The Composition of Flourishing
This is the beginning of my series of posts as the #FlourishingEngineer. Flourishing is like happiness, but better. It’s the thing we all want in life — traditionally referred to as the good life. I want to build a more flourishing world. Doing this makes me feel good. This feeling grows as I try share it with others. This reasoning has shaped my life’s direction. Having found this purpose, the next step was to understand, what is the composition of flourishing?
The below thoughts were first presented at www.instagram.com/samstelzner/ — alongside scenes of my adventures into flourishing nature, where my best and happiest thoughts find me.
Across time and culture
Ancient Greeks Aristotle and Epicurus provide some of the first evidence of the articulation of the good life as human purpose, albeit with different interpretations. Aristotle favoured Eudaimonia, literally translated as good spirit. Eudaimonia is to live according to a set of virtues that everyone can agree are desirable. Epicurus favoured Hedonia, which holds pleasure to be the only intrinsic value. One should only embrace certain virtues if they make you feel good.
Are we all just chasing pleasure, or do we aspire to a more transcendent goal?
Looking East, Siddhartha Gautama, the original Buddha, taught that life is suffering. This begins with a painful birth. Gautama recognized many instances of feeling good, but qualified that these are impermanent. Physically, only old age, sickness and death are unavoidable. Mentally, there is always anguish at being separated from the things we hold dear. Gautama taught a path for dealing with suffering, leading to Nirvana, a transcendent state free from attachment and therefore suffering. This outlook is presented as pragmatic rather than negative. Living the good life means recognizing suffering as the truth of life and dealing with it accordingly.
One resounding theme in Africa is Ubuntu, stemming from the Zulu phrase “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” — “A person is a person through other persons; I am because we are.” Derivatives include Utu in Swahili and Unhu in Shona. It’s a concept largely shared across the continent. Many Westerners will look at Africa’s social connectedness with admiration, even envy, as a contrast to the relentless pursuit of one’s own, individual good feeling.
The good life became synonymous with happiness during The Enlightenment, an intellectual movement that swept through Europe during the 18th century. This was an age where reason was advocated as a means to establish authoritative systems. It was deemed reasonable that moral philosophy should be based on utilitarianism (The Greatest Happiness Principle): An action’s consequences should be judged according to the amount of pleasure and pain created for everyone that feels its effects. The movement spread to America where it was declared that all have the right to live in freedom and pursue happiness.
Utilitarian ideals did not gain momentum due to a perceived difficulty in measuring happiness. This led to the rise of economic utility: Total satisfaction received from consuming a good or service, measured by the willingness to spend money. However, the utilitarians conceded that the marginal utility of wealth is strongly diminishing — it becomes more and more difficult to buy happiness.
The Abrahamic religions
Islam, Christianity and Judaism provide vastly popular models for the good life.
These religions can be grouped by the shared belief in monotheism: One Divine Being (God) created this world and planned every person’s existence. In contrast to happiness philosophy, experiencing the good life is positioned as a byproduct of living according to God’s way rather than as a self-evident goal. At the same time, living this way is said to lead to everlasting happiness beyond this one life we all know. This way can be learned through prophets and their artifacts, through privileged individuals with special insight into God’s realm and personal relationship with God.
Movements within Judaism mostly stem from the belief that God revealed his laws and commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai. Aggadic teaching states that happiness is the result of fulfilling one of the commandments.
al-Ghazali, a philosopher nicknamed “The Proof of Islam”, wrote extensively on happiness in the 11th century. He tried to find a rational foundation for the basic principles of Islam. Unable to rationally refute skeptical doubt, he supported another way of discovering truth. He emphasized personal experience over logic; that feeling or believing something to be real is enough to constitute truth. al-Ghazali believed that one’s true self, or spirit, is a reflection of God. He taught that instead of strict adherence to a set of rules, happiness is achieved by living in accordance with one’s true self; that the self is layered by the body and things of the world that distract people; that the key secret to happiness is to go on an inward journey towards the true self and maximize the experience of God.
On a similar note, Thomas Aquinas, “The Angelic Doctor” of Catholicism, wrote that true happiness can only be found in knowledge of God. The Church’s authority on this knowledge was questioned during The Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther, John Calvin and other Protestant leaders taught Scripture as the only source of proper belief. The general population gained access to God’s way as religious materials became vastly disseminated after the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press.
