Investing in Human Flourishing with Dr. Andrew Serazin
|Tavia Gilbert: Welcome to Stories of Impact. I’m producer Tavia Gilbert, and in every episode of this podcast, journalist Richard Sergay and I bring you conversation about the newest scientific research on human flourishing, and how those discoveries can be translated into practical tools.|
We’re so glad to be back for the first episode of our fourth season of the Stories of Impact podcast. After covering constructive responses to the Covid-19 pandemic in our first season, turning our attention to extraordinary diverse intelligences in our second season, and offering a third season of conversations around citizenship in a networked age, this season, we’re taking a new direction. We’ll be exploring the questions of human flourishing: what human flourishing is, and how scientific research about human flourishing can be translated into practical tools. We’re excited to bring you a variety of voices, each with their own fascinating answers to those questions.
But today, we’re bringing you a voice that will be familiar, if you’re one of our long-time listeners. We’ve heard from Dr. Andrew Serazin before — you’ll recognize him as the president of Templeton World Charity Foundation, which funds this podcast. Dr. Serazin is back in conversation with Richard Sergay to share his excitement about the foundation’s newest direction, born out of a specific strategy to discover new knowledge, develop new tools, and launch new innovations that make a lasting impact on human flourishing.
In today’s episode, we’ll learn that that’s not just Dr. Serazin’s passion, and it’s not just the mission of the foundation. It’s the vision that was held by TWCF Founder Sir John Templeton. We’ll also be glad to bring his voice back, later on.
For now, let’s jump right into Richard’s conversation with Dr. Serazin, which was recorded on a sunny fall day last year, with a happy backdrop of chirping birds in the distance. Dr. Serazin begins at the beginning — defining human flourishing.
Andrew Serazin: Flourishing is a holistic concept. By one definition, it means that all the many dimensions of your life are good. Flourishing goes beyond typical measures of health, both physical health and mental health. It also includes measures like life satisfaction, meaning and purpose, character and virtue, and social relationship. Flourishing is contrasted with languishing, it connotes a sense of generativity, positivity, growth, and resilience.
Tavia Gilbert: But why this focus on flourishing now? Why doesn’t Dr. Serazin think the only investment should be in addressing urgent concerns of day-to-day life, like poverty or healthcare?
Andrew Serazin: We think that there are many important areas of research that are well-funded and well supported. We’re trying to focus on neglected topics, where our funds can be catalytic, and so mainstream medical research, is outside the scope of our initiatives. Right now is a great time to be talking about flourishing. Many people all over the world are suffering. Many people are scared and concerned about social institutions, about the very fabric of our societies, and we think right now is a great time to put a stake in the ground, to raise the collective sights of humanity, just a little bit, beyond the specifics of pandemics or the specifics of economic hardships, and raise the sights and aspirations of humanity a little higher, to seek beyond just near-term concerns, but strike really at the heart of what it means to be human, and how it is that people can flourish, as individuals, and in community.
Tavia Gilbert: What are the dimensions of human flourishing? What do we already know about living a life that is not just surviving, but thriving?
Andrew Serazin: While I can talk about specific dimensions of flourishing, we are fully cognizant that we don’t know all there is to know. So when we talk about character and virtue as an important dimension of flourishing, people need to consider the habits for personal growth, and the behaviors that are reflective of good relationships with others, we can study those scientifically, but we also know that there are many other dimensions of life that are important: Physical and mental well-being, character and virtue, meaning and purpose, life satisfaction, and close social relationships. These are just some of the things that we hope to dive deeply into, to discover their roots, to be able to measure them, and to be able to promote them. When we think about flourishing, we clearly have a great debt to philosophers like Aristotle, who first describe the concept of eudaimonia, or the good life, over 2,000 years ago. Pretty much all cultures have at their foundation, a sense of what it means to be human and therefore a perspective on what it means to flourish. We’re excited about bringing a level of scientific rigor to the conversation. And so, we’re so excited to commit $60 million to the discovery, development, and launch of innovations that enable human flourishing. Science is critical to each of these steps. In discovery, we’re talking about interdisciplinary research to come up with big, bold, speculative, risky concepts that require collaboration between cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, psychologists, philosophers, computer scientists—all the research disciplines, historians, that can, that can come together around a fundamental aspect of human flourishing.
Tavia Gilbert: If you’ve listened to our Diverse Intelligences season, the value system and the vision driving this mission will probably sound very familiar. Cooperation, collaboration, curiosity have always been at the forefront of TWCF’s projects. But this new investment into research on human flourishing goes deeper than ever before.
