Flourishing 101

What does it mean to flourish?

Flourishing goes well beyond the idea that we merely exist or survive. It connotes that we are to live in a vigorous state; thriving, prospering. It calls to mind images of luxuriant growth. Flourishing is living life to the fullest. A flourishing person’s values are integrated and expressed in their personal growth, family life, work, spirituality and care for others. Far from being superhuman, flourishing individuals live their lives fully rather than merely existing. At times this is bound to include suffering, mistakes, and even failing. This is why the question of what makes a good life is so complicated. There is no cookbook or formula that can ensure a particular life outcome. Our understanding of what it means to be human is newly interpreted and expanded by advances in research, technology, changing cultural practices and exposure to diverse cultures.

Within the field of positive psychology, flourishing has been identified with the concept of mental health. Flourishing individuals are those who have positive emotion toward life including happiness and life satisfaction. They are regularly in good spirits, cheerful, calm and peaceful. They also function well psychologically, meaning they have self-acceptance, personal growth, purpose, environmental mastery, autonomy and positive relations with others. In the social realm they have an attitude of acceptance of others, believe that people and society can evolve positively, feel that they can contribute to society, believe that society is logical, predictable, and meaningful and feel that they belong to a community. Using these criteria there is reason to have concern about mental health of U.S. adults. Fewer than one quarter of adults (age 25-74) meet criteria for flourishing.

What is languishing?

Contrast those who are flourishing with those who are languishing in some or most of the areas of their lives. Languishing is considered the absence of mental health and is also the absence of mental illness. It’s more prevalent than major depressive disorder. Those who are languishing are characterized by an absence of positive emotion in life. They are likely to describe their lives as empty or hollow. They are prone to emotional distress such as anxiety or anger and tend not to function well psychologically or socially. Lacking confidence in themselves, social relationships are difficult, and little hope is held for the social order. Languishing individuals have an absence of meaning or a sense of purpose and find themselves chronically experiencing negative thoughts and emotions.  Some may simply feel stuck in an unfulfilling job or dysfunctional relationship. Others may be experiencing loneliness, quiet despair, alienation, or negative self-esteem. Languishing is often accompanied by emotional distress, psychosocial impairment, limitations in daily activities and lost work days.

An excessive focus on work or a life dominated by the accumulation of more “stuff” is another form of languishing. Although people in this group may experience a sense of success and pride in their accomplishments there are often consequences in other areas  of their life such as personal growth, family, and contribution. When and if they take time for reflection they may experience emptiness, loneliness or alienation.

What are the hallmarks of flourishing?

Traditionally as a society we have relied on such indices as financial stability, a good marriage, home ownership, and healthy families. While these markers do define the good life for some people, we recognize that there are many divergent paths.  Our study of individuals who are leading flourishing lives lead us to suggest an alternative grid.  We believe that people flourish when their lives have meaning and purpose, when they routinely experience optimism, hope and gratitude and when they make a positive impact on others through their work and legacy.

We believe that meaning comes from the awareness that our individual life is part of a larger story.  At some point we begin to realize that we are connected to humanity and creation in fundamental ways that allows us to transcend our limited self. For many, their sense of meaning comes from their spirituality, religion, or life philosophy as they begin to address the larger questions of life.  

While meaning is the framework in which we understand existence and creation, purpose is what defines our specific role in that larger story of humanity. Flourishing is enabled when we find something to do with our life that is consistent with our beliefs about the meaning of life. For many their purpose is found in their vocation, others in their family life. Importantly, purpose is also shaped by the ethics of our life; our character and the moral stance that we take in the world. 

One of the characteristics of flourishing individuals is that their emotional life is primarily positive. Even when they experience challenge, adversity, or even trauma they are able to respond resiliently with hope and optimism.  This is not to say that there is no room for grief, anger, or frustration. Interestingly, a ratio of three positive emotional experiences for every negative seems to be a tipping point for flourishing. On the other end of the continuum, ratios of more than 10 positive for every negative experience seem to be characteristic of people who are in denial about the reality of the human condition. 

Flourishing individuals are motivated to contribute to the lives of others because of a deep sense of gratitude for the gifts they have been given. This is in contrast to a sense of obligation that comes from a sense of guilt, inadequacy or fear of punishment. Giving to others increases the flourishing of the entire community and leads to a greater sense of well-being for both the giver and the receiver.

