What is flourishing and how can it happen?
Have you ever wondered what it takes to live beyond just getting by? Have you pursued personal happiness yet still felt a sense of emptiness? Have you aspired for more in life, to thrive? If so, you may be yearning to flourish.
Flourishing has been found to enhance psychological and physical well-being, strengthen relationships, promote prosocial behaviours, improve quality of life, and increase life expectancy (Keyes, 2007). Unfortunately, less than one-fifth of the adult population are found to be flourishing (Keyes, 2007). Therefore, the purpose of this chapter is to help people understand what flourishing is and how to flourish in their daily lives.
The chapter begins with an overview of the key concepts and the theoretical perspectives involved in flourishing. The following sections explore the symptoms and elements of flourishing. The chapter concludes with ways to cultivate flourishing in daily life.
What is flourishing? Edit
Flourishing is living a life of optimal human functioning, through experiencing predominantly positive emotions, positive psychological well-being and positive social well-being (Keyes, 2002). Optimal human functioning involves cultivating strengths, resilience, gratitude, growth, and generativity (Fredrickson & Losada, 2005). Flourishing people are engaged and connected to others in positive relationships, looking to improve the lives of others and see themselves as part of a delicate ecosystem (Narvaez, 2015). Individuals who are flourishing are content within themselves, believing they have a sense of purpose and control over their lives (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Flourishing is a state of being, rather than the pursuit of certain feelings or experiences (Keyes, 2002).
Flourishing is not the absence of mental disorders or negative emotions, but rather it's on a separate continuum of mental health and well-being (Keyes, 2007). Consequently, in order to claim that a person is flourishing, it is not enough to state that an individual is free of negative emotions (which is not plausible) or free of mental illness; instead flourishing requires a person to accept most parts of themselves and develop positive emotional, psychological, and social resources (Keyes, 2007). Flourishing is the opposite of languishing, which is characterised as having simultaneously low levels of emotional, psychological, and social well-being (Fredrickson & Losada, 2005).
"When starting university, I struggled to complete my coursework. I went to seek help and found out I had a visual processing disorder. Finding out was one of the best things that could have happened to me because it enabled me to go from languishing, surpass merely surviving, to thriving. Initially, I was told that the best I could hope for with my disorder was to pass my units. Although, I knew I could achieve more once I discovered what was holding me back, so I sought the extra help that I needed to go from floundering in high school to achieving a high distinction average at university. Flourishing for me was more than just surviving my disorder; it was seeking the nutrients and environments that enabled me to thrive. My disorder has it's challenges. However, the challenges provide me with the opportunity to grow and learn new tools in order to help others." (Author).
Theoretical frameworks Edit
Flourishing is a key component of positive psychology (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005). Positive psychology is the scientific study of mental health and well-being (Seligman et al., 2005). The findings of positive psychology and the study of flourishing seek to provide a balanced perspective of human experiences, viewing mental health and mental illness as separate, but related continua (Seligman et al., 2005).
Dual-factor model of mental health and mental illness Edit
Mental health has long been thought to be the at the opposite end of the mental illness and flourishing was thought to occur in the absence of mental illness (Antaramian, 2015). However, the dual-factor model of mental health and mental illness proposes that mental health and mental illness are correlated, but two distinct factors (Westerhof & Keyes, 2009). Research by Antaramian (2015) tested this theory and found support for the dual-factor model of mental health and mental illness reporting four different categories (see Table 1); reporting that a group of individuals with a mental illness were also found to have high levels of mental health and flourishing, while a second group of people without mental illness also reported poor mental health and languishing. This is a promising result for those living with a mental illness, as Antaramian demonstrated that flourishing is on a separate continuum. Consequently, a person's ability to flourish is not dependent on them being free of mental illness. Although, the study also reported that the group with the highest rates of flourishing were those categorised as high in mental health and low in symptoms of mental illnesses. Therefore, although mental health and mental illness are on different continua it is important to address both (Antaramian, 2015).
Four of the Categories Identified in the Dual Factor Model of Mental Health and Mental Illness (Antaramian, 2015)
|Optimal mental health with mental illness
|Optimal mental health without mental illness|
|Poor mental health with mental illness
|Poor mental health without mental illness|
Broaden-and-build theory Edit
The broaden-and-build theory examines how positive emotions promote flourishing (Fredrickson, 2013). Experiencing both positive and negative emotions are essential for human survival (Fredrickson, 2013). However, human flourishing takes place when a person experiences three times as many positive emotions to negative emotions in their daily life (Fredrickson & Losada, 2005). Negative emotions serve the purpose of narrowing our attention to specific immediate actions, whereas positive emotions broaden human awareness to a vast range of thoughts and experiences (Fredrickson, 2013). Over time, these broadened perceptions build the acquisition of greater mental, physical, and social resources, creating an upward spiral that enables flourishing to occur and in turn developing protection against long-term threats to survival, such as being able to relate to others effectively and problem-solve (Fredrickson, 2013).
