Foundations for Flourishing

Collaboration for a Higher Purpose

Foundations for Flourishing

Baylor researchers are distinctly called to promote human flourishing, motivated by compassion and a conviction that every life deserves dignity. Their research addresses acute challenges and builds foundations and tools that enable individuals and societies to flourish.   

Sarah Schnitker
Associate Professor of Psychology
  • Psychology researcher examining virtue and character development in adolescents and emerging adults.
  • Co-leader of $2.5 million interdisciplinary research project to equip theologians with psychological methods and training
  • Launched the Baylor Research in Growth and Human Thriving Center (BRIGHTS) to catalyze human flourishing research across disciplines.
Pablo Rivas
Pablo Rivas Assistant Professor of Computer Science
Craig Gundersen
Snee Family Endowed Chair at the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty
  • Agricultural economist utilizing interdisciplinary approaches to understand and alleviate food insecurity.
  • His game-changing research into the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) positively impact the program’s perception and viability.
  • Developed metrics utilized by food banks across the nation to evaluate effectiveness in addressing community needs.
Renée Umstattd Meyer
Professor of Public Health
  • Community-focused public health researcher with an emphasis on health equity through active living.
  • External funding sources include the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and American Heart Association (Voices for Healthy Kids).
  • Collaborates with rural and underserved communities across the nation to foster opportunities and resources that promote healthy living for all people.
Byron Johnson
Distinguished Professor of Social Sciences and Founding Director of Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion
  • Leading social scientist and human flourishing researcher who established Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion 
  • Co-Director of the Global Flourishing Study, a $43.4 million partnership with Harvard University, Gallup and the Center for Open Science.
  • The five-year, longitudinal Global Flourishing Study will survey some 200,000 individuals in 22 countries, and recently made its initial data accessible to the scholarly community.

Q & A With Baylor's Human Flourishing Researchers

When the topic of human flourishing arises, Baylor University researchers routinely verbalize an individual and shared conviction: Baylor is exactly the place where high-level research to promote flourishing should occur.

Baylor researchers are bound by a distinct calling, motivated by compassion and a belief—put into practice—that every life deserves dignity. Their research addresses acute challenges and builds tools that promote individual and societal flourishing. That culture yields collaborations across disciplines that address individual blind-spots and acknowledge the complex nature of the challenges people face.

The foundations Baylor’s work has shaped—the most comprehensive longitudinal study ever undertaken to understand human flourishing, tools in use by government and food banks to address food insecurity, resources for public health, or initiatives to address ethical questions in technology or medicine—are built on a shared sense of mission and research excellence that extends far beyond campus to love and serve our neighbors in tangible ways.

How does the idea of human flourishing motivate your research?

Sarah Schnitker:

When we think about flourishing, there are multiple theories that we could go to in psychology, but I believe the ones that get the most traction examine the flourishing of the individual in relation to their context. So, it's not just my happiness, my eudaimonia, my meaning and purpose, but also that I'm contributing to my group and that I am not doing this at the expense of others. In that regard, it’s inherently moral. We tend to also take a very goal-directed approach, and it's about humans as goal-directed creatures, doing good and being good.

I study virtue, so there’s an element of measuring the unmeasurable. But our approach to measurement is measuring what people do on a repeated basis and what they're trying to do, , and then to tap into why they're doing things. It’s challenging work, but we press forward in multi-method approaches.

Craig Gundersen:

Food security is, in some sense, a necessary condition for human flourishing. If somebody is going without food, this is a serious impediment. Further, I believe that food insecurity can be a signal for aspects of our country and world, whereby people are not fully flourishing.

Let me give a few examples. There are four groups in the United States and elsewhere that have a particular risk of being food insecure. First, those with mental and physical health disabilities; secondly, those with addictions; thirdly, those who are lonely; and fourth, those who were recently incarcerated. In some sense, those are four groups in our society that often are not fully part of our flourishing. And we care about them here at Baylor.

I wish I could speak more from a philosophical or theological perspective, but I'm just a simple economist, and what I do is look at the determinants and consequences of food insecurity. And through my work I try to have an impact on public policy and to create tools that food banks can use to alleviate food insecurity.

Byron Johnson:

Questions of human flourishing have motivated me throughout my career. We know that many people are not doing well, as rates of loneliness, for example, continue to rise.  That is why it is important to understand both how and why some people and societies flourish. What does it look like to experience the abundant life? The Global Flourishing Study (GFS) is an unprecedented project that will allow us to explore the determinants of flourishing for the first time in a longitudinal design, where we are collecting data annually for five consecutive years on the same people (more than 200,000 in total) from around the world.