Andrew Serazin: So our new strategy is not just about having good ideas that are interesting or useful or being published in a great academic journal, it’s also about translating those ideas into practical tools. And so the best way that we think about this is in the form of a pipeline, where we have the phases of discovery, development, and launch. Discovery is about interdisciplinary research projects that get different perspectives together to make breakthroughs. Development is when there is a specific concept that is applied in the format of a specific intervention. And so the design of that intervention, the testing of that intervention, the replication and scale-up of that intervention, is in the development phase. The development stage involves the development of new concepts, new interventions, and testing of those interventions, in real human populations. So we need the best statisticians, behavioral scientists, to get together to measure the effect of these new interventions. In the launch phase, we want a broad community. We seek to get like-minded partners together to raise awareness of the benefits of these research-backed innovations. So discovery, development, and launch—all require rigorous scientific thinking in order to succeed. In each of those steps, discovery, development, and launch, the world is already working on some of these, what we’re trying to do is bring structure around it, to bring greater focus and clarity towards some very specific goals. In the discovery space, we have knowledge of the tremendous power that exists in our mind, by setting our mind to do something, we can change our own physiology, we can change our own social relationships. Things like the placebo effect are real and demonstrable, but that placebo effect only happens because we will it to be so. There are other interventions called wise interventions that are very, very effective, because they work on an aspect of psychology to change the narrative around something. So for example, researchers were able to show a significant increase in voter participation in an election if you went around the day before to the population and said, “Are you a voter?” And all you had to do was ask them that question, “Are you a voter?,” and that measurably and demonstrably changed the way in which people participated in elections. And so that’s an example of the power of the mind. So that’s a core feature of humanity that we just know so little about, and we hope to discover new ways in which we can engage this power for the benefit of individuals and societies. The power of the mind is an example of the discovery space. Another great example is an area that’s near and dear to my heart, where in the past 20 years there has been an absolute revolution in understanding the way in which beneficial bacteria live on you and in you and contribute to your health and wellness. And so maybe it’s best to think about you as a superorganism that has human parts, bacterial parts, and viral parts, and they all need to be working together to achieve balance and health and well-being. So we’re just starting to understand those basic concepts, whether it’s in the microbiome or the power of the mind, and we foresee a huge research infrastructure necessary to generate tractable hypotheses and investigate those hypotheses and see where they lead in terms of intervention development. So in the discovery space, we’re very excited to be launching a Grand Challenges for Human Flourishing program. This is the way in which we will work on these areas, is by formulating specific challenges where technical obstacles. When we understand those technical obstacles, we can seek strategies to overcome them. And so in September, we will be launching this Grand Challenges in Human Flourishing program.
Tavia Gilbert: The Grand Challenges in Human Flourishing program is where most of the TWCF’s $60 million investment will be focused. But TWCF’s Grand Challenges endeavor is not the first such big-vision investment within a Grand Challenges model. So, what does Dr. Serazin hope the impact will be?
Andrew Serazin: We’re very cognizant of the success of many kinds of grand challenges programs in the past, to rally the world’s scientific research against specific technical hurdles, that when overcome, can unlock benefit. I was very fortunate to participate in the Grand Challenges in Global Health Program, which was initiated by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and was also a collaboration with the National Institutes of Health in the United States as well. And in that 15 year period that that program has been running, many other countries have signed on to the Grand Challenges in Global Health. So Canada was an early leader in this. India, Brazil, China, countries around the world have used this framework of grand challenges for global health to show that innovation is possible, that you can really do great science and you can also translate those, that science into practical tools. So that’s the model that we’re working on here. But the goals are different, the goals for us aren’t just about health and wellness or development. Our goals are about flourishing. So the whole strategy is $60 million over five years. The Grand Challenges for Human Flourishing program is $40 million dollars, so it’s the most significant part of the overall five-year plan. Ultimately, we want a few game-changing interventions to be discovered, developed, and launched through this. It’s a great commitment of $60 million dollars through to discovery, development, and launch. But it’s a fraction of the world’s resources when thinking about such fundamental things as innovations that enable us to flourish. And so, what I think the best use of philanthropic funds are, is to prove the concept. That we can not only measure flourishing better, we can understand its fundamentals at a greater level of detail, we can use some of those fundamentals to be developed into specific innovations, test those innovations in populations around the world, and then launch them into the greater culture and get others to come along as well. So I would be thrilled if there was just one thing that was developed that reached millions and millions of people throughout the world. It would be a great testament to the overall strategy.