An increasing amount of empirical research demonstrates support for the broaden-and-build theory. For example, an experimental study by Schmitz, De Rosa, and Anderson (2009) found that positive emotions literally broadened individual's perspective of their world. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) they showed that positive emotions enlarged a person's perceptual scope of encoding in their visual cortex (i.e., that the participants were able to visually absorb increasingly more stimuli in their environment), compared to those experiencing negative (where a person's field of view narrowed) or neutral emotional states. Additionally, longitudinal studies have shown that building daily experiences of positive emotions has a beneficial influence on the parasympathetic nervous system, which in turn can enhance behavioural and cognitive flexibility, physical well-being, and social attunement (Fredrickson, 2013).
Self-determination theory Edit
Self-determination theory examines how social and environmental factors influence a person's ability to build inner resources (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Social and environmental factors can either decrease or increase self-motivation, social functioning, and personal well-being, depending on how a person takes on extrinsic contingencies and transforms them into their own personal motivations (Ryan & Deci, 2000). When performing a task an individual experiences more positive emotions and greater psychological and social well-being when influenced by authentic internal motivation (intrinsic motivation), rather than external pressures (extrinsic motivation), even when their ability to perform the task is the same (Ryan & Deci, 2000). A longitudinal study by Sheldon, Ryan, Deci, and Kasser (2004) found that people who pursued extrinsic goals (wealth, fame, attractive image) rather than intrinsic goals (positive connections with others and a sense of autonomy), reported poorer mental and physical well-being and were less relational (little desire to contribute to their community or get know others). However, the use of extrinsic motivation can promote intrinsic motivation when people sense they are in safe and secure relationships with those delivering the extrinsic regulations (Ryan, Stiller & Lynch, 1994).
Ryan and Deci (2000) list the following three intrinsic needs that must be satisfied for optimal well-being to occur:
- Autonomy (the ability to be self-motivated and act in according to one's own personal standards and values).
- Competence (a sense of mastery).
- Relatedness (positive social functioning).
All three intrinsic needs are essential nutrients for flourishing, where one cannot replace the other. For example, children whose parents require them to give up their own personal standards and values in order to receive love, experience an internal conflict in trying to meet both intrinsic needs (autonomy and relatedness), which in turn this conflict diminishes their well-being (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Consequently, for flourishing to occur all three intrinsic needs must be supported and maintained through positive social interactions that promote a sense of competency and autonomy (Ryan & Deci, 2000).
"When I found out I had a visual processing disorder, I felt positive about the diagnosis because I now had a way forward, the feeling of relief that something could be done opened me up to a world of opportunities and positive functioning. First, I sought out others who could help me learn new skills. With mastering my new skills I was then able to teach others and create opportunities for myself and others in my position to grow and flourish." (Author).
Symptoms of flourishing Edit
Research in the field of positive psychology found that flourishing encompasses both hedonic well-being (seeking pleasure) and eudaimonic well-being (pursuing fulfillment) (Keyes, 2002). Keyes (2002) analysised the dimensions and scales of subjective well-being, psychological well-being, and social well-being, to construct the operational definition of flourishing. The following diagnostic criteria were developed to assess whether a person could be diagnosed as flourishing:
- No major depressive episodes in the past 12 months.
- Must possess a high level of well-being as indicated by:
- High positive emotional functioning (subjective well-being), in at least one measure of hedonic well-being:
- High positive psychological functioning and high social functioning, in at least six of the measures of eudaimonic well-being:
- Self-acceptance (holds positive attitudes toward self, acknowledges, likes most parts of self, and personality).
- Personal growth (pursues challenges, has insight into their potential, feels a sense of continual development).
- Purpose in life (believes their life has a meaning and direction).
- Environmental mastery (the ability to select, manage, and manipulate environments to pursue needs).
- Autonomy (guided by own, socially accepted, internal standards and values).
- Positive relations with others (able to form, warm, trusting personal relationships).
- Social acceptance (positive attitudes toward, acknowledges, and is accepting of human differences).
- Social actualisation (the belief that people, groups, and society have potential and can achieve growth).
- Social contribution (perceives their daily activities as useful to and valued by society and others).
