Opinion: Clinicians and public health experts should focus on flourishing

Clinicians and public health practitioners should start considering the concept of flourishing when examining patients and assessing population-level health trends, according to a new Viewpoint article in JAMA co-authored by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Tyler VanderWeele, Eileen McNeely, and Howard Koh.

The article, published on April 1, 2019, contends that doctors tend to focus on the absence of disease as a defining trait of health, while public health experts tend to home in on quantifiable measures of societal health, such as leading causes of mortality. But these measures don’t fully account for factors such as happiness and life satisfaction, character and virtue, and social relationships, all of which can affect health. These factors, which are not easily measured, fit within the broad notion of human flourishing, which “has the potential to capture health more broadly than existing wellness measures for both patients and populations,” according to VanderWeele, John L. Loeb and Frances Lehman Loeb Professor of Epidemiology, and colleagues.

There is evidence that the medical and public health fields are paying closer attention to human flourishing. Researchers have recently developed a “flourishing index” consisting of six domains that account for qualities such as happiness, financial stability, and mental and physical health, among other factors. According to the JAMA article, the index has potentially wide applications at the patient level and population level—and across society at large. Already researchers are examining how employers might use measurements of flourishing to help assess and improve employee well-being.

The authors suggested that focusing on flourishing could also help clinicians better assess their own wellbeing and could prove useful to policymakers in addressing policy and societal goals.

Read the JAMA article: Reimagining Health—Flourishing