Season 4 - Episode 445
The Global Flourishing Study represents the largest initiative of its kind to investigate the determinants of human flourishing. In this week’s Baylor Connections, Dr. Byron Johnson, Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences and Director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor, takes listeners inside the massive project that will survey over 240,000 individuals in 22 countries over five years. With $43 million in funding, it’s also the largest funded research project in Baylor history, with a scope that will impact numerous disciplines through scientific, longitudinal data on a variety of factors that influence human thriving.
Derek Smith:Hello and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors and more, discussing important topics in higher education, research and student life. Today, we are talking human flourishing with Dr. Byron Johnson. Dr. Johnson serves as distinguished professor of the social sciences and director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor. He's a globally recognized research leader on the role of religion in public life. Last week, Baylor University announced the launch of the Global Flourishing Study, the largest initiative of its kind ever to investigate the determinants of human flourishing. The $43 million project represents the largest funded project in Baylor history and features partners, Harvard University, Gallup and the Center for Open Science. The project will survey over 240,000 individuals in 22 countries over five years, supplying scholars with causal data never before collected at this level. It's been a very exciting few days here to see this study launched and to celebrate with you. Dr. Byron Johnson, great to have you on the program today. Thanks so much for joining us.
Byron Johnson:Oh, Derek it's really good to be here with you. And last Friday was a very special day when it all kind of came together and we had a chance to publicly announce the project. As you know, the project kicked off officially August 1st but we wanted to wait until we had the right occasion to announce it. And with Tyler VanderWeele, the other project director being here in town, that's why we picked that date of October the 29th to make the official launch. And boy, I couldn't be happier with how that went.
Derek Smith:How did it feel to celebrate with that? That's a group of heavy hitters that you talked about, Tyler VanderWeele, from Harvard, you and then partners from Gallup in the Center for Open Science.
Byron Johnson:It was just, I can't tell you how elated we all are because over the last three years, as we've worked toward this end, there were times when we thought it just isn't going to work out. It's too complicated. It's too ambitious. Too much money needed. And we had to have so many foundations to come alongside to make it work. And it's always hard to get everybody on the same page. And so plenty of times you thought it was a great effort, it's just not going to happen, unfortunately. But it did happen and we couldn't be more thrilled. And for Baylor to be lead on this project is also a dream come true. What can I say? When I came to Baylor in 2004, I knew that there were going to be some exciting things that we would be able to do with Baylor's wonderful support but I never in my wildest dreams could have imagined a project like this. I don't know of too many people that could ever imagine a project like this. It's really truly a gift to be able to see it happen. And the hard work begins and really it's already begun because what people may not know is that we began field work, our pilot work in January. And so we've been at it for a good 10 months already. And Baylor was helpful there too. One of the things I can't do is thank Baylor enough because we needed to get started earlier on the project but we only got approved in December and there wasn't enough time technically to launch the project in January but we needed to stay on a real rigorous timeline with Gallup because of previous agreements that we had with Gallup in terms of pricing. And so Baylor said, "We'll help get the project started early to keep you on schedule." I don't know of any of the university, candidly, that would've done something like that. And so, I said this at the press conference, you were there, Derek, just an enormous amount of gratitude to see this day happen and we're going to be front and center now. That's the good news. It's also the bad news, which means we're under a lot of pressure to deliver but we welcome that. And so I know I speak for Tyler VanderWeele when I say that. And so it's an exciting time and I couldn't have a better partner in Tyler VanderWeele. He is Mr. Human Flourishing. By far the world's leading authority on human flourishing. And so for us to have a partner like him and like Harvard. With Gallup, they're a household name around the world actually. And so it really has just been a number of things that have come together in a, I guess I'd have to say in a providential way. I don't know how hardly how you could describe it otherwise.
Derek Smith:You mentioned Tyler VanderWeele, the money is eye popping but what really stands out is the great organizations all coming together. What does it communicate about the project when you have the various Templeton Foundations and numerous other foundations supplying that 43 million, you've got Harvard, Center for Open Science and Gallup, lot of big, big time organizations coming together for this.
