A Brief History of Human Flourishing

A Brief History of Human Flourishing

What does it mean to flourish?

Does it have to do with the amount of money you make? Or is it connected to your health and well-being? Maybe it has to do with the amount of time you spend outdoors, working on your latest hobby, or sitting in a church pew?

When we think of plants, it’s easy to define flourishing. A flourishing plant is green and vibrant. When we think of a flourishing ecosystem, we might think of a lush jungle bursting with life.

But when we’re talking about people, the concept of flourishing is a bit harder to interpret definitively. It’s a nebulous concept that has puzzled scientists, philosophers, and psychologists for centuries.

However, as it’s an integral concept—so tightly related to our ability to enjoy life in a fulfilling, meaningful way—it deserves close study.

Let’s look at the history of flourishing and why it’s so crucial as we move into the future.

Aristotle’s View

One of the first academics to take a deep look at flourishing was Aristotle (384-322 BCE). This orphan/scientist/philosopher was known as the “last man who knew everything” and wrote the Nicomachean Ethics, which explored life, meaning, and purpose.

This work states that everything humans do is aimed at goodness, which causes a chain reaction. At the end of this chain is a higher good—something we want for the sake of itself, not to get somewhere else.

For instance, you acquire a job to earn money to purchase food and a home and, therefore, to attain a stable place in the world. The endpoint of the chain is happiness—something you want just for the sake of itself. When we achieve this, we’re flourishing.

Aristotle argued that flourishing was not merely an internal state but also depended on a person’s status as a member of a larger community. He argued that flourishing was a pattern in a person’s life over time, and not immobile, but rather the greatest good you could reach toward through action.

Flourishing balances internal and external circumstances. And you need both to achieve it. If your life is flourishing, it is going well, and you are producing good things. In other words, you have reached your full human capacity.

Aristotle further argued that flourishing doesn’t necessarily mean you get everything you want in life. Instead, it is a process that involves the cultivation of character (ethose), attitudes and beliefs, and how we act and live.

Moving Forward

Aristotle’s idea became a framework for western philosophy from ancient Greek times until today. His view on flourishing also worked well with the religious beliefs and ethical practices of Muslim, Jewish and Christian philosophers that followed him.

The combination of Greek philosophy and religion died out in the 17th century, but in the late 1950s, virtue ethics rose in popularity, and human flourishing again took the spotlight.

Flourishing has been described as what happens when people experience positive emotions, psychology, and social status most of the time, living within an “optimal range of human functioning.” It is a way to sum up good mental health and overall well-being.

Positive psychology, the scientific study that examines what makes life worth living, has devoted serious resources to examining this topic in recent decades.

In the mid-1990s, researcher Dr. Carol Ryff was interested in human flourishing but found it was hard to study because there was no clear way to measure the abstract criteria involved.

She wanted to measure psychological well-being/flourishing but found there was not a good way to do so. So, she developed The Ryff Scales of Psychological Well-being, a questionnaire that helps determines people’s well-being and flourishing.

Ryff found that flourishing seemed to focus on six factors:

  • Self-acceptance
  • Positive relations with others
  • Autonomy
  • Environmental mastery
  • Life purpose
  • Personal growth

Just as Aristotle surmised, flourishing was increasingly being viewed as a “multi-dimensional construct,” with many parts that can only be achieved by a contribution from each of these facets.

This was a big deviation from previously held beliefs about flourishing, which were overly simplistic. Surprisingly, experts formerly considered flourishing merely the absence of depression or mental illness.

What contributes to flourishing?

In 2002, Dr. Corey Keyes published The Mental Health Continuum: From Languishing to Flourishing, a groundbreaking work that demolished the former idea of flourishing being merely an absence of mental health concerns.

In fact, as stated earlier, flourishing has a multitude of contributing factors. And while it encompasses well-being, happiness, and life satisfaction. It also includes:

  • Meaning
  • Purpose
  • Autonomy
  • Self-acceptance
  • Optimism
  • Positive relationships
  • Personal growth
  • Self-esteem
  • And more

This is quite a weighty list!

5 Aspects to encourage flourishing

In 2011, the “founding father of flourishing,” Dr. Martin Seligman, developed the PERMA model for flourishing.

Seligman said the five aspects that encourage a state of flourishing are:

  • Positive emotions
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Accomplishments

A person must tend to each of these aspects in order to flourish: increasing positive emotions and engagement (with the world, work, and hobbies), developing deep relationships, and finding meaning and purpose in their existence by achieving goals using their talents.

Marks of flourishing

Today, experts continue to echo Aristotle’s thoughts, arguing that flourishing is a verb more than anything else—a process that requires action and effort. And it’s an effort well worth pursuing. People who flourish benefit in the following ways:

  • Fewer missed days of work
  • Less helplessness
  • Clearer life goals
  • Higher resilience
  • Higher intimacy
  • Lower risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Reduced risk of chronic diseases with age

Inequity in flourishing

When we live in a world where only an estimated 40% of adults are flourishing, it becomes increasingly important to continue finding ways to measure and increase human flourishing in society.

This holistic view of happiness involves the whole person and, unfortunately, many outside factors that are out of a person’s control.

This alarming thought brings us full circle, back to Aristotle’s scribblings over 2,000 years ago, when he first admitted that flourishing depends heavily on external conditions, including friends, wealth, and political power.

Enabling everyone to flourish

In a world of inequities, this begs the question of how we can enable everyone to flourish instead of just the privileged few. And how do we deal with these inequities as we move toward a future where our tenuous link to the planet seems to be fraying day by day?

The impact of humanity on earth calls physical flourishing into question due to issues such as climate crisis, extinction of species, pollution of the oceans, the altering of the atmosphere, and many other environmental issues..

These are all challenges that lie in the future for flourishing cultures. As we learn what it means to live a life of active flourishing—in rhythm with the external world—we must rise above these challenges as we live out our dreams and goals by using our talents to the best of our ability; dreaming of a world where not just 40% flourish, but where everyone has an equal ability to thrive and find well-being.