New opportunities 

Let me introduce you to SD. He is a young Senegalese man, 26 years old, who left his country four years ago in search of a better life in Europe. I would summarise his story by telling you that today he has a good job and has achieved what he dreamed of from his home in Dakar. But the reality is that, until he achieved it, he lived on the streets, slept with six people in the same room, worked for hours carrying more than 10 kilos on his back selling towels to earn his bread and, in addition, with the little he saved, he continued to help his family by sending money every month.

And all this on Spanish soil. Until he reached Chiclana de la Frontera, the town where he arrived by boat, he lived through hell. He crossed several countries on foot, crossed the desert and ran for days on end, fleeing from the police. In addition, he suffered the blackmail of the Moroccan mafias who profit by risking the lives of those who board the boats without knowing whether they will reach their destination or drown in the waters of the Mediterranean like SD’s friend, who did not survive the European adventure.

SD, as he well knows, is an exception among thousands. Although the goodness of people works wonders, not everyone is as lucky. And why SD and not others? Well, I don’t know. I, of course, was struck by his innocent look, his kind smile, his cheerful character. We met on a beach in Cataluña and as he didn’t speak Spanish, I spoke to him in English. But it could have been in French, Arabic or his own language, Wolof.

Today he speaks Spanish very well and works in an electricity company, because on that beach where we met, many other people noticed him and wanted to help him. Some brought him lunch; others brought him fruit. Others bought him water at the beach bar. Some bought him towels without needing them so he could eat. He made friends from many cities in Spain, and during the winter, he received help from Switzerland. It is clear that the boy is loved. It was always clear to him that no matter how extreme his situation was, he would never commit crime. Many people steal out of hunger. Parents, in order to feed their children, deal drugs. But at home, he had been taught to be good and to trust in God, and he could not disappoint his mother.

The integration of these people who arrive illegally is complex. For ordinary people, the unknown is frightening. In addition, language is a barrier. They live badly until the time stipulated by law has elapsed, giving rise to problematic situations. Then they get official documentation and if a company offers them a contract, the countdown to legalise their situation begins.

This story is repeated over and over again among the millions of migrants around the world, but some are lucky enough to access education and end up with fantastic ideas to support their compatriots in their countries of origin.

That was the idea of Ousman Umar, a young man from Ghana who lived exactly the same story as SD, but who was also able to study a degree and a master’s degree thanks to a person who adopted him.  Ousman has now started a foundation called  Nasco Feeding Minds, which collects, upgrades and reuses old computers and laptops, giving new tools to Ghanaian children to help decide their future. In addition, Nasco Feeding Minds generates social and economic impact in rural communities by providing development opportunities. A story of hope.

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La felicità

I don’t know if it happens to you, but to me, everything sounds better in Italian. I only have to read or hear “felicità” and I immediately feel good. It takes me back to summers with my family, visiting, for example, Cinqueterre, those marvellous villages on the Mediterranean coast, with twisting roads, but which awaken all the senses because they are so beautiful. Or, I see myself enjoying ice cream in the streets of Venice among tourists from all over the world, or walking through the streets of Rome guided by the smell of pizza baking in an oven.
Happiness, on many occasions, is associated with immediacy, with the pleasure of the senses, with the fulfillment of our desires, when in reality, it is something much deeper that has more to do with the state of our soul or the health of our conscience. Happiness is being at peace. And what gives us peace and calm on a daily basis? What could we say, inwardly and on a deeper level, helps us to be happy on a daily basis?
What a question. It has certainly given rise to many volumes of philosophical debate. But if we resort to common sense, that which guides us without opening encyclopaedias from the bookshelves, what would we say makes us happy?
It is clear that this is a blog with a certain personal component, and the reader may not agree with the writer, but without wanting to convince you of anything, I am happy about somethings that may seem very simple, but that, at the same time, we must realise that it exists: the beauty of the little things that surround me.
For example: A sunrise. A blue sky. The smell of damp after a storm. A few sprigs of eucalyptus at the entrance of the house. A hot cup of tea before starting work. A tidy cupboard. A sandwich in good company. A what’s app with a “hello” from my husband at any time of the day. A snack with friends we haven’t seen for a long time. A meal with friends we see every day. Seeing a grandfather holding hands with his grandson in the street. Ironing. Reading a book in the sun. Even hanging a painting.
Little or none of what I have listed has a financial cost. But it all gives me peace. Valuing the nature that surrounds us and observing its beauty helps us realise how fortunate we are to live on a planet of astonishing grandeur. Parenthesis: I don’t know where you read me from but this weekend I visited a beautiful village 39 km from the city where I live and I had never been there before. I’m sure you too have many places to discover in your immediate surroundings that can bring “La felicità.”
Maybe you were surprised by the tidy wardrobe or the ironing. It gives me a lot of peace to open the wardrobe and see the order. I even find that aesthetically beautiful. And it shows attention to detail, and care, to look after things and keep them well and, above all, to find them both in their place and well ironed the day you look for them.
In short, all this and much more, in the context of the launch of HRF’s most recent book Happiness and Domestic Life, will be discussed in the land of “La felicità“, in Rome on Thursday 1 December at the Roma Tre University. Led by professor and philosopher Maria Teresa Russo, we will have a round table discussion in Italian on Felicità. We will be joined by Antonio Petagine, Università Roma Tre, Vinicio Busacchi, Università di Cagliari and Nicola Di Stefano, CNR Roma and moderated by Professor Cecilia Costa, Roma Tre Department of Training Science.
Please get in touch with me for more details  – we look forward to seeing you!