The sheer size of the project is a constant reminder of why it’s so meaningful to have this kind of an interdisciplinary conversation. Human flourishing is such a complex topic that you can't adequately study it from just one field or perspective. We have come to recognize that we have blind spots in each of our specific disciplinary approaches. This realization has also helped us to appreciate the need for an emphasis on humility and understanding that we have a lot to learn from others about what it means to flourish.

In what ways do you focus your research on impact that ripples beyond the individual project?


Renée Umstattd Meyer:

My research is predominantly in partnership with rural communities, to understand and improve access to safe places for all people to be active where they live, work, and play. Through a public health lens, we start with the broader community context while also considering the families and individuals who reside within these communities—do they have access to resources to make healthy choices? 

We don’t want to merely collect data to understand what is happening, but to also help educate and deliver this data with evidence-based solutions back to the communities so that they can use their own data to best serve all their residents. Delivering on this broader focus, these communities know what their strengths are and can use their data to help support and advocate for changes to make a difference for the people living there. This is a huge responsibility, and one we take seriously at Baylor. 

It's funny, because outside of a Baylor context, I don’t use the words ‘human flourishing’ when talking about my research, but it really is all about human flourishing. It is incredible to think about the fact that each of us, in our own disciplines, is called to pay attention to this—to serve marginalized and often forgotten communities and populations, partnering with them to identify solutions and in many instances provide them with tools they can use to help all people thrive.

Pablo Rivas:

We’re forming the Center for Standards and Ethics in Artificial Intelligence with support from the National Science Foundation, and have been able to lead a collaborative effort in addressing questions related to AI and technology. We focus on AI as a tool to help people flourish, but our work is also preventive. Societally, technology can become a hurdle or prevent people from flourishing in the wrong hands or wrong uses.

It’s a natural fit for Baylor to address these ethical questions. We’re growing a collaboration of institutions to examine privacy issues, security concerns or legal protection. Someone has to be asking these questions and studying them at high level. It’s important for us to focus on more than just profit or technological growth, but on people—this Center can be a voice for that.

Byron Johnson:

The Global Flourishing Study is a partnership with Harvard, Gallup, and the Center for Open Science. Baylor is blessed to have an incredible set of collaborators. Because the GFS is an open access project, the first wave of data will be made available to the public in January of 2024. It will lead to academic papers and will be a catalyst for individuals around the world. But it’s potential goes far beyond that. The project will provide data that will not only increase our knowledge in a host of academic fields, but it has the potential to be a resource to faith-based organizations, non-profits, businesses, public policy, and more. It's the gift that will keep giving for many, many years to come.

Craig Gundersen:

In the food insecurity space, it’s not just policy we hope to impact. If you look at those who are ‘on the ground’ to address food insecurity, the overwhelming majority of those come from a faith background, whether it be the work of the Salvation Army or Catholic Charities.

I think that the critical importance of our faith-based organizations is often overlooked. The work we do at Baylor informs conversations within groups doing work on the ground that has a real influence. At Baylor, we’re communicating with our research collaborators around the world and have an influence there, but we also can work with the charitable organizations that serve others.

How would you describe Baylor’s culture of collaboration across disciplines?

Sarah Schnitker:

First, interdisciplinary work requires humility and a lot of patience. It takes longer, but it has immense payoff in the long-term because we’re talking about big questions of life. These are wicked type problems to solve, and it is hubristic to think one discipline could tackle this. 

Interdisciplinary work gets you a whole lot closer to understanding the truth of the matter and to understanding what solutions could actually be tractable in the world. But initially, it's much slower, because we constantly have to define our terms. But we have resources in place, like the BRIGHTS Center and Baylor Ethics Initiative, to facilitate this—bringing faculty from different backgrounds together and encouraging interdisciplinary relationships. And we’ve had major research projects develop from this. It’s something that is valued.

Renée Umstattd Meyer:

I think an amazing part of being here at Baylor is having a shared ethos with my colleagues through our sense of calling and mission.  At Baylor, I think there is a difference in our passion given that we feel called to be here for this time, with a goal for impact in this space that we've been given. This is an aspect that helps smooth and maybe even advances conversations faster in our collaborations.

Pablo Rivas:

I’m very passionate about responsible AI, and I think the world needs a Baylor who cares about this. As I work with other faculty, it helps that we have shared values, and that the institution backs us up in issues like social justice, privacy, or serving people who don’t have the means or understanding to defend themselves amidst a growing technology. As I look for partners, it has been very easy to connect with other outstanding researchers because our community is a wonderful community of collaboration.