Byron Johnson:Again, it really is hard to believe because I've had Templeton grants since the nineties but I've always had a grant from this Templeton organization. There are three of them and at times I've had grants from all three at one time but I have never had a grant where I had two Templeton Foundations or all three of them come together. They typically do their own thing and so for them to come together was unusual. And then for them to say, "Not only are we coming together because we all think this project is that special but we really don't have enough funding in our budgets to make this work between the three of us," because they also fund other projects too so that there's a limit to how much they can give to one particular project. Then that's when they said, "We will help Baylor find other partners." And they did. They brought other partners to the table. That, I've never seen that happen before. And so to have eight foundations fund a major initiative, I've never heard of such a thing. And the beauty too of that is that now we'd like to see other foundations come on and join because they can say, "Well, they've got eight, could they use another two or three?" And as we contemplate maybe growing the project and bringing other countries in, we're going to need more foundation support. And so the trajectory of this project too, is kind of eye popping because most of our projects have a short fuse, 24 months, 36 months and it's over. This one is five years but we already are in serious discussions about a renewal. And so what if you could keep this going 10 to 15 to 20 years? It's already an unprecedented study and at that point it would become one of the greatest studies ever launched I think
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Byron Johnson and let's talk about that now. We gave a very brief introduction of it at the top of the show. Global flourishing study, how can people will wrap their brains around this, your goals and what it can accomplish?
Byron Johnson:Yeah. A couple things come to mind. I know when I was a grad student, I was interested in longitudinal studies. They don't take place very often because they're so expensive and it's so different than a typical study where you might survey people and you develop a great instrument that maybe is validated and then you survey a group of people to see what they think about something. But what's much more difficult is to survey the same people year after year after year. It's expensive because you can't lose track of them. It means you have to be in touch with them throughout the year so that you can not lose an address if they happen to move or something like that. It's incredibly expensive. It's labor intensive. Most studies are not longitudinal like this one. And if they are longitudinal, what they'll do is they'll say, "We're going to follow 2,000 people in Dallas, Texas for the next four or five years." That is a large undertaking, but something that's global, something that is in so many different languages and translations and almost a quarter of a million people over time. None of this has happened before on any topic. To say it's rare is an understatement. And so that's why this project will allow us to do what we really haven't been able to do before with such a huge number of people. If people do move and we do lose them or they die, our numbers are still going to be very, very large and will allow us to do all kinds of special statistical analyses so that we'll be able to look at different world religions instead of just looking at Christianity, which is what we often look at. And this is an important point, what about people all across the world that have no religion? They don't believe in God, they're atheists. They're going to be a part of the study. We're going to intentionally look at people like that and all these other components of flourishing. To be able to look at all the different religions, to be able to look at no religion at all, over time, if you were to write a script for a perfect study, this would kind of be it.
Derek Smith:I talked to one of your colleagues with Gallup for a story on this and he referred to longitudinal data as sort of the holy grail of polling. Why is that? And what can scholars or policymakers or certainly you and your partners on this do with longitudinal data that you can't do otherwise?
Byron Johnson:Yeah. Well, cross sectional studies, we've loved them and I'd say since I've been at Baylor 2004, we've probably done 20 projects with Gallup, all of them cross sectional, where we ask people questions about all kinds of things. But those are questions at one point in time and we can predict election results typically. Sometimes we don't get election results right but those are all kind of cross sectional so we know what people are thinking today but we don't know what they're thinking tomorrow. And then we'll go out interview a bunch of different people the next day. And so we can only do correlational kinds of studies, which means if you find effects, people can always say, "Yeah, X is correlated to Y, but we don't know that X causes Y." We really like to know that if it is causal because that's much more significant than the fact that something is correlated. And as was spoken at the press conference, an example of this is that we know that the people that regularly go to houses of worship, if their attendance is high, they're less likely to be depressed. Well, is that because church helps people fight depression? Or is that because people that are depressed don't go to church or vice versa? We don't really know. We just know there's some really important correlations there. But longitudinal data would allow us to answer at question emphatically. And so we just, we really do need these kinds of things so that we can draw causal inferences because we really do want to know why is it some people struggle so much and why is it that other people are able to flourish? If we can help other people flourish around the world, what an incredible gift we would be providing. And it's something that that's the other thing about this project, who doesn't want someone to flourish? We all do. And so in that way, the project is so overwhelmingly important to everybody. How do people flourish all across the world? And why do some of them not flourish? And to be able to provide answers and causal answers, I think is going to be just an amazing contribution, not only to science but to policy makers, faith based organizations that are looking to do work in third world countries, et cetera. It's the gift that will keep giving for many, many years.