Tavia Gilbert: We know from TWCF’s facilitation of for groundbreaking, creative teams to play with ideas and problem-solve — as evidenced by projects like the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute — that it has a long history supporting a multidisciplinary, or interdisciplinary, approach. Is that their hope in this Grand Challenges project?
Andrew Serazin: Science advances most quickly, there is the greatest degree of progress, when people who think differently come together and collaborate. Oftentimes the best way to do that is mix different disciplines together. The different kinds of training equips people with different tools to solve problems and to understand the world in a different way. And so multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary research is a critical strategy. It’s very difficult to do well because there needs to be a common language, there needs to be a common set of trust and relationships in order to make these collaborations work. But it’s very clear that we push back the boundaries of our knowledge most fully when people who have different perspectives come together. We are Templeton World Charity Foundation. “World” is in the middle of our name. And so, a core belief we have is that opportunities need to be globally distributed, because ideas are globally distributed. And moreover, the way that we will solve the challenges of the next century, we must have global thinking applied to these global problems. These problems and the issues at hand are greater than any single individual, it requires teams. Those teams are better when they bring together different perspectives, different cultures, different ways of thinking. There’s a global requirement that these problems provide that the solutions for them need to be equally global. So we’re very, very interested in ideas from people all over the world in different languages. We’ve got a lot of great experience in that. It’s one of our core values. And ultimately, that’s what it’s going to take in order to make progress.
Tavia Gilbert: How do those teams coalesce in Dr. Serazin’s mind? The thread that brings them together?
Andrew Serazin: A team comes together when they’re animated by a specific idea, and wondering whether that idea has merit, whether it’s true, whether it’s not true, and being very humble about the outcome. The best teams come together and disagree with each other about whether a theory has merit or doesn’t. And we’ve found that, that kind of collaboration which is humble, that sometimes is adversarial, but nonetheless is motivated by the pursuit of truth, that research can progress by admitting you’re wrong. There’s a kind of humility and beautiful humility in that formation. People come together as part of a team because they’re committed to finding out whether the idea has merit. That’s actually true and in companies as well that come together around a new technology, just to push it as far as they can. And sometimes it doesn’t work, many times it doesn’t work. But that’s the thrill of discovery and the venturing into the unknown, using your imagination, and participating in a creative act that I think ultimately drives some of the best innovations that we have.
Tavia Gilbert: How competitive is this landscape? Is anyone else doing this sort of work, or is the focus on Human Flourishing carving out a new area of study, or offering new ways of thinking about science and innovation? Or both?
Andrew Serazin: There are many people who think that they focus on well-being, or well-being is a topic of growing interest and importance. Oftentimes, though, it really just reflects mental health. Flourishing itself, it’s such an expansive and aspirational goal that I don’t think anybody is working in quite the same way. Particularly when you think about well-being, usually it is a state of physiological harmony, but it often neglects social relationships, so what you provide for others and what others provide for you. Additionally, the concept of flourishing carries with it, instead of just sort of focusing on harmony, for example, flourishing is really about going out into the world. It’s not avoiding hardship, it’s not avoiding suffering. It’s about overcoming your fears and overcoming obstacles, seeking growth, and the thrill of discovery, the capacity to create and innovate. Those core features, to me, make life worth living. And so, when we think about the competitive landscape, so much of our attention, rightly so, is focused on these short-term outcomes, as opposed to the real work of transformation of ourselves. Last year at Davos, the World Economic Forum launched a program on responsible leadership, which I think was a great way to enter into the topic. The goal wasn’t to say, we want to eradicate malaria or reduce carbon emissions, which are great goals, but one way to do all of those things is to be more responsible leaders. And so there is a kind of need for the inner work, the need for creating the interior conditions for flourishing that make all of those other goals and outcomes in our society possible.
Tavia Gilbert: What is the inner work Dr. Serazin is referring to? Does he mean caring for one’s mental health? Developing a mindfulness practice? Or is there another aspect of what human flourishing means, or what it calls upon?
Andrew Serazin: When we think about flourishing, it’s physical, mental, social, and that includes spiritual well-being, as well. And that’s probably the area we know least about, I would say. I think that it’s an area that we want to explore. Spirituality often means the seeking of a transcendent feeling or experience. Religions do, amongst the many things religions do in the world, they speak directly to the need for self-transcendence, and we can measure some of those core features, those core capacities. And the open hypothesis at this point is, when considering the transcendent dimensions of the self, or when trying to seek that self-transcendence, does that have ancillary benefits as well? And how is that connected to physical health? How is that connected to social relationships that are strong and meaningful? We, I think, are starting to get a good picture, that, that engagement of this core part of human nature, which is to sort of look at the stars and wonder why and wonder what your place is and when feeling love for another person you transcend the self. Different religious traditions have different viewpoints about the source and substance of that, but it is becoming clearer that spirituality is a core part of our human nature and it, when it is engaged, has many benefits.
