their own work, research is clear that we need certain amounts of material goods to be happy, but at some point their happiness-producing benefits weaken. And research suggests that at very high levels, money and material goods might even undermine our happiness. It appears that we can buy some happiness, but sustained happiness is more than just having good things: positive social relationships, freedoms, and the ability to engage in meaningful work are other powerful determinants of happiness.
But what about material goods and thriving? So far, researchers are just beginning to explore this relationship, but early results indicate troublesome connections. For example, some studies indicate that focusing too much on money can undermine meaning, purpose, and mutuality. Clearly, there is much more to learn about how material goods influence flourishing.
My colleagues and I think that there is a deep affiliation between flourishing and dignity, although we are just beginning to gain even a finger-hold on how they are related. And we think that research on happiness and thriving will continue to provide theories, empirical results, and research methods that will advance our understanding of dignity.
2) Second, the perspective from flourishing is concerned with lived experiences. Our work, and the research of other scholars, seeks to understand the real-life experiences associated with human flourishing. What do people think, feel, and do when they flourish? How do they understand and describe flourishing when they experience it or when they experience its loss or absence? What words, concepts, symbols, and metaphors do they use to understand and describe flourishing? What states-of-being are associated with flourishing and languishing?
When it comes to our studies of dignity, we want to understand what people think, feel, and do when they experience dignity. What are the perceptions, awareness, and embodiments associated with the experience dignity, or the experience of its absence, loss, or annulment? What do people think, feel and do when they experience their dignity being honored, cherished, enhanced or when they experience their dignity being ignored, diminished, or violated? We want to explore what people experience when they uphold the dignity of other people and we will probably need to study what people think, feel and do when they undermine or defile the dignity of another person.
The perspective from flourishing also seeks to understand the ecosystem of dignity. What social structures and relationships manifest dignity? How is dignity incarnate in social systems? Data from our research have already shown us that there are deep connections between the wellbeing of helping professionals and the wellbeing of the people whom they seek to serve. Trying to separate the wellbeing of one group from the wellbeing of the other seems to do violence to the very thing we are trying to study. And so the perspective from flourishing encourages us to imagine and study dignity as a inherently communal, fundamentally social phenomenon.
The perspective from flourishing encourages us to understand context and how it shapes dignity. By context we mean the norms, symbols, beliefs, values, meanings, habitus of a particular people, and perhaps a particular place. There is much to learn about how context effects the experiences and manifestations of dignity. Much thought has been directed at questions about whether there are universal conceptions of dignity: studying the lived experiences of many people from many contexts will provide data to help answer those questions.
And, our focus on the lived experiences also opens us to understanding the potential dark side of flourishing and dignity. Perhaps this sounds counterintuitive, but we have been inspired by those thoughtful and curious people who have sought a deeper understanding of the light and dark of human experience. The brilliant philosopher Paul Ricoeur admonished us to remember that "Our capabilities are intertwined with our vulnerabilities." Perhaps he wanted us to recognize that hiding behind the better angles of our nature are inherent frailties that might undermine our aspirations to achieve dignity and flourishing for others and for ourselves. And so we are mindful of the possible vulnerabilities associated with dignity. Does dignity make us susceptible to threats even as it empowers us to live more fully and abundantly? As we seek to uphold and enhance the dignity of others, what hidden dangers might undermine our efforts.
3) Third, the perspective from flourishing asserts that subjective experiences matter. We do recognize the important insights provided by so-called objective indicators. They tell us, for example, about the ways that external factors and conditions might influence how and when people experience dignity. But we believe that studying subjective experiences will also offer unique and important insights into when and why people experience dignity. Exploring subjective experiences will shed light, for example, on how people come to know and believe they have dignity, insights into what "causes" people to feel they have dignity, and what "causes" people to feel they do not have dignity? We need to understand how people come to know or experience that someone is treating them consistent with their dignity, and likewise how people come to experience that someone has undermined or denied their dignity. It is amazing how very, very sensitive we all are to the way we are treated by other people, and research needs to address how experiences of dignity are shaped by the rich interpersonal dynamics in which all of us live and move and have our being.
A challenge is that subjective experiences are often defined and understood to be "based on inner experience rather than fact;" as "existing in the mind but not in reality" or as "placing excessive emphasis on a person's moods, attitudes, opinions, and personal views." While we recognize that subjective experiences can be limited, biased, even manipulated, but it is also true to understand what people really think and feel, what is going on in their heads and their hearts, we must study subjective experiences.
Our approach involves searching for the patterns in these subjective experiences, and then analyzing these patterns for insights into what it means to flourish and to experience dignity. We also compare experiences and expressions of dignity across different cultures and contexts. Here, our goal is to understand both whether there are universals in dignity, and also whether and how experiences of dignity differ across contexts.
The focus on subjective experience also emphasizes that the absence of indignity is not the same as the experience of dignity. Just as the absence of illness is not that same as full health, neither is the absence of ill-treatment the same as being honored or respected. We think there might be a kind of "dignity continuum," ranging from, at the high end, experiencing one's dignity being increased or enhanced to, at the low end, experiencing one's dignity being violated. There might be important differences in how people experience these different kinds of dignity. There may be differences between, for example, experiencing ones dignity being actively upheld & honored versus simply having one's dignity acknowledged. There may be differences in the darker experiences as well, such as differences between experiencing one's dignity being ignored or overlooked versus having one's dignity actively denied or defiled.
There are likely a variety of dignity-related experiences to explore and understand, and the perspective from flourishing emphasizes that some of the most important insights will emerge only through studies of subjective experience.
4) Finally, the perspective from flourishing offers a reminder to those interested in advancing integral human development, something we might call caveat mensor: "let the measurer beware." There is an old adage which reminds us that "what gets measured is what matters." This adage warns us about the very strong tendency to reify measures. What begins as a means, a way of measuring some important outcome, goal, or state, can become the end itself. When that happens, when the aspiration gets lost in the measurement, the very thing aspired for can be overlooked or subverted.
Dignity and flourishing are rich, complex, highly-nuanced human experiences. Flourishing and dignity are not static states, and their presence or absence is evidenced in patterns of experiences over time. We know this from our own experiences of "good days" and "bad days." And we know this from those painful moments when we are treated in a way that shames or belittles us, and from those glorious moments when someone responds to us in a way that uplifts our spirits and stirs our souls.
We are united in our common aspirations to develop ways of determining when people are flourishing and when they are not, when their dignity is in full bloom and when it has been violated. But the most heartbreaking irony would be if our measures of dignity turn out to undermine the very thing we aspire to promote.
The perspective from flourishing certainly does not provide all of the answers we seek; but we believe it offers important insights for understanding dignity in all its many forms and expressions. My colleagues and I feel privileged to play a small role in striving to achieve these noble aspirations.