Derek Smith:This is Baylor Connections. We are visiting with Byron Johnson, distinguished professor of the social sciences and director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor talking about the Global Flourishing Study. And I'm curious, you talked about seeing a providential hand in all of this coming together. What does the timing of this mean to you when you look at we're coming out of a pandemic and dealing with so many different challenges, is there anything you see there that stands out to you?
Byron Johnson:The timing is fascinating. We had hope that the project would've been launched significantly earlier. In our wildest dreams we were thinking, what if we have pre-pandemic and post-pandemic data? Well, that didn't work out. But I do feel like we do have questions in our survey that will address the issue of the pandemic. And so we will be able to reflect with our respondents on flourishing and the pandemic. It won't be the pre and post pandemic. But in terms of a timeline, I think Nancy Brickhouse was a little surprised on Friday at the press conference when she asked, "What can we expect? The project is just now getting officially launched, when will we actually have our first set of data?" And so in paneling people right now all across the world, we're recruiting people to participate in the study. It's an enormous task to get 240, 250,000 people to agree to be a part of the study. And then once we get them empaneled, we actually begin going into the field and start surveying people all around the world. The actual field work, the empanelment's happening now and for the next few months and then after the first of the year, we will go into the field. We'll be collecting data January, February, March, April, something like that, all around the world. And then we hope that we'll actually have data, what we call clean data, transferred to us around August or September of 2022. And we will begin immediately, our team, the Harvard team, writing a bunch of papers simultaneously. And so you could imagine the first set of papers being finished maybe about this time next year.
Byron Johnson:And perhaps some publications coming out in fairly early 2023 because most journals now publish online before they come out in print. Some of your viewers are going to say, "Oh, I thought we'd have results tomorrow." But I think other listeners will say, "That's pretty fast." And so then, Derek, once a year we would get new data and then we would begin to have time points, time one, time two, time three. Time two data would become available August slash September, the following year and then time three. People will know when the data are coming out and it's a five year project so the project would come to an end around July of 2026 but we're hopeful that there won't be any transition. We'll go right into a new five years. That hasn't been worked out but we're pushing very hard to make sure that we do all the fundraising we need to do to make sure that we don't have a gap. We'd like to keep right on going and not miss a beat.
Derek Smith:Very rigorous schedule for sure, as we visit with Dr. Byron Johnson. And one question that I'm sure a lot of people might have is they look forward to seeing data from this is, how do we define flourishing for this? And what are some ways you measure that?
Byron Johnson:It's a great question and the answer is we don't have a rock solid definition for human flourishing. People have used the term wellbeing and a lot of people have heard that expression over the years of wellbeing. It's a great concept but in some ways you could argue flourishing is more than wellbeing. And so there's happiness, there's something called the global happiness index that Gallup does. And we are basically going to be working with those folks too, on the happiness index. But if you're happy, does that mean you're flourishing? That's a really good question. We think flourishing maybe is a much broader concept that includes not only how are you doing physically? How are you doing emotionally and mentally? There are plenty of people that maybe are doing great physically but they have no purpose in their life. They're frustrated. They they don't feel fulfilled in their work and so these issues of meaning and purpose and happiness and satisfaction in your life, these things are all really kind of critical. And so we have questions on our survey that ask about all of these things, your financial situation, your marital situation. We want to know, do you have close relationships with other people? Because that's a part of flourishing. What if you feel pretty much alone in this world? As we always hear at the holidays, the holidays which some of us look forward to all year long, that's some of the most depressing times of the years for people that are pretty much alone and isolated. These are all factors that come into being when you're talking about human flourishing. The instrument that we've developed covers a bunch of different characters and characters and virtues. Virtues like humility and gratitude and forgiveness. These are embedded in our instrument because we think that these will help us shed light on people that respond in one way or another on all these different scales that have been validated in previous research that we're using here. It's a broad concept. We hope that over the next few years, the definition of human flourishing may really shift a little bit as we get more clarity from this big project.