Tavia Gilbert: How does this align with Sir John Templeton’s view of human flourishing?
Andrew Serazin: I think it connects a couple of different ways to Sir John’s greater philosophy and vision and his actions and his history. Sir John had an expansive view of humanity. He was often quoted saying, he quoted a Jesuit theologian, de Chardin, that “we are not material beings having a spiritual experience. We’re actually spiritual beings having a material experience.”
Tavia Gilbert: The following audio clip from Sir John, speaking at Roy Thompson Hall in 1994, exemplifies exactly that perspective. Not only was Sir John more interested in the richness of growing as a human soul than growing rich monetarily, he was prescient about how our economies would become based on ideas and attention, rather than material goods, and the opportunity and promise that held for human beings across the world.
Sir John Templeton: The next 50 years, in all respects, may be more remarkable than the past 50. I believe the world is coming into the most glorious period in history. The slow progress of prehistoric ages has ended. In this century, past centuries of accumulated human enterprise and knowledge is bursting forth into flower, and will bloom more luxuriantly in the next century. It is Increasingly clear that our society is moving away from the material basis. It is moving toward an information-oriented and knowledge-intensive base. The information economy is based upon renewable, self-generating resources, which are knowledge and information. It is inherently less dependent upon material sources such as wood or steel or oil. We are substituting knowledge for physical capital and unskilled labor, and therefore there are no limits on how much we may grow in the future.
Tavia Gilbert: How does Dr. Serazin tie Sir John’s interest in the evolution of humanity and our human economies into his own enthusiasm for Templeton World Charity Foundation’s Grand Challenges for Human Flourishing program?
Andrew Serazin: That, to me, means that there is a profound respect and curiosity about the many dimensions of human life and human experience,. and that these twin pillars of our civilization, science and religion, can work together to not only understand the world and reality better than we ever could have, but also that they had practical applications. So Sir John was very interested in the physical benefits of prayer. He was very interested in the mental and physical benefits of forgiveness. And so he saw there was a grand connection between these different aspects of life, and maybe we’ll never understand it fully, but it was so important to individual lives and so important to, to societies. And moreover, his view that, that people come together and form economies that are vibrant and dynamic, that produce wealth for people and prosperity for people, where that wealth is distributed broadly in the population, where risk-taking is something that was good, that flourishing and economic dynamism were intimately connected, actually, and that innovation and the process of creation and change and launching new products, launching new firms—those were intimate things, actually. That there was a kind of interior benefit to the practice of what he would consider economic vibrancy or a dynamic economy.
Tavia Gilbert: The practical tools that will be uncovered through the Grand Challenges in Human Flourishing project are just as personal to Dr. Serazin as Sir John’s founding of Templeton World Charity Foundation was to him. Dr. Serazin has not said this word, at least not in this interview, but I think it’s fair to say that supporting innovation is not his work, but his vocation.
Andrew Serazin: Innovation. Innovation is everything. It means a new idea put into action, and that concept of creating ideas but trying to test them in the real world has had a massive impact on almost every area of human endeavor—in medical research, in economics, in government, in other commercial applications, in the Internet. And so almost every area of human endeavor has benefited from innovation. As an organization, as well as a world, it’s not good enough to just have some interesting ideas. Those ideas must be translated into practical applications. And so that’s my passion, that’s what I think we’re bringing to this space of human flourishing, which Aristotle talked about over 2,000 years ago. So I’ve had the great fortune of being involved in many different jobs and responsibilities where innovation was central to what we were doing. That started with work on malaria bed nets, as a 18-year-old in West Africa, and the development of insecticide treated nets based on the research that we were doing. It also was true in the original Grand Challenges in Global Health that I worked on. I started companies that focused on nutrition in animal agriculture. I’ve been involved in working in affordable nutrition as a consultant to major food companies, where we had an idea about a delicious, affordable, and nutritious food product, that the poor of the world could afford. And all of those, at their heart, had both an understanding of science but also innovations that actually had a practical application. And so everything I’ve done has been focused on innovation.
Tavia Gilbert: Creativity, curiosity, innovation: How central are those ingredients to the science of understanding human flourishing?