- Social coherence (finds society and social life meaningful and somewhat comprehensible).
- Social integration (feels a sense of belonging and support from a community).
(Adapted from Table 1, Keyes 2005).
Cultivating the elements of flourishing Edit
In order to flourish one must look beyond personal happiness, in that flourishing includes both experiencing positive emotions and creating positive environments (Fredrickson, 2013). Table 2 provides practical ways to cultivate the elements of flourishing. Cultivating elements of flourishing (resilience, strengths, generativity, gratitude, positive emotions, and positive relationships) are essential, however in and of themselves are not sufficient to produce flourishing (Narvaez, 2015). For example, one can be generative but not flourish, however one cannot flourish without being generative (Snow, 2015).
Generativity is freely sharing one's knowledge and skills with the next generation (Snow, 2015). Generativity is the opposite of stagnation (aimlessness), self-absorption (thinking only of yourself), and rejectivity (uncaring of certain others), which stunt growth and flourishing (Snow, 2015). Being caring, creative, and purposeful are all essential nutrients of generativity and flourishing (Snow, 2015). Empirical research suggests that generativity promotes emotional, psychological, and social well-being, as individuals view themselves through the positive lens of the attributes they have to give and view their past events as opportunities for growth, in order to help others grow (Snow, 2015).
Cultivating generativity plants the seeds for flourishing to occur. Carers of children (parents, teachers, coaches, etc.) who discipline by imparting knowledge and skills in a nurturing way allow the child to develop the skills for themselves with competence and autonomy and teach the child how to positively interact with others (Snow, 2015). Sharing challenging life events with others from a place of growth, in having overcome adversity, not only gives the individual a sense of competence but also passes skills onto others (Snow, 2015). Generativity is knowing one's true worth and sharing one's inner resources, which benefits both the individual and society (Snow, 2015).
Positive relations Edit
Just like plants require connection to nutrient-rich soil to thrive, people also need positive connections with others to flourish (Narvaez, 2015). Empirical research suggests that what actually makes people happy is when they take the focus off trying to make themselves happy and focus on prosocial behaviour (Nelson, Layous, Cole, & Lyubomirsky, 2016). In their study of 472 adults, Nelson et al. (2016) randomly assigned participants to four groups (treat others with kindness, perform acts of kindness for their community, treat self with kindness, and neutral control activity) and found that after four weeks the groups performing prosocial behaviours reported a significant increase in psychological well-being, social well-being, and positive emotions and a decrease in negative emotions (no change in well-being was found in those who treated themselves or in the control group).
Research also found that when people in relationships focus on giving and shared goals, both the relationship and the individuals flourish (Fowers et al., 2016). Cultivating deep and enriching relationships requires people to give freely of themselves, to focus on the other, and encourage self-development in themselves and others (Fowers et al., 2016). Consequently, if an individual is seeking to flourish, it has been found it is better to focus on developing positive connections with others, than seeking to make themselves happy.
Positive emotions Edit
Emotions prepare the mind and body for physical and/or cognitive action (Fredrickson, 1998). Negative emotions are damaging when they are excessive and expressed inappropriately (Fredrickson, 1998). Flourishing is not the absence of negative emotions, it is an acceptance of what is and an openness to experience (Fredrickson, 2013). For flourishing to occur the number of positive emotions experienced needs to outweigh the negative (Fredrickson, 2005). However, for positive emotions to enhance flourishing they must be genuine and appropriate (Fredrickson, 2005).
Fredrickson (1998) describes four positive emotions that each encompasses a family of positives emotions:
- joy (playfulness that increases artistic, intellectual, physical, and social development),
- interest (intrinsically motivated exploration to gain knowledge and experience),
- contentment (savouring life), and
- love (experiencing deeper connections).
Experiencing these positive emotions increases creativity and can reverse the effects of negative emotions (Fredrickson, 1998). Empirical evidence found positive emotions broadened creative thinking, for example when individuals experiencing positive affect were compared to a neutral condition control group, these individuals found more innovative exemplars for given words (such as, elevator and camel for the word vehicle; Fredrickson, 1998). Research also suggests that positive emotions can restore the physiological effects of negative emotions; as shown when individuals watched a short film inducing fear, which elevated heart rate of all the participants, these participants were then separated into four groups to view a second film (one inducing contentment, second amusement, third sadness, and a neutral control condition) and the results found that the participants in the two positive conditions returned to normal cardiovascular function faster than the neutral and sad conditions (Fredrickson, 1998).
Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity by reorganising and transforming current negative conditions in order to return to normal functioning (Walker, Holling, Carpenter, & Kinzig, 2004). Resilience is essential to flourishing as it signals the capacity to initialise choices out of sub-optimal circumstances which diminish flourishing (Narvaez, 2015). However, resilience stops short of flourishing if one does not go beyond good enough functioning; to seeking growth and best possible outcomes (Narvaez, 2015). Empirical research found that individuals experience increased levels of hedonic and eudaimonic well-being when they choose optimal outcomes over good enough choices (Kokkoris, 2016). Therefore, when faced with negative circumstances individuals need to first choose resilience and then choose to learn from the experience and grow, in order to flourish (Narvaez, 2015).
Cultivating gratitude has been found to increases measures of hedonic well-being as well as promote prosocial behaviours (Emmons & Stern, 2013). Gratitude is recognising and appreciating the good in one's life and acknowledging that the sources of good come mostly from outside oneself (Emmons & Stern, 2013). Gratitude can be experienced or expressed to others (Emmons & Stern, 2013).
Kini, Wong, McInnis, Gabana, and Brown (2016) found that experiencing and expressing gratitude can modulate neurological functioning, promote mental health, and enhance positive social functioning. The participants in their study were assigned to one of three conditions; writing letters of thanks, creative writing, or therapy-as-usual. Three months later fMRI scans were conducted on the participants while performing a gratitude (pay it forward) task and those in gratitude condition were found to have lasting neurological changes in the medial prefrontal cortex, which may suggest practicing gratitude broadens thought processes to act in ways to benefit others when one acknowledges what one has received. Their research also demonstrated that expressing gratitude increased prosocial behaviour; when performing a pay it forward task of giving money to charity those in the gratitude conditioned expressed a greater desire to give. Additionally, the study found the participants who wrote letters of thanks expressed more positive emotions and experience increased in mental health when compared with the creative writing and control groups. These results suggest that practicing gratitude can produce enduring positive effects in one's life and enhance the lives of others.
Character strengths Edit
Discovering and cultivating your dominate strengths promotes a sense of mastery and autonomy (Biswas-Diener, Kashdan, & Minhas, 2011). School students were found to be more intrinsically motivated, have a stronger social network, and learn more from past experiences when the education systems used strengths-based curricula (Biswas-Diener et al., 2011). Character strengths are a combination of one's talents, knowledge gained and ways of behaving, thinking and feeling that align with one's own personal standards and values (Biswas-Diener et al., 2011). Empirical evidence gathered from 40 different countries identified 24 character strengths that everyone possesses in varying degrees (Seligman et al., 2005). Current measures have the danger of viewing strengths as fixed traits, however strengths can be developed and may change within a person in different contexts (Biswas-Diener et al., 2011).
Research has found that when people in romantic relationships recognised their partner's strengths and showed appreciation for them the couple experienced a greater sense of intimacy within the relationship and greater life satisfaction in and outside the relationship (Kashdan et al., 2018). Showing appreciation for their partner's strengths also increased the frequency of positive emotions and behaviours of each partner, in all domains of their lives (Kashdan et al., 2018). These findings suggest that identifying and developing the strengths in others creates the environment for others to flourish and leads to greater personal flourishing.
Ways to Cultivate Flourishing in Daily Life
|Element||Cultivate it yourself|
|Generativity||Write about a time you functioned at your best and the personal resources that made it possible, then share what you learned from the experience with some who needs it (Seligman et al., 2005).|
|Positive emotions||Take a walk in nature (Psychology Today, Azadeh Aalai)
Watch a nature show (The Real Happiness Project, University of California, Berkeley)
Watch a funny movie (Fredrickson, 1998)
|Positive relations||Pay it forward; buy the next person in line their coffee
Perform random acts of kindness
|Resilience||Turn challenges into growth opportunities (HoffPost, Emily Madill)|
|Practice gratitude||Start a gratitude journal; at the end of each day list three things you are grateful and why (Seligman et al., 2005).
Write a letter of thanks and deliver it (Seligman et al., 2005).
|Character strengths||Learn your character strengths: take the VIA Character Survey (The VIA Institute on Character)
Identify three things you did today that used your character strengths to help you focus on the personal victories you make each day (The VIA Institute on Character)
Play to your Character Strengths: The Science of Character Strengths (Healthy Psych, Elizabeth Hopper)
Flourishing is living a nutrient-rich life of growth, developing strengths, building positive connections, and appreciating all that life has to offer. However, flourishing is more than the sum of its parts; it is a way of living. Flourishing individuals have a sense of appreciation that life is so much bigger than themselves and that they are part of a delicate ecosystem. Flourishing is an active choice to see the good, seek the good and do the good in life.