Is following the Abrahamic religions’ ways of life perhaps contingent on experiencing the good life? Have these ways perhaps been influenced by different models for the good life across time and culture?
These days, the study of the good life is formally packaged as a scientific field: positive psychology.
The term was originally adopted by Abraham Maslow. He critiqued the state of psychology at his time. He argued that the two major forces, psychoanalysis and behavioral psychology were not fully representative. Psychoanalysis focused too much on the sick and not the healthy. Behavioral psychology relied on observation of animals and did not properly distinguish human behavior. He pioneered a third and explicitly positive force, humanistic psychology. He famously developed the hierarchy of human needs based on his belief that the fundamental desires of human beings are similar despite the multitude of conscious desires.
Martin Seligman is credited for pioneering modern positive psychology after his application of the scientific method to humanist theories. Seligman opened his tenure as the head of the American Psychology Association by saying, “Psychologists need to study what makes happy people happy.” Seligman began by focusing on happiness but then resolved to guide the field towards more workable terms.
The semantics of these terms are explored in the next few chapters in support of the projection made by Richard Layard, whose book “Happiness” is an inspiring introductory read for those interested in this field: “Over the last 50 years, we have become well equipped to deal with depression. The goal for the next 50 is to do the same with happiness.”
Positive psychology is colloquially known as the science of happiness. This seems like an appropriate construct with which to begin. We all want to be happy, but what does that actually mean?
In academic literature, happiness generally features (in the utilitarian sense) as the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain. It is something we feel. Psychologists group the broad range of feelings within affect. Affect can be experienced in the form of emotions (brief and specific) or moods (longer and composed of multiple specific emotions). Happiness is the combination of high positive affect and low negative affect.
Is life all about feeling good? Is a good life defined by the sum of happy moments?
Daniel Kahneman raises two objections. The first is illustrated by Robert Nozick’s experience machine thought experiment. Nozick imagines allowing people to plug into a machine that generates non-stop good feelings without any experience of the outside world or knowledge of being plugged in. Nozick argues that few people would opt in to this treatment.
The second objection is that a moment-based approach fails to reflect the role of memory in people’s subjective realities. Patients that experience a spike of pain at the end of a procedure remember it to be generally more painful; Certain memories endure and populate the mind as opposed to the fleeting present; People relive their feelings by consuming memories.
It seems that feeling happy in the moment is too simple a construct.
We all hope to live the good life. We all hope to live life well. The derivatives of this adverbial form of good provide another path of investigation.
Starting with wellness, a term that seems to pop up more and more in the conversation about flourishing at work. Wellness refers to physical health. A wellness program may include mindfulness training, yoga classes and healthy food bars. It relieves employees of stress and gives them more energy to work harder. It receives criticism as a band-aid solution to an unhappy environment. It does not address the holistic aim of this investigation.
Well-being, defined in one instance as “a good or satisfactory condition of existence”, seems more promising. However, there is no consensus around a single definition of well-being. Researchers from different disciplines tend to examine different aspects of the subject. These include physical, economic, social, emotional and psychological. The matter is further complicated by the presence of objective and subjective measures, for example, neighborhood crime rates (an objective measure of social well-being) and self-reports of mood (subjective measure of emotional well-being).
Positive psychologists such as Ed Diener acknowledge this complexity. He proposes that the essential ingredient of the good life is that the person likes their life; that the perceived experience of well-being must outweigh any external measure; that people cannot be told they are well when they feel they are not. Diener therefore promotes self-reports, but qualifies that their reliability is enhanced by evidence that they converge with other measures such as ratings from psychologists, reports from friends and family and frequency of smiling. The process of evaluating one’s life has given rise to subjective well-being, a popular construct for policy making, one that deserves its own attention.
Subjective Well-being is defined by a combination of relative frequency of positive and negative affect (happiness) and life satisfaction. Life satisfaction is an assessment of one’s own life. It is cognitive in nature. One is satisfied when there is little discrepancy between the present and what is thought to be an ideal situation. Life satisfaction is positioned as a priority in parallel with good everyday mood and emotion.