Together Here

The word displacement, like the word migration, although descriptive fails to capture what such a situation means for those who are displaced.

In our recent Expert Meeting: The Home and Displaced People, a major theme was the “make or break” role of the communities receiving the displaced. The people for whom the new unfamiliar place for migrants is their old familiar place: their home.

The question was put, how do you help someone feel at home? Not necessarily a migrant or refugee but anyone you want to feel “at home” with you. This is a subjective and complex question, of course, but some key thoughts emerged: being treated as a permanent guest does not make a person feel at home; being left alone with only people who are also new does not promote integration; not having access to the language of the new place makes it harder to feel a part of the new place.

These three insights have clear policy implications in terms of work, housing and education, but they also prompt us to look at the simple human responses of welcome and being a neighbour.

This is certainly what motivates those who are a part of Samen Hier (Together Here) in the Netherlands. Samen Hier is a community-based programme where “Welcome Groups” of five Dutch people make a connection with a newly arrived individual or family to their neighbourhood for a year.

Five points of contact means that the newcomers have a range of expertise and experience to draw on. It also means that contact responsibility does not just rest on one set of welcomers’ shoulders.  *A policy maker notes, ““I work a lot with new Dutch people and what strikes me again and again is that every newcomer longs for contact with the Dutch, but that it is very difficult to do.”  A newcomer agrees, “It is really difficult, a new country, new information, a new language…. Social networks can be so useful. For example, I found my current job via an employee at the primary school of the daughter of my friend’s neighbour!” Samen Hier helps to make it possible.

The benefits are not all one way. Newcomers offer their own hospitality, and by being made to feel a part of the new community are quick to share their own time and skills to make more thriving and integrated neighbourhoods.

The model for matching welcomers with newcomers, which was pioneered in Canada, is seen as an initiative which can become the basis for sustainable Dutch migration and integration policy. Although the programme has big aims and a strong international academic research base, its success is built on people being there for other people. National and local governments need to provide the policy frameworks and the funding for integration, but to feel at home it needs a person – or five people – to open the door.

*Material taken from The Hague Online –see link.

The Way Home to Happiness

No one is happy all the time. Even the most optimistic and glass-half-full person does not leap from bed every morning singing a merry tune. Life is not a breakfast cereal advert – we do not need this article to tell us that.

Given this though, there is disturbing evidence for many people –and many of them young – that feeling unhappy all or most of the time is a daily reality. Examining the studies that produce this data, reasons for this are not straightforward to untangle. For example, survey questions eliciting this response are often weighted in such a way that not being able to tick the “happy” box auto-ticks the “unhappy” box, when in fact a more nuanced experience is the case.

More detailed studies have focused on the impact of social media usage, loneliness, financial/housing insecurity, addiction and mental health factors on perceived happiness. Again exploring anything as subjective as a person’s sense of well-being with a set of uniform questions is hard to fully interpret. Where there are two people with superficially identical challenges – and both of whom respond honestly – one will report as being “happy most of the time” and another as “unhappy most of the time.” Having said all of this, there is a pervasive sense of dissatisfaction, discontent and unhappiness in our national discourse, as well as in wide-spread personal testimonies. (NB The focus in what follows is on this self-reported generalized unhappiness, not on those who are suffering from clinical depression and anxiety disorders.)

