Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion (ISR) just won the largest grant ever awarded for research at our university. With $43.4 million dollars, ISR is initiating the Global Flourishing Study, a long-term, worldwide investigation into human flourishing and its causes.
If it’s not already, ISR should be on your radar.
This small, university think tank has established itself as a national leader in the scientific study of religion through its ambitious research studies and wide-ranging publications. ISR scholars have written on topics from racial reconciliation and prison reform to art history and theological anthropology. Current ISR programs are investigating ancient manuscripts and papyri, religion’s influence on population health, the historical study of religion, and religion’s benefits in the military.
Dr. Byron Johnson established ISR in 2004 and now serves as director. He is a co-founder of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, D.C., and he directed research programs at Vanderbilt and the University of Pennsylvania before coming to Baylor. He is the author of More God, Less Crime (2011), The Angola Prison Seminary (2016), and The Quest for Purpose (2017).
After three years of extensive planning, Dr. Johnson is now launching the Global Flourishing Study, and he will serve as co-Program Director alongside Dr. Tyler VanderWeele of the Harvard Human Flourishing Project.
The scope of the GFS is larger than any other project like it, and the outcomes are far more promising. The study begins in 2021 and will run until 2026. During these five years, 240,000 people from 22 different countries will regularly respond to surveys that measure their well-being and flourishing.
The countries selected for the GFS represent 46% of the world’s population, and this project will be the first of its kind to provide such extensive, longitudinal data about humans from across the globe. Dr. Johnson explained: “Most research is in the West, more specifically in the US, and it uses Christian samples. We wanted to create a study that moves the needle both globally and on different religious traditions.”
The Global Flourishing Study is a collaborative effort between Baylor’s ISR, Harvard University’s Human Flourishing Program, Gallup, and the Center for Open Science. The project is funded primarily by the John Templeton Foundation, whose mission is to serve “as a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the deepest and most perplexing questions facing humankind.” The GFS fulfills this vision by collecting data to answer questions like: What makes people happy? What builds character? How can humans live full and meaningful lives?
An ISR press release pointed out that “researchers have typically answered these questions by focusing on the presence or absence of various pathologies: disease, family dysfunction, mental illness, or criminal behavior. But, such a ‘deficits’ approach tells only so much about what makes for a life well-lived—about what it means to flourish.”
Surveying human flourishing demands a world-class analytics organization. Gallup has helped to create a survey that measures six broad categories of human life: happiness and life satisfaction, mental and physical health, meaning and purpose, character and virtue, close social relationships, and financial and material security. Participants in the study will respond to the survey annually, and this interdisciplinary data will help the GFS team determine how factors like religion, family life, community, work, politics, economics, and character contribute to human flourishing.
“Regardless of their disciplinary focus, Baylor students can be proud to study at an institution that forefronts the study of human flourishing around the world.”
Dr. Alex Fogleman, Grant Manager
Surveying the same sample of people over a five-year time span enables researchers to identify causal relationships rather than simple correlations. Dr. VanderWeele, director of the Harvard Human Flourishing Program and co-Program Director of the GFS explained this benefit: “For example, we know that marriage and happiness are correlated. But, we don’t know whether marriage makes people happy or whether happy people are more likely to get married. Previous studies cannot answer this question, we need longitudinal data over time.”
Once the GFS has collected data, the Center for Open Science will manage its equitable distribution for further scientific work. Researchers at Baylor and Harvard intend to publish hundreds of studies from the GFS’s findings. Their hope, however, is that these in-house efforts will only be the beginning.
GFS data will be openly available to researchers worldwide. These invaluable insights into the causes of human flourishing across the world will invigorate and benefit research projects for decades to come.
Dr. Johnson told The Standard that Baylor students should know that the data will be available to anyone, including students like them: “We’re moving into a new era of research. The results of the GFS will be openly accessible to students at Baylor or around the world. Anyone who wants to join us in studying the causes of human flourishing will be able to use our findings.”
Information about what makes a human life good is also crucially important for policy makers, teachers, and pastors. Grey Matter Group, a marketing company, is working with the GFS team to ensure that their findings are widely spread and easily accessible.
Dr. Alex Fogleman, GFS Grant Manger, told The Standard: “The Global Flourishing Study is an exciting project to be happening at Baylor. As our culture today questions more and more what it means to live well—to flourish—Baylor students will be poised to ask and answer these questions with thoughtfulness and wisdom, integrating knowledge across the sciences and humanities. Regardless of their disciplinary focus, Baylor students can be proud to study at an institution that forefronts the study of human flourishing around the world.”
As humanities program seem to decline at campuses across the nation, ISR has secured a staggering amount of money to investigate the very questions animating the humanities: What is it to be a human? What is the best way to lead the human life?
At a recent press event announcing the GFS’s launch at Baylor, President Livingstone said: “Our focus on research, our Christian mission, and our commitment to facing global challenges and trying to find solutions for those challenges makes the Global Flourishing Study a natural fit for what we do here at Baylor.”
It is a truth widely acknowledged that humans are in pursuit of happiness. Aristotle and Aquinas agree that all human action is aimed at happiness. However, too often, we are unreflective in our pursuit of happiness and miss out on the real thing.
Things like comfort, wealth, or statusseem ultimately good and fitting for our lives, and yet they so often disappoint us in the long-run. The GFS takes seriously that some things contribute to human flourishing while others do not.
The GFS is good news amid the constant announcements that the humanities are dying. As humanities programs seem to decline at campuses across the nation, ISR has secured a staggering amount of money to investigate the very questions animating the humanities: What is it to be a human? What is the best way to lead the human life?
The largest grant ever awarded for research at Baylor is dedicated to these sorts of questions.These are intrinsically meaningful questions, and it is the work of science and the humanities to answer them well.
Beth Butler is a senior from Waco, Texas studying philosophy and great texts.
Beth likes to watch old movies about cowboys, sit under trees at the park, talk about culture, and drink good coffee. She previously interned at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and currently works as a research assistant at Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion and as a student assistant for Baylor in Washington.