To promote flourishing is a key target of Positive Psychology (PP). In this blog I hope to look at what is meant by the term flourishing and how theory and research about the concept are developing. I highlight the debates and challenges and ask how you might look at flourishing within your own life.
The challenge of definition
Despite flourishing being a core tenet of PP, there is no one accepted definition of what it means to flourish. Consequently, neither is there an accepted way to measure it. There is also some confusion with related concepts such as happiness, subjective wellbeing and psychological wellbeing with some areas of overlap between them. These terms are (wrongly in my opinion) used interchangeably at times within the literature. In addition, flourishing is explored in other disciplines such as philosophy, bioethics, public health and anthropology and these don’t necessarily view it from the same perspective. Indeed qualitative research suggests that people’s everyday understanding of flourishing might differ from any of these standard definitions (Willen et al. 2022).
What do we know?
There are at least seven distinct ways of characterising flourishing within PP alone (Keyes 2002, Ryff & Singer 2008, Deiner et al. 2010, Seligman 2011, Huppert & So 2013 Vanderweele 2017, Wong 2020). The number of dimensions considered foundational to flourishing varies from three (Wong 2020) to fourteen (Keyes 2002). So what can we say? Firstly, it is likely that basic levels of human need for physiological integrity and safety are prerequisites to flourishing (Maslow 1943). Beyond this, two dimensions are core to all the models. These are the importance of positive relationships and the presence of meaning and purpose in life in some form. Thus flourishing involves going beyond hedonic concerns to incorporate eudaimonic elements of wellbeing. Having said that, most authors also highlight positive emotions and /or engagement with life or life satisfaction. The extent to which positive functioning in relation to the environment (competence, autonomy, mastery, achievement) and society are considered elements of flourishing is variable between models. The role of the relationship to the self (self-acceptance, self-esteem, insight, self-actualisation) and the importance of growth, features in many approaches but is completely absent in some. Further, the relationship of flourishing to potentially thorny issues such as character, virtue, faith, transcendence and the management of human suffering is really only addressed by Vanderweele (2017) and Wong (2020). This reflects the development of PP through the “second wave” where balance and the inter-relatedness of “positive” and “negative” elements of human experience are emphasised.
So where does that leave research?
The definitional issues present challenges to finding an empirical basis to what it means to flourish. However, that doesn’t mean we know nothing. All of the models referred to above have a wealth of research associated with them, each demonstrating the relevance of their component factors to flourishing outcomes. We know a lot more about the elements of living a good life than we did before the advent of PP, but we still have a long way to go. Clearly, the type of assessment measures carried out vary in research, depending on the guiding underlying theory, which can mean it is hard to compare results from different studies directly. Much of the research that has been done is based on cross-sectional data often with a narrow range of outcomes considered. Although the findings are suggestive, they cannot demonstrate causal or complex relationships. Many more longitudinal studies are needed to unpick the nature of flourishing and this requires time and money and is not methodologically straightforward. Additionally, there is some disagreement about whether flourishing is inevitably a subjective judgement or can be assessed objectively (Kristjansson 2018). So, should factors such as physical and mental health be considered core aspects of flourishing or are they better seen as outcome measures (typically the case in psychological studies)? There is a need to integrate research across disciplines to get a fuller picture.
A wider perspective
A related criticism argues that research on flourishing has been focused at individual rather than societal levels. While individuals need to understand how they might influence their own flourishing, this does not negate the responsibility of societies and political systems to ensure support for measures which promote sustainable flourishing for all. Some authors emphasise that flourishing is not a static state and financial and material stability (which relate to wider economic factors) may be key to facilitating pathways to flourishing, so cannot be ignored (Vanderweele 2017).
Further, research has also been criticised for examining the components of flourishing in a static and simplistic manner. Taking a dynamic systems perspective (albeit using cross-sectional data) has shown that the constituents of flourishing may not be independent but influence one another in a complex manner over time. Additionally, the nature of this relationship varies with context demonstrated by different patterns seen across data from ten countries (Holtge et al. 2022). Individual and cultural context may both be important in understanding flourishing. Further, can flourishing also be domain-specific? Is it possible to be flourishing in a limited number of areas of life, or is that not really flourishing at all? How might the spillover from one domain (context) or component of flourishing influence the system and what are the implications of this for designing PP Interventions? How do these factors interact and unfold as a process over time? It seems we still have a lot to learn.
What does this mean to you?
How does this help you in the here and now to pursue a flourishing life? It may be useful to reflect on whether you have experienced periods of what you consider flourishing. How did this feel and what factors do you think influenced it? Remember flourishing doesn’t necessarily mean feeling good. Difficulty and suffering are inevitable aspects of being human, how you manage, transform and balance these experiences with the good things in life is key. Ask yourself what the most worthwhile thing you have ever done is. It may have been neither particularly easy nor enjoyable in the moment.
To move on, perhaps it is worth looking at the two “core” areas associated with flourishing.
- Which are the positive relationships in your life? How can you nurture and develop them and /or seek new ones?
- Where do you find meaning and purpose in your life? What really matters to you? What are your core values? How are you connecting with and living these?
From the wider possible elements of flourishing you might consider:
- When and where do positive emotions show up in your life? Is there a way you can capitalise on this?
- When do you feel really engaged and satisfied with yourself and your life? Can you develop the activities that promote this?
- What are the things you do well? Do you celebrate these? Are there areas where you’d like to progress your skills or set yourself some new goals?
- When and how have you grown in your life, in what ways (emotionally, practical skills, academic learning, through good and bad experiences)? Where might your path take you in the future? Is there an area you want to focus on?
- What do you believe about yourself and the world? What matters to you beyond your immediate environment (politics, creativity, the natural world, football, science, art, saving retired greyhounds, God, beauty, fighting oppression, motherhood, helping others, making the best pancakes in the world, climate justice, leaving a legacy…)? What things do you connect with that lift you beyond the everyday hassles of life and help you feel part of something bigger? What might you do to develop this?
Consider also whether there are any barriers to these possible ingredients of flourishing within you, in your immediate context or in your wider culture. What resources could you marshall to support you in overcoming these roadblocks? An important question might also be how you would recognise when you were flourishing.
Whilst there are some key elements, there is no one right way to flourish. Further more rigorous and sophisticated research might help us understand the processes and how to support them, but the journey is our own.
Diener, E., Wirtz, D., Tov, W., Kim-Prieto, C., Choi, D., Oishi, S., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2010). New well-being measures: Short scales to assess flourishing and positive and negative
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Maslow, A.H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50 (4), 430-437.
Ryff, C. & B.H. Singer, B. (2008). Know thyself and become what you are: A eudaimonic approach to psychological well-being. Journal of Happiness Studies, 9 (1), 13-39
Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish. Free Press.
VanderWeele, T. (2017). On the promotion of human flourishing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114 (31), 8148-8156
Willen, S., Fisher Williamson, A., Walsh, C., Hyman, M., & Tootle, W. (2022). Rethinking flourishing: Critical insights and qualitative perspectives from the U.S. Midwest. SSM – Mental Health, 2, 100057, doi.org/10.1016/j.ssmmh.2021.100057.
Wong, P. (2020). Existential positive psychology and integrative meaning therapy. International Review of Psychiatry, 32 (7-8), 565-578.
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