The reasons for this generalized unhappiness are also hard to untangle. Do we expect more from life than previous generations? Is it too easy now to compare ourselves with others and feel we are missing out? Is the focus on personal fulfilment above collective responsibility causing more of us to feel discontented? Do we live in genuinely more unhappy times? No answers to this here, but another question: Do we lose our way to happiness when we lose our way home? By this I mean have we lost our recourse to the people and places which offer us the potential for happiness, content and well-being for the times when we are not feeling those things ourselves?

The people and places are the homes, families and communities which nurtured us from birth and continue to offer care and respite throughout our lives – or can do. Two points about this to consider. The first is about literal recourse to home, that is being able to go back to a physical place and nurturing network of relationships for renewal and support.

Increasingly this is not an option as the demands and opportunities of work and study as well as other drivers mean that people move away from their birth communities. The loss of continuity of place can be an aspect of social isolation but there are many good reasons why actually “going home” is not viable or the real issue.

The second point, then, is more significant: the way in which early experiences of home build resilience and capacity for happiness that can be drawn upon throughout our lives. It is this sense of finding our way home that can offer us the resources to deal with the difficulties of life, including feelings of disassociation, disappointment and unhappiness.

Growing up in a stable and reliable home environment allows children to watch and learn how difficulties can be resolved and how those who are troubled can be supported. Not seeing life as a cereal advert, but being able to cope better with difficult days in the future based on good experiences of coping in the past.

As you will know from recent posts, HRF supported by STI has just published Happiness and Domestic Life, which lends academic weight to this argument.  If we have a place to go back to–physically or emotionally – where our well-being has been valued, we also have a way to find that place in ourselves. A Way Home to Happiness.

Is relational happiness possible?

This time a fortnight ago, we were enjoying an excellent session on happy societies and happy homes with philosopher and professor, Maria Teresa Russo. As the editor of our latest book ‘Happiness and Domestic Life‘ she reviewed the different disciplines that meet in this book, which is a group work of 14 academics from universities around the world.

Professor Russo noted that the American Constitution contemplates the right to happiness, because it is considered that society should ensure well-being, but the risk is to define happiness as an emotional state dependent on what others do for me. Instead, she suggested paying attention to a new trend related to human flourishing, and the home provides that appropriate environment that ensures flourishing; the home is the centre of our intimacy and the centre of relationships.

Is it possible to talk about relational happiness? Europe has a severe problem of individualism when on the contrary we live connected and in constant desire to meet people and relate to each other. The problem is that people are afraid of getting hurt in these relationships, and people shy away from long-lasting relationships.

But studies show that people are happy when they enjoy relational, reciprocal and “free goods”, that is the things that benefit us all, which are fundamentally given in the home. A home that is undergoing a process of digital domestication, that is, we are trying to incorporate artificial intelligence into our homes without putting our privacy at risk. “Domesticating” does not just mean bringing something into the home, but above all “making it harmless”, ensuring that all technological devices are at our service without harming the most basic principles of our home.

This is why Maria Teresa Russo sees interventionism through proposed laws to control technology in the home as a problem because they infringe on the individual and educational freedom of parents and do not solve the problem. Those households in which complicated situations arise with technology often have a problem of family authority, and technology is not the cause but the vehicle. “Delegating to governments those problems that society does not know how to solve does not lead to anything good,” said the philosopher Russo.

But to return to happiness, the home, from very different disciplines, can become the centre of happiness for the individual, since intimacy is reflected in the architecture, in family ties, in the presence of women as leaders, in the care that is put into domestic work, in hospitality, in connection with the neighbourhood and the city to which our home belongs.

Russo recalled that two million people in the UK live alone, and many elderly people live alone with no other company than the television, when measures related to generational interconnection could be developed that could benefit children, grandparents and adults.

See the session here in Spanish

Facing Winter

The summer of 2022 will go down in the record books for scorching temperatures across Europe, and the resultant destruction from drought and wild fires. Many people, though, have looked at 40˚Celsius on the thermometer and have been alarmed not by the summer heatwave, but by the thought of the winter to come.

