Philosophy / Politics

Vatican Diaries. Human Flourishing.

Human Flourishing

Nestled in the lush Vatican gardens is the Pontifical Academy of Sciences which has its roots in the 1603 Academy of the Lynxes. The academy counts Galileo Galilei as one it’s first members. 

This Autumn, the Academy (which also doubled up as the summer residence of Pope Pius IV) hosted technologists, philosophers, theologians and entrepreneurs to examine the principles of human flourishing and consider an operational method to establish it as a broad societal target. The event was hosted by Humanity 2.0

In attempting to define the term ‘human flourishing’, Harvard University’s Tyler VanderWeele has shown that there are at least nine pathways to human flourishing:  

Tyler VanderWeele’s meta-study of empirical research has shown that there are at least nine pathways of human flourishing

This research indicates that one must consider multiple outcomes simultaneously to get a view of the whole concept of flourishing which is sensible considering that one ‘flourishes’ across several dimensions. This was also Aristotle’s view who referred to ‘a conglomeration of traits related to character, wisdom, balance, and service to the common good’ (Levin, 2021).  

To me, the pathway of ‘meaning and purpose’ is foundational to the other traits and there has been a significant amount of literature in both philosophy and psychology on the topic which looks at both the individual (subjective) and societal (objective) meaning. In this regard, meaning in life might be understood as ‘having a sense of the greater context of the importance [or value] of one’s life and actions and of life in general’. Baumeister (1991) has argued that a meaningful life may be compatible in significant ways with being unhappy, but a happy life is impossible without meaning. 

There is wide consensus in most research that ‘meaning’ is based on a number of subconstructs, being: 

  • Intellectual – the perception that one’s life has an intelligible pattern and is part of a context that makes sense of one’s existence 
  • Significance – a sense of value in having existed. 
  • Direction – having objectives that help direct and prioritize. 

In a 2019 white-paper entitled ‘Project Vision’, Fr. Ezra Sullivan OP proposes a pyramidical understanding of flourishing modelled around Abraham Maslow’s principles which better relates the individual (subjective) levels and the societal ones: 

Fr. Ezra Sullivan OP, Project Vision (2019)

For each of these levels one can rank the obstacles to human flourishing (such as extreme poverty, climate change or lack of quality education) and subsequently determine the approaches necessary for the eradication of these impediments. In this regard it is worth quoting the Gallup ‘Global Flourishing Study’ which is addressing critical knowledge gaps in the relationships among different aspects of human flourishing and its determinants by providing longitudinal data from a diverse set of countries. The study aims to address two research questions: 

  • To what extent are individuals in different nations flourishing? 
  • What factors influence flourishing in each country? 

The understanding of flourishing is not complete, yet the wide dataset available is allowing us to better crystallize its meaning and subsequently measure its impediments. By doing so we can understand how to create a localised model of operation to help all people (both as individual or as collective communities) to flourish and reach their full potential. 

Gege Gatt, Humanity 2.0 Forum [2022], Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Vatican, Rome.

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