A flourishing life results in a positive legacy.  We look back at the trail of the footprints that we have left and are satisfied that in the balance we have lived a good life. We have fully experienced our humanity, stretched ourselves to reach our potential, wisely used the resources at our disposal and been a blessing to those whose lives have touched our own.

What influences flourishing?

While it is important to have adequate financial resources, money is not sufficient for a flourishing life.  A single-minded focus on the accumulation of wealth is unbalanced and can result in dysfunctional families and personal lives. We are surrounded by a materialist culture that bombards us with the message that money is the most important ingredient in a good life.  Yet research demonstrates that once we have surpassed the poverty level, meaning that we can provide for the basic needs of life, the contribution of increasing wealth to happiness diminishes. Other factors become stronger influences; the quality of our relationships, meaningful work, the opportunity to contribute to others, health,  freedom, spirituality, and continuing personal growth and development.

Nor is flourishing simply the pursuit of happiness. There is an important distinction between happiness and flourishing. Happiness, or at least the capacity to experience it regularly, is a partial measure of well-being, but it is a relatively shallow measure. Shallow, because happiness can be a fleeting emotion that is dependent upon a life free of pain, adversity or even boredom. Adversity and challenge are important ingredients in the development of a quality human being. Thus, using resources to ensure happiness and avoid pain can short-circuit the development of important elements in a flourishing life. Qualities such as resilience and empathy are the result of adversity and pain. A familiar example may help illustrate this. We accept that we need to give our children immunizations throughout their childhood in spite of the fact that shots hurt. We recognize that their bodies need to combat the virus (in a weak form) in order to build the capacity to resist the disease in its virulent form. Likewise, in life, we need adversity and challenge to build our capacities, engage our creativity, develop our compassion and motivate our forward movement.

What do you mean by an ecology of life or ecosystem?

Individual flourishing is supported under certain social conditions. The illusion that we are independent autonomous actors who can control our own destiny has been recently challenged by the ways we were all impacted by the recent recession. There are clearly forces far beyond our control that impact personal well-being. People flourish when they have the opportunity to engage in meaningful work, have the freedom to express themselves, can engage in personal growth, have healthy reciprocal relationships, and can contribute to the well–being of others. Economic prosperity, safety, justice, and beauty are elements of society and culture that are ingredients in a flourishing life.

We are all familiar with ponds and the abundant life that is located within them. Scientists have taught us about the careful balance that is necessary to support the rich biodiversity. Pollute the water and the fish, frogs, and plants die. Life is a complex system in which all the parts are dependent upon the other. Change one element and it all changes. This is true in the forests, seas, cities, as well as human communities.

The English poet John Donne is famous for the line “no man is an island”. If human society is likened to a pond, then we may label our lives together as an ecology of living. Fundamental to our understanding about the conditions necessary for humanity to flourish is the fact that we are all interconnected in some way. Our neighborhoods, towns, cities, states, countries and the world are similar to the ecosystem of a pond. If this is the case, then to think about what a good context for people to live rich, full lives and reach their potential demands a more holistic, systemic approach. It does not make sense to speak about an individual flourishing without asking if their families, communities, organizations, and societies (their ecosystem) are healthy. If we want something for ourselves we also want that for others. The physical life of our brothers and sisters matter. Poverty, abuse, slavery, and other forms of oppression that interfere with any person’s capacity to thrive ought to command our attention. And thus we come to another of the markers of a flourishing life, justice.

We live in a world of unprecedented economic affluence that has led to increased health and longevity. There have also been remarkable expansions in the establishment of democracy and participatory government; access to education, human rights, political liberty, and global networks of commerce, communication, trade and exchange of ideals and ideas unparalleled in human history. Yet there is still unacceptable deprivation, ignorance, violence and oppression. Widespread hunger, violation of basic human rights, environmental degradation, that can be observed in rich countries as well as poor.

If social conditions are such that people are inhibited or deterred from being able to love God and neighbor, then the common good has not been realized. Its not only our individual lives that need to be designed to maximize our capacity to flourish but its also the organizations, communities and even societies that we influence.

© 2010 Marigold Associates