One of the climate shifts we are experiencing is of hotter summers and colder winters. High summer temperatures are certainly dangerous to the vulnerable but not nearly so dangerous as the risks of hypothermia when the mercury plummets. The NHS in England has already flagged up an imminent health crisis when people are unable to keep their homes adequately heated.

This winter the usual practice, for most of us reading this, of turning up the boiler and putting on the gas or electric fire will be less automatic. The rising cost of energy is already biting and forecasters predict that by Christmas it will leave millions in fuel poverty. In the UK the average monthly combined fuel tariff in 2021 was £140. It is now nearly £400 and rising. Although one-off targeted fuel support payments are being paid out, they will, if the pun be excused, barely touch the tip of this iceberg.

As this is a global crisis, exacerbated by the continuing war in Ukraine, it is understandable that we can feel helpless as householders when we watch our smart-meters tick through money we do not have. Helpless when the choice becomes between food and fuel for many already struggling to keep their heads above the poverty line.

Global problems need collaborative solutions, and better stewardship of our planet and its resources, though non-negotiable as a concept is still far from seeing many practical applications. It is perhaps the only positive of the current situation that a heightened sense of urgency in achieving sustainable and renewable energy will lead to real global progress in this area.

Meanwhile, our homes need to be heated. The thoughts which follow in no way minimize the crisis as set out above, but depending on our own circumstances offer some potential approaches to facing winter this year. As always in the home, actions and activities go hand in hand with attitudes. What we do reflects how we think, so here are a couple of things to think about.

The one single biggest change to how we live in our homes was not the television or indoor sanitation but central heating. Before central heating in most homes only one room would be heated – the kitchen where a fire heated food, water and the family. It was to this hearth that all the family members gathered – not necessarily out of fellow-feeling all of the time, but simply to keep warm. Nowadays with radiators or heat-sources in every room there is no need for such gathering or such a heart/hearth place. What if this winter we made a hot hub in our homes? It would not work for every household, but for many the decision to make one place the gathering spot and to spend time together there might have other benefits as well as cutting our heating bills.

People who are only in their seventies now have memories of growing up in city neighbourhoods where there were communal baths and bread ovens. Far from seeing these as signs of deprivation they are remembered as part of a time when the logistics and costs of hot water and getting domestic ovens hot enough to cook bread made them welcome amenities. No one is going to turn back this particular clock, but is it possible that we could take a turn in being a hot house? Inviting extended family, friends or neighbours to come and make the most of our heating and cooker for supper once a week – or however often – and enjoying having the compliment repaid by going to their hot house on another day.

Thinking about our lives as lived in relationship and in community with each other is the building block that enables a global joined-up energy policy. Not facing winter on our own; being prepared to share the warmth, physical and emotional, of our homes beyond our own front doors.

No home

“After breakfast, after Stefanie and the children have kissed me goodbye and run off to the museum, I sit quietly and look around the suite. It’s like all the hotel suites I’ve ever stayed in, but this one is even more so. Clean, elegant, comfortable: this is the Four Seasons, so it’s beautiful, but it’s still just another version of what I call “No Home”.

I was reading this paragraph in tennis player Andre Agassi’s memoirs, ‘Open‘, and I was thinking of all those people who have no home to return to at the end of their working day. How many people, either for work reasons or for personal circumstances, do not live in a home, but in a hotel room, which is not always a suite. Some stay in small rooms on long business trips, roadside motels, hostels in the middle of nowhere… And I am sure there are even people who return to their house every day but have not managed to make it a home for whatever reason.
And you may ask, how important is this? Well, it is vital. Whatever their age, the role that home plays in their lives, in their mental health, in their development, in their care, and in their stability is essential.

The memoirs of this tennis player are, among other things, an ode to the family and the home as a fundamental pillar for the personal and professional life of the individual. Whether you like tennis or not, it is worth reading; it’s not just another sports biography. You might get a little lost in the story of some of the matches, but the effort, sacrifice, discipline and passion that this man is forced to work for, despite hating tennis when he was a child. How he has been marked by a demanding and severe father, more coach than father, shows a true example of self-discipline to achieve all that he has.

This is what leads him to want to have the kind of family he did not have and to care for and admire his wife and children as a daily motivation to keep going, without the pressure of winning or losing, because he knows that when he returns home they are there.