Derek Smith:Certainly studying religion, studying the role of religion in human life is something that you've done for a long time and obviously this is going to advance that even further. You mentioned that this is going to study not just the Christian faith, certainly the Christian faith but a variety of other religions and no religions. What are you most excited about delving into that particular aspect of this study?
Byron Johnson:Well, I've done a lot of research over the years in prisons to see what works with helping rehabilitate offenders. And so it's just been a big hobby of mine. I've done it for over 30 years and all the programs that I've studied are all Christian based programs. And what we find is that Christianity and faith based programs really do help people change their lives. It helps create an identity transformation where they become essentially new people. And whenever we release a new study with some finding about offender rehabilitation and the role of faith based programs, I'm always asked, "Well, there are a lot of Muslim inmates in prison, would they benefit from a faith based program that was based on the Koran?" And the answer is we don't because that's never been studied. To be able to look at Islam, which there are a lot of followers of Islam in the world, it's a big religion but way behind in terms of what we know. And so I look forward to seeing how Islam does or does not help people flourish within that religious tradition. And Islam is like Christianity in that there are all different kinds of Muslims. They don't all look alike or act alike or believe alike. And so to be able to get some clarity on what it means to be a follower of Islam and have different opinions about that faith and how that helps individuals, is something of particular interest to me but others on our team are interested in Judaism and others of our team are in Hinduism. And so for us to explore these religions is another great feature of about being here at Baylor. We don't want to know just how Christianity influences the world. We're open to understand how these other religions affect the world. And so that to me is a very special thing that we're going to get a chance to do.
Derek Smith:As we head into the final few moments here on the program, I'm curious, we talked about at the top of the show, the scope of this project and certainly the eye popping dollar amount, 43 million, the largest funded research project in Baylor history. And it comes at a time where Baylor is really pursuing preeminence as a Christian research university, R1 aspirations that we're on track to reach. And certainly human flourishing is one example of one of the signature initiatives of Illuminate, the strategic plan. And bringing all that together, what does it mean to you to be able to play a role in advancing those aspirations and coming at a time where I think there's so much momentum excitement behind that?
Byron Johnson:It's just a dream come true to be able to be involved in a project, to help bring a project to Baylor that literally checks everyone of the Illuminate boxes, big data, health, Latin America, flourishing. We'll be able to do all of that. And the reason I came to Baylor was the mission. I left the Ivies to come here because of the mission and to be able to do something that's so consistent with our mission and at the same time to drive us to new heights in terms of research and our recognition as a leading research university is pretty amazing to be able to be a part of something like that, that will help Baylor in so many different ways. We've told the foundations that we're going to be producing between a 100 and a 150 journal articles per year. And that's a ton of publications that will be coming out that our team, Harvard and Baylor will be doing together, not to mention all the thousands of studies that will be generated across the world because people will have access to this data over time. And of course, since Baylor is the lead on this, we'll have our name, we'll have that Baylor imprint on every one of those studies. It's an amazing kind of thing that will pay dividends for many, many, many years.
Derek Smith:Well, we're excited to see that as you really dive into it in the months ahead and see those results come out and certainly the impact it can have long term is going to be exciting. Well, congratulations on this again. Thanks so much for sharing and I know we'll have more as we head into the months ahead and see results come, we'll be sharing a lot of those and we look forward to seeing that when the time comes.
Byron Johnson:Thanks, Derek. Appreciate your friendship.
Derek Smith:Appreciate yours as well and all you do. Thank you so much. Dr. Byron Johnson, distinguished professor of the social sciences and director of the Institute for Studies of Religion, our guest today here on Baylor Connections. If you'd like to learn more about the Global Flourishing Study, you can do so at baylor.edu/research. And if you'd like to hear this and other programs, you can visit online baylor.edu/connections or you can subscribe to the program on iTunes. Thanks so much for joining us on Baylor Connections.