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Support for Flourishing: A Socio-Ecological Model

Updated: Jun 4, 2021


Over the last decade, teachers and leaders in education have made increasing efforts to support the complete well-being of children and young adults. Different models and approaches have appeared on the educational landscape, including resilience training, social emotional learning, restorative practices, social-relationship building, and trauma-informed education. Despite implementing these approaches and models, the well-being of youth and the individuals who work with them has reached a crisis point; the COVID-19 pandemic has further revealed underlying issues. As such, the United States must rethink the purpose of and its approach to supporting and preparing its citizens, especially children, for a world that is becoming increasingly unpredictable and unstable.

Human flourishing is not a new concept. Many philosophers have proposed this in the past, and though there is no agreed upon definition of flourishing, there is broad census that for an individual to flourish they must do well in the following five domains: (1) Mental and Physical Health (2) Meaning & Purpose (3) Close Social Relationships (4) Character & Virtue and (5) Happiness & Life Satisfaction (VanderWeele, 2017). Instead of addressing well-being issues after they arise, the pandemic has underscored the need for society to have the structures in place to proactively promote flourishing before deficits in well-being arise.

Flourishing is a state in which all aspects, i.e., domains of a person’s life are good. VanderWeele notes that each domain is generally viewed as an end in itself, and is nearly universally desired. Because, humans are social by nature, we cannot flourish in isolation. Individuals are connected to many in different ways. We interact with others within various communities, contexts and environments. And we do so throughout the developmental stages of our lives. These connections and environments support or prevent current flourishing, and the potential for future flourishing.

To account for the interrelatedness and interdependence of human flourishing, we must look at the entire social ecology of individuals in order to measure and support flourishing. As such, I propose the following socio-ecological framework for thinking, designing, and measuring flourishing.

A Framework for Flourishing

There are four levels to this framework: individual; connections; organizations and contexts; and society and systems.

Individual Level

Individuals go through developmental stages in life. Here, they are described as the emerging individual, testing individuality, individual refined, individual arrived, and supported individual. Our developmental needs and goals change over the course of the lifespan.

  • In the early childhood years, there is a focus on emotions, self regulation, social skills, and relationships. These skills continue to grow and refine throughout life. We develop and refine individual skills and gifts.

  • In adolescence, we try on different personalities, explore who we are, and explore likes and dislikes.

  • In early adulthood, thought of as the psychological peak, individual gifts and skills are peaking. We refine our social group affiliations and begin to accumulate individual resources. This is a time when individuals are evaluating available choices and beginning to take responsibility for pursuit of their own path and contribution to their community and larger society.

  • In middle adulthood, individuals' viewpoint of the world may be tested but their personal experiences have led them to a mostly rigid view. Their experiences to date have helped them evaluate who they wish to affiliate with and spend the gift of their time and companionship. They begin to think deeply about their own impact on their loved ones, their community, and broader society. Their impact and influence is considered in light of accumulated access to choices, resources, and health.

  • In late adulthood. There is the pursuit of activities, social affiliation, and social affiliations based on the accumulated choices resources and health that have happened over their lifetime.


Closest to the individual are the connections with family and others. Families make a substantial impact on individuals. There are also other connections with impact: spiritual and religious community connections, interpersonal relationships outside of the family, as well as other affiliations based on shared interests and culture. Though types of connections are continuous throughout our lives, specific connections change and refine.

Organizations and Contexts

There are organizations and contexts in which we spend a substantial amount of time. Beginning at age four, individuals move outside the immediate surroundings of their family and into a system of education and care. As we move into early adulthood, there is a significant portion of time spent in post secondary education or employment. Later, the environments in which we spend our time are discretionary and based on the accumulated choices we’ve made and resources that we have.

Society and Systems

Finally, individuals live within a broader society, its regulations, and its systems. On top of connections and acting within organizations and environments, we have society. Society includes various systems, including: law and criminal justice; medical care and public health; and others. These systems can support or constrain our ability to flourish.

Importance and Impact

This framework describes the stages, connections, contexts, and systems in which individuals live and act. By operationalizing each piece, we can begin to measure them to determine the extent to which individual flourishing is being supported and realized.


From the context and rationale for the Education for Flourishing Summit: A Call to Rethink Education in Light of COVID-19 Pandemic held virtually Aug 6-7, 2020. A summit cohosted by St. Louis University Consortium for Human Flourishing, The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University, and Notre Dame of Maryland University.

VanderWeele, T. J. (2017). On the promotion of human flourishing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 114, 8148–8156. doi:10.1073/pnas.1702996114

The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University: Flourishing Measure. Available at

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