But “they” and the “home” he returns to have been built by him and Stefanie Graff together. They share a similar past, thanks to all the values that tennis has taught them since they were young. Let’s say that everything Andre Agassi suffered and lacked as a child and teenager, allowed him later to be able to value and care for the treasure of having a family where affection, calm, admiration and love reign.

“We are like blocks of stone… the blows of His chisel, which hurt us so much, are what make us perfect”. A quote from their (both) favourite film, Shadowlands, which is about the life of the writer C.S.  Lewis and sums up excellently what life is all about.

Happiness and Domestic Life

I hope you have been able to rest and are eagerly and enthusiastically getting back to the routine in your homes. As we have already announced, our latest book ‘Happiness and Domestic Life’ was released at the end of August.

Before I tell you what it is about, allow me on behalf of HRF to thank STI for supporting us in getting this work off the ground, Routledge for their confidence once again, this is our third book with them, and all the academics who have contributed, editors and authors who will be appearing throughout the text.

As editor María Teresa Russo explains in her introduction, this book aims to provide a mainly conceptual framework for the relationship between the quality of domestic life and the home environment (family relationships, technical tools, housing style, household chores) and individual and social happiness, especially in the context of current changes.

Two important factors determining the issue of happiness and well-being have themselves been affected by the recent COVID-19 pandemic: the relationship between an individual’s quality of life and engagement with his or her community, and the role of new technologies in everyday life.

The authors highlight, from different perspectives, that happiness has a clear relational character and it is essential for its promotion that it is the central pillar of the family environment. Three dimensions of psychosocial well-being in the home are analysed: the personal, which consists of a sense of stability, intimacy and sharing; the social, which considers the domestic environment as a place for civic education; and, in times of pandemic, the place of professional and physical activity, which consists of spaces, services and architectural styles.

The themes addressed by experts from different countries and disciplines (sociology, architecture, philosophy, education, economics, ethics) fall into four thematic axes. The first focuses on happiness between the private and public spheres from a philosophical and psychological point of view. The authors of this section (Nogal; Chirinos; Gawkowska) propose a model in which home and care, notions that have vulnerability and human relationality as a common thread, are valued as two indispensable elements for individual and social well-being.

The second section analyses the role of digital media and domestication in fostering domestic well-being from a sociological point of view (Bakardjieva; Wessels; Malagrinò). The analysis focuses on the changes in activities, relationships and roles in the home when digital media become deeply and intimately embedded in the spaces and rhythms of the home.

The third examines the home as a place of work, care and creativity, from an educational and anthropological point of view, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic (Díaz, Martín-Sierra and Herrero; Farrell; De Nardo; Grau-Grau, Selvam and Cavallotti). The three traditional approaches to happiness (momentary happiness, subjective well-being and eudemonic well-being) are analysed in relation to the paid work activity that the COVID pandemic transferred to the home, and the more intense family life during the period of confinement.

Finally, the fourth section highlights factors that contribute to supporting happy and functional homes, from the architectural and sociological perspectives of architecture and sociology (Davies; Thunder and Serrano-Núñez; Al-Thahab). These include the physical layout and design of houses, the contrast between tradition and innovation, and social relations in the neighbourhood as a means of bringing families into the life of the wider society.

These issues lend themselves to further fruitful empirical research: we hope that this book will provide a valuable conceptual basis for development in different directions.

This book is both an important milestone in the study and policy of the home’s vital contribution to wellbeing, and a key read for anyone concerned with the true value of home.