Emerging research on flourishing demonstrates that flourishing is linked to increased life satisfaction, stronger and more positive connections with others, improved health, and greater longevity. Flourishing also promotes personal growth and growth in others. Flourishing individuals focus on enhancing human experiences that make life worth living, not only for the individual but also by its very nature society.
The take-home message: cultivating a nutrient-rich life full of positive connections, meaning, and appreciation can help you to flourish.
See also Edit
Biswas-Diener, R., Kashdan, T., & Minhas, G. (2011). A dynamic approach to psychological strength development and intervention. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6, 106-118. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2010.545429
Emmons, R., & Stern, R. (2013). Gratitude as a psychotherapeutic intervention. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 69, 846-855. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.22020
Fowers, B., Laurenceau, J., Penfield, R., Cohen, L., Lang, S., Owenz, M., & Pasipanodya, E. (2016). Enhancing relationship quality measurement: The development of the relationship flourishing scale. Journal of Family Psychology, 30, 997-1007. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0000263
Fredrickson, B. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of General Psychology, 2, 300-319. https://doi.org/10.1037/1089-26188.8.131.520
Fredrickson, B. (2013). Updated thinking on positivity ratios. American Psychologist, 68, 814-822. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0033584
Fredrickson, B., & Losada, M. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. American Psychologist, 60, 678-686. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066x.60.7.678
Keyes, C. (2002). The mental health continuum: From languishing to flourishing in life. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 43, 207. https://doi.org/10.2307/3090197
Keyes, C. (2005). Mental illness and/or mental health? Investigating axioms of the complete state model of health. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 73, 539-548. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-006x.73.3.539
Keyes, C. (2007). Promoting and protecting mental health as flourishing: A complementary strategy for improving national mental health. American Psychologist, 62, 95-108. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066x.62.2.95
Kini, P., Wong, J., McInnis, S., Gabana, N., & Brown, J. (2016). The effects of gratitude expression on neural activity. Neuroimage, 128, 1-10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.12.040
Kokkoris, M. (2016). Revisiting the relationship between maximizing and well-being: An investigation of eudaimonic well-being. Personality and Individual Differences, 99, 174-178. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2016.04.099
Luo, A. H., Tahsili-Fahadan, P., Wise, R. A., Lupica, C. R., & Aston-Jones, G. (2011). Linking Context with Reward: A Functional Circuit from Hippocampal CA3 to Ventral Tegmental Area, 333(6040), 353–357. https://science-sciencemag-org.ezproxy.canberra.edu.au/content/333/6040/353
Narvaez, D. (2015). Understanding flourishing: Evolutionary baselines and morality. Journal of Moral Education, 44, 253-262. https://doi.org/10.1080/03057240.2015.1054619
Nelson, S., Layous, K., Cole, S., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2016). Do unto others or treat yourself? The effects of prosocial and self-focused behavior on psychological flourishing. Emotion, 16, 850-861. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000178
Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066x.55.1.68
Ryan, R., Stiller, J., & Lynch, J. (1994). Representations of relationships to teachers, parents, and friends as predictors of academic motivation and self-esteem. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 14, 226-249. https://doi.org/10.1177/027243169401400207
Schmitz, T., De Rosa, E., & Anderson, A. (2009). Opposing influences of affective state valence on visual cortical encoding. Journal of Neuroscience, 29, 7199-7207. https://doi.org/10.1523/jneurosci.5387-08.2009
Seligman, M., Steen, T., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066x.60.5.410
Snow, N. (2015). Generativity and flourishing. Journal of Moral Education, 44, 263-277. https://doi.org/10.1080/03057240.2015.1043876
Walker, B., Holling, C., Carpenter, S., & Kinzig, A. (2004). Resilience, adaptability and transformability in social-ecological systems. Ecology and Society, 9. https://doi.org/10.5751/es-00650-090205
Westerhof, G., & Keyes, C. (2009). Mental illness and mental health: The two continua model across the lifespan. Journal of Adult Development, 17, 110-119. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10804-009-9082-y
- Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being (Google Books, Martin Seligman)
- Flourishing - a new understanding of wellbeing (Happiness & Its Causes 2012 Conference, Martin Seligman, YouTube, 30:07 mins)
- The happiness advantage (TEDxBloomington talk, Shawn Achor, YouTube, 12:28 mins)
- What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness (TED talk, Robert Waldinger, YouTube, 12:46 mins)