Andrew Serazin: When we think about flourishing, it’s not just about understanding it, it’s also about improving it. And we can improve our understanding by trying to measure and being very careful in our studies and hypotheses. That’s how science works. You’re exquisitely precise in your definitions, and you use the best of your abilities to formulate a specific hypothesis and test it. And many times you’re wrong, but the understanding improves as you seek to make a change in the world, as well. And so innovation, which is really a new idea put into action, is a very virtuous thing. There’s a virtuous cycle between research and application, because both actually together move progress forward.
Tavia Gilbert: That’s a great segue. What should curious people know about the Grand Challenges for Human Flourishing application process?
Andrew Serazin: So, the Grand Challenges for Human Flourishing program is a multi-step process. First, is the idea submission phase. Which launches in September. Participants fill out a short 1000-word application to identify a specific topic that should be included as a Grand Challenge for Human Flourishing, and then lay out a research program that would seek to overcome that obstacle, that challenge. That’s phase one, is idea generation. The foundation will take submissions and coalesce those into a series of challenges. We will do our best to promote those challenges throughout the world, get perhaps other funders to solicit grant applications, publicize those topics widely. In phase two, we will solicit grant applications, and make awards and work with grantees to achieve their results. So it’s a multi-step process starting with idea generation, challenge selection, grant development, and grant management. So it’s a four-stage process, over five years.
Tavia Gilbert: Let’s bring the conclusion of the conversation back to Templeton World Charity Foundation’s commitment to human flourishing. What is the driving force behind that? What’s the driving force behind Sir John’s insatiable curiosity about the development of humans’ non-material wealth, and of Dr. Serazin’s passion for innovation and creative solutions?
Andrew Serazin: One of my favorite quotes of Sir John Templeton’s is that “we are now in the blossoming time of the creation of man.” And that was his way of saying that this is a long journey, that whatever is happening today in the markets or in elections or even in our personal lives, that there is a long arc of history here. We absolutely have an obligation to help others around us, and provide for our families and friends and participate in communities. But we’re part of a long arc and a long story of progress, and that’s a story that will continue to unfold. And in fact actually the one way that we can secure that long future, the one way we can overcome existential risk and existential issues is to focus on these conditions for flourishing.
Tavia Gilbert: This seems to me a hopeful note to end on in this still-new year. I’m sure we can all agree that it’s vital to continue to share whatever we can to ensure our fellow citizens don’t go hungry, and to address other pressing needs for shelter, healthcare, and employment. But it’s very exciting to open our thinking to a human experience that evolves beyond basic needs being met.
One of the joys of growing older is finding far more satisfaction in life — in experiencing greater generativity, positivity, growth, and resilience. But what if that could be experienced more often by more people, more often? By everyone? What would it feel like to live in a world of humans flourishing together? It’s a beautiful thing to imagine, and to work toward.
Throughout the rest of our season, we are going to be engaging with people from around the world to study human flourishing. We’ll meditate on the transformative power of forgiveness. We’ll examine the concept of Ubuntu with South African youth radio reporters. And we’ll revisit New Orleans fifteen years after Hurricane Katrina to hear from survivors about the relationship between suffering and faith.
We’ll be back in two weeks for the next conversation on Human Flourishing. We’ll hear from Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, as he discusses the strength in free enterprise systems to stimulate true prosperity and innovative thinking.
Here’s Arthur Brooks with a preview of his full conversation:
Arthur Brooks: The problem is that the productivity advances from relatively recent tech entrepreneurship have been disproportionately concentrated in the top ten percent of the income distribution. You can’t do that forever. I don’t know about you, but I’m maxed out. I can’t be more productive, they can’t– the people in the top ten percent of the income distribution simply can’t drag the cart any faster. At the same time, the bottom 30% of the income distribution has largely been left behind in productivity enhancements. We see the downside of this all the time. We see populism, and we see despair and we see people that are repudiating a lot of American ideals that we took for granted. But that’s not, that’s actually not the way we should see it in its entirety. On the contrary, we should see that as an opportunity. If we could actually crack the code of trying to enhance the productivity and opportunity of the bottom 30%, then the increases that would come from that would literally save our country. I believe that only the poor can save America. But it’s going to require American entrepreneurial acumen and creativity and deep thinking to help make it so.
Tavia Gilbert: We look forward to bringing you that full exploration, along with more interviews from this most timely and important season of conversations all about human flourishing.
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This has been the Stories of Impact podcast, with Richard Sergay and Tavia Gilbert. This episode written and produced by Talkbox and Tavia Gilbert. Assistant producer Katie Flood. Music by Aleksander Filipiak. Mix and master by Kayla Elrod. Executive producer Michele Cobb.
The Stories of Impact podcast is generously supported by Templeton World Charity Foundation.