- We all come into the world with a preference for kindness and goodness, but we have to nurture these qualities in order to flourish.
- Research shows us that kindness and compassion are best regarded as skills that can be enhanced through training.
- We can integrate well-being practices that intentionally strengthen qualities like kindness and compassion throughout all city sectors.
Human beings are wired to flourish – science has shown us that this is part of our core DNA. We can define human flourishing as the process by which we harness and nurture the innate capacities within every human being to be well.
All of us come into the world with a preference for kindness, goodness, and the capacity for awareness, but we have to nurture these qualities in order to flourish.
I’m a neuroscientist by training, and the driving question behind my work has always been: Why are some people more vulnerable to life’s slings and arrows and others more resilient? These qualities of goodness are at the root of our flourishing, and while we are all endowed with them, it is important to acknowledge that each person begins in a different place and lives within diverse contexts. Different constraints operate in each person’s life, and how we respond to them is influenced by how we are raised and the communities in which we reside.
Where to begin?
Much of the focus of research on emotional well-being has been on the individual. One of the key insights associated with well-being is the importance of interdependence itself. The recognition that our well-being both impacts the well-being of others and is itself affected by the well-being of the community in which we reside invites us to shift the focus to the community itself.
Given that more than half of the world’s population currently lives in cities, we can begin to address our global distress by focusing on key sectors within cities. By understanding a city’s unique integrated health and social care models, we can both engage in and help enhance existing efforts that positively impact the well-being of its people.
For initiatives to be sustainable, they must be shaped by the specific community's needs, building on assets that already exist within that community. While there are likely important variations across cities, the basic principles for the cultivation of well-being are expected to be similar.
Where are we now?
Trends in mental health and emotional well-being were alarming before the COVID-19 pandemic–and have worsened during–with rates of depression and anxiety rising precipitously and exacting a significant toll on national health and sustainability. Distractibility, loneliness, and lack of purpose are on the rise and have dramatic consequences for our mental and physical health.
Burnout and attrition in occupations such as teaching and health care are skyrocketing, and the economic burden associated with these trends is monumental.1 Estimated costs of physician burnout and attrition are two to three times the annual physician salary, with the suicide rate among physicians in the U.S. now exceeding one per day.2 In some parts of the US, attrition from the teaching profession is greater than 50 percent within the first five years in the profession.3
The pandemic continues to be a traumatic event for all, especially low-income adults,4 women, Black, Latino, and Indigenous households, and persons with disabilities,5 underscoring the importance of taking into account the adversity and trauma that are chronically present in these groups.
In addition, we are suffering from an epidemic of misinformation. This pernicious trend is undermining the very roots of our institutions and our ability to work collaboratively to address the immense challenges we face as a society.6 Every one of these deep-seated problems is partly driven by a failure to nurture the key qualities that underlie human flourishing. Scientific evidence suggests that cultivating these abilities at scale would positively impact distal outcomes ranging from suicide to mental health, drug abuse, and susceptibility to misinformation, among others.
Where are we headed?
We have a vision that we can scale well-being by working at a city-wide level with key stakeholders and community leaders across sectors such as government, education, health care, first responders, businesses and the workplace, and communities of faith.
In this way, we can reach a wide swath of the population. Through a combination of our tried and true well-being interventions along with highly novel micro-interventions, we have the potential to shift distal outcomes that any city would care about, such as community health and crime rate.
If we value qualities like kindness and compassion, we can integrate well-being practices that intentionally strengthen these capacities throughout all city sectors. We know this is possible because our neuroscientific research teaches us that kindness and compassion are best regarded as skills that can be enhanced through training. When we train the mind in these positive qualities, the brain changes in ways that support enduring well-being.
When humans first evolved on this planet, none of us were brushing our teeth. Yet today, virtually every person on the planet brushes their teeth – this is not part of our genome. We’ve somehow learned to do this because we recognize that it is important for our personal physical hygiene. What we are considering here is important for our personal mental hygiene. And the science suggests to us that if we train our minds for the same time as we spend brushing our teeth each day, this world would be a very different place.
I believe that we all have a moral obligation to do everything we can to cultivate human flourishing. It is part of our nature, and we can begin one city at a time to create a kinder, wiser, more compassionate world.
1 Rothenberger, D. A. (2017). Physician burnout and well-being: a systematic review and framework for action. Diseases of the Colon & Rectum, 60(6), 567-576.
2 Kalmoe, M. C., Chapman, M. B., Gold, J. A., & Giedinghagen, A. M. (2019). Physician Suicide: A Call to Action. Missouri medicine, 116(3), 211–216.
3 U.S. Department of Education, National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (2011).
4 Parker, K., Minkin, R., Bennett., J. (2020). Economic Fallout From COVID-19 Continues To Hit Lower-Income Americans the Hardest. Pew Research Center.
5 National Public Radio, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (2020). The Impact of Coronavirus on Households Across America.
6 Cha, M., Cha, C., Singh, K., Lima, G., Ahn, Y.-Y., Kulshrestha, J., & Varol, O. (2021). Prevalence of Misinformation and Factchecks on the COVID-19 Pandemic in 35 Countries: Observational Infodemiology Study. JMIR Human Factors, 8(1), e23279.