The Right to Flourish: Whole-Person Health and Happiness as Social Justice

March 2, 2023

What does it mean to envision whole-person health centered on community, time, place, space, and voices? How do historical, social, and cultural intersections shape health meanings and outcomes for marginalized and vulnerable populations in everyday contexts? Whole-person health (WPH) goes beyond physical health to include mental, emotional, spiritual health along with one’s history, community, culture, and environment, among other things. A socially just vision of WPH creates transformative understandings of health as an experience of freedom of choice and the right to flourish.  

As an educator, I approach the pedagogy of WPH as a form social justice. As my students venture out into the community to conduct their research, I want them to do the same, bringing empathy and an awareness of the historical narratives of power and oppression that impact the health and health outcomes of those who are members of  marginalized, minority, and disadvantaged communities—and ultimately, to create conditions that support empowerment and ownership.  

Students enrolled in my Health Engagement and Advocacy* communication course at Salisbury University (SU) grapple with health as an examination of how marginalized and minority populations create and own places of belonging. My students open themselves to experiencing how historical experiences shape present-day communities. As part of one semester, students, like bricoleurs, researched historical archives in collaboration with the Edward D. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture at SU, worked together with community groups and city officials at the city’s 3rd Friday event, and published their work in three original articles on Wikipedia. What the students learned and experienced also informed their articles describing lynchings, the Salisbury Municipal Incinerator, and the local Almshouse for the mentally disadvantaged.  

In the process, students grappled with how communities seek the right to flourish and own their past: Which lynching subject to bring from the shadows to global light? How to represent the historical shift in mental health from the nineteenth to twentieth centuries? How to describe changes in waste management practices? In exploring such questions, I believe the humanities offer a transformative potential for our students and vulnerable populations in our communities alike to understand how whole-person health-care approaches include the right to flourish beyond being healthy. 

Embracing Whole-person Health and Social Justice 

My scholarship on WPH is embodied in my book “Medical Humanism, Chronic Illness, and the Body in Pain: An Ecology of Wholeness” (Lexington Books, 2020). Whole-person health is interwoven with social justice. When we think about health from a whole-person perspective, we engage in reconstruction, agency building, identity examination, community engagement, and narrative exploration from multiple perspectives. Whole-person health prioritizes sustainable and whole communities, individual well-being, and dialogic relationships as important elements of being healthy. Whole-person health is responsive to the deleterious effects of racial stress and chronic diseases and attends to health inequity and social disadvantage. The practice of WPH is also in solidarity with those who struggle to surmount disparities that stem from social determinants of health.  

In mainstream media, the pursuit of WPH and well-being has intertwined closely with the pursuit of happiness, flourishing, and thriving. On the first day of new year, 2023, The New York Times ran “The 7-day happiness challenge: Try these simple steps for a joyful, more connected 2023” (Jancee Dunn, 2023). This article described flourishing as more than the experience of happiness to experiencing a sense of contentment. Academic descriptions of the concept of subjective well-being describe how we understand WPH is shaped by our cultural, religious, and societal relationships, and how these in turn, shape how we experience age, disability, and adverse life circumstances. For instance, in high-income, English-speaking countries, subjective well-being in individuals has been found to decrease with age, whereas in sub-Saharan Africa, perceptions of well-being are not affected by an individual’s age. Others have described how nonreligious individuals report decreased well-being when faced with a challenging health diagnosis as compared with religious individuals. Gaining a deeper understanding of whole-person health and its relationship with well-being and happiness can help us reduce the burden on our health-care systems and work together to bridge the gap in health disparities experienced by the most vulnerable and disadvantaged populations in our communities.  

As a WPH researcher and educator, I embrace whole-person health communication in community-centered advocacy as a form of social justice. For me, constructing a thriving and intimate relationship with the land we live on, complete with its history, ecology, cultural, and social beliefs, and diversity of communities is a first step in nurturing whole-person health for all. Whole-person health invites us to perform the labor of constructing human relationships that empower positive health-related behavior change in individuals. Through whole-person health communication, we craft a vision of health that is intimate, equitable, and relational in its orientation. Above all, by nurturing a whole-person health vision, we call for embracing the right to flourish and the right to experience happiness and well-being for all as a form of social justice.  

*Student work in the course was supported by funding from The Fulton School of Liberal Arts, the Department of Communication, and the Health Humanities Faculty Learning Community at Salisbury University (SU). Student groups received generous guidance from the Edward D. Nabb Research Center at SU and WikiEducation. I am also grateful for the support from the Salisbury waste management agency and Mayor’s office community support for participation at its monthly 3rd Friday event from the City of Salisbury. 


Vinita Agarwal is a Professor of Communication at Salisbury University. She is chair of NCA’s Teaching & Learning Council and serves on the Association’s Executive Committee.