The construct is well referenced academically and can be relatively easily administered, hence being recommended for developing policy by the UK’s Office for National Statistics, among other bodies. However, it has been proven to contain a number of complications that have influenced leading psychologists to question its validity.
Firstly, Daniel Kahneman points out that life satisfaction reports often rely on memory and that these may be inconsistent with reports made in the moment. He illustrates this with an experiment involving patients undergoing a painful procedure — The patients that felt a spike of pain near the end of the procedure remember it as being generally more painful, despite reporting less pain in the moment.
Secondly, Martin Seligman shows that averaged over many people, the mood you are in determines more than 70% of how much life satisfaction you report. This suggests that Subjective Well-being is merely another report of happiness.
This prompted Martin Seligman to call for positive psychology to re-orient its goal away from happiness and life satisfaction towards a new construct: Flourishing.
Seligman’s flourishing is a product of the pillars on which it rests — a set of pursuits each proven to be valued for their own sake. This is similar to how good experience and happiness have been framed — that you can you can ask a series of why questions until you arrive at “because it makes me happy”.
Seligman shows how this logic can be applied to a number of dimensions that combine to form the flourishing construct. Flourishing is comprised of Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationship, Meaning and Accomplishment, collectively known as PERMA. Seligman explains as follows.
“1. Positive emotion refers to what we feel: pleasure, rapture, ecstasy, warmth, comfort.
2. Engagement is about flow: being one with the music, time stopping, and the loss of self-consciousness during an absorbing activity.
3. Human beings, ineluctably, want meaning: belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than you are.
4. Recent streams of argument about human evolution point to the importance of positive relationships in their own right and for their own sake. Studies of the big social brain, the hive emotions, and group selection persuade me that positive relationships are a basic element of well-being.
5. Accomplishment (or achievement) is often pursued for its own sake, even when it brings no positive emotion, no meaning, and nothing in the way of positive relationships. Winning only for winning’s sake can also be seen in the pursuit of wealth. In contrast to philanthropic millionaires, there are ‘accumulators’ who believe that the person who dies with the most toys wins. Their lives are built around winning, and they do not give away their toys except in the service of winning more toys. So well-being theory includes accomplishment for the sake of accomplishment.”
The positions the good life as pleasant, engaged, relational, meaningful and achieving.
This by no means brings an end to debate of what it means to live the good life. Dodge, Daly, Huyton and Sanders of Cardiff Metropolitan University offer a detailed investigation into well-being and the challenges surrounding the term’s definition. The authors conclude the section on “What constitutes well-being?” with a discussion of Seligman’s flourishing. They promote it as “a welcome departure from the now overused term of happiness”, which is positioned as “an awkward construct that hides the true, complex nature of human flourishing”. However, they state that Seligman’s work is disappointing in terms of resolving the debate on defining well-being. This is because flourishing is offered as a construct rather than a definition.
Then again, has the good life not been defined in the paragraph above? It is pleasant, engaged, relational, meaningful and achieving. While it is inevitable that debate will rage on, flourishing seems to be a deserving candidate for the state of the art of positive psychology.
The meaning bad gives to good
Seligman shows that, up until recently, there has been a focus of psychology on repairing pathology. He states that, over the last 50 years, psychologists have become well equipped to deal with depression and other conditions of mental illness. Flourishing is a product of the field of positive psychology, which, Seligman states, is intended to complement the traditional areas of psychology. Seligman holds that people should target a state of flourishing. However, this should not eliminate the role of negative emotions from people’s lives. Ulrich Schimmack, psychology professor at Toronto University, shows that this would have the unintended consequence of people losing the variety and subtlety of their most profound emotional experiences.
Kern, Waters, Adler and White, based at the University of Melbourne, offer a 2014 study of the usefulness of flourishing constructs. The study lends credence to the claim that the role of sadness needs to be acknowledged. After all, would positive have any meaning if there wasn’t anything to compare it to? The study suggests that well-being is multidimensional, on both the positive and negative sides of the mental health continuum, and that cognizance of this allows for better ability to manage well-being. The study therefore produces Depression and Anxiety factors to accompany the positive factors of PERMA. Together these seven factors offer a comprehensive construct for understanding and enabling a better experience of the good life — an experience that, as this series continues, will be referred to as flourishing.
- Positive emotion
- Maintenance of Anxiety
- Maintenance of Depression