Attachment to place

Forgive me for personalising this post so much, but I find myself in a life situation that truly reflects the focus of our forthcoming book ‘Happiness and Domestic Life‘ already on sale, and one that speaks to the focus of our next Experts Meeting ‘The Home and Displaced People‘ that we will be holding in Washington in September at the Catholic University of America.
As once again, for work-related reasons, I am moving to another country.
For the past five and a half years I have been writing and working from Brussels. A very cosmopolitan city whose population is difficult to calculate as the turnover of people is extremely high and the MEPs of the 27 countries that make up the European Union come and go from Monday to Friday.
And although during these five years I have welcomed and said goodbye to many people, I never imagined the attachment I would feel for this place and for this country which despite being very different from mine, has become my home. It’s hard to leave and say goodbye, it’s hard to turn the page, and it’s hard to pack up and pick up everything I’ve lived through. It is a great physical, mental and emotional effort. These are weeks of instability and uncertainty.
At the age of 18, I left my hometown of Logroño to study and I never went back to live there again. It was my home place, which my parents tried hard to make sure met all the requirements of a home. A place for the growth and development of a person: stable, warm, friendly and happy. It is that HOME with a capital H because it is the one that will always serve as a reference point for me and because it is the one I still call “My home”. To differentiate it from the different homes that I have created and built throughout my life, I sometimes specify “my parents’ home”. But when you come and go so much and you have to create, cherish and then say goodbye to homes so many times, that first home becomes even stronger.
Well, as I said, after different homes in Spain, our stay in the UK and Belgium, we are going back to Spain. The feeling is enormously contradictory, I feel sorrow and joy at the same time. I feel that I am leaving here in Brussels a root that had germinated and was growing strongly and I feel that, once again, I have to sow again. It is a never-ending story, but one that always brings good things, despite the difficulty of the situation.
And my experience is one that is shared by many people who, wanting to improve in our professional lives and grow in our personal lives, have freely decided to take this step and assume these risks that in one way or another bring enormous instability. But it is a free decision. I can’t imagine what it means for all those who leave because of war, hunger, or obligation. Often running, leaving family members behind, separating from their children, parents, grandparents… Uprooting dramas that affect the person so fundamentally.

And now that I have to start again, and reading the book that you will soon be able to hold in your hands, the question is key: what must a home be like to be happy? what relationship exists between the home and the happiness of the person and their development? to what extent does the home form part of a larger community on whose wellbeing it also depends?

I leave you with these questions for reflection. If you have a home, value it and care for it. If you are in a delicate or difficult home situation, I give you hope because the key lies in the simplicity of daily care.

Home Again

Photographs of Mariapol’ and Kharkiv in Ukraine tell the story of devastation – of buildings, and of the lives of those who once peacefully and simply lived in them. We can see the same impact looking at aerial views of Aleppo, Beirut, and the towns of Eastern Afghanistan: the first destroyed by war, the second by an explosion, and the last by the very recent earthquake in that region. Whatever the cause, the rubble and the tragic remains of what had been places of family safety and pride touch our hearts.  Although we pray that it will never be our story, it is not hard for us to enter the stories of others as we see the broken fragments of these much-loved homes.

It is also not hard to feel despondent – how can these broken places be mended? How can they ever be called home again? The places referred to above are still in the early stages, if at all, of being able to even think about “what next?” There are though examples which offer whispers of hope to those whose homes seem gone forever. One such whisper or glimpse is the story of Roombeek in the Eastern Netherlands.

Roombeek is a suburb of the Dutch city of Enschede. On 13th May 2000 a fireworks warehouse exploded, killing 23 people and injuring nearly 1000 more. In total 2000 homes were either destroyed or seriously damaged. This was not a war-torn land or a place of natural disaster, but for the inhabitants, the loss of home was nonetheless as heart-breaking as it was life-changing.

What happened next was inspirational. The national and local governments saw the rebuilding of Roombeek as an opportunity for its residents to have real say in what the rebuilt community should be like. Questions were asked about what was really valued. The answers to these questions were very encouraging. The priorities were that the past should not be forgotten but that the building should look to the future. For this reason the general ground plan of the area was kept the same. People wanted to return to familiar surroundings and to feel at home, but not for each home to be rebuilt brick by brick. There was a recognition that what made Roombeek home was more than the houses themselves. It was about being neighbours as well as households.

People wanted neighbourhoods that were safe and welcoming for all. Certainly that each home should reflect the needs of the household, but more than this, that each home would have, metaphorically and often actually, its doors open to others.  With the guidance and skill of sympathetic architects and with the financial commitment of the government, twenty two years on Roombeek is a thriving place of real community and with confidence in its future.

This is a vision to hold onto as we contemplate the destroyed places of today. They need the will and means and skills of many agencies to become places where people can feel at home again. They also need the will and skill of those people themselves: to make each other feel at home again too.

The contribution of home to the well-being of individuals and their communities cannot be overestimated. Our new publication ‘Happiness and Domestic Life’ examines the vital connections between the home and human flourishing. To order an advance copy please click here.