Flourishing: Definition and 8 Ways to Flourish
By Helena Rose Karnilowicz, Ph.D. Candidate
What is flourishing? Learn the definition of flourishing and strategies that can help you and your relationships flourish.
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What is Flourishing?
Picture your ideal life. You might imagine having a wide network of friends or a few close relationships. You probably picture yourself as being happy and healthy. Feeling good about yourself, being involved in a community (religious or otherwise), and adhering to values you deem important might also be key aspects of your ideal life. This picture in your mind of an ideal life also represents a flourishing life. Flourishing is a broad concept that reflects a holistic perspective on living a happy or ‘good’ life. Flourishing encompasses many feelings, activities, and thoughts that make people happy and whole.
What does it mean to ‘flourish’ and how is flourishing different from happiness?
Flourishing is not simply an absence of illness, or presence of positive feelings. Feeling happy (as either a pleasurable state or eudaimonia) is just one aspect of flourishing. For example, people often describe plants as flourishing. I have several indoor (and a few outdoor) plants—a few of these plants (the succulents that don’t need much attention and have been placed in sunny spots) are flourishing. They have grown bigger, avoided pestilence (and being eaten by my cats), and some have flowers blooming.
While some of my other plants seem happy (they are green, have also avoided pestilence and grown a little), for whatever reason (probably my laziness) they don’t seem to be flourishing. Similarly, being happy doesn’t mean that you also live a virtuous life, feel fulfilled, or have a clean bill of health. This example also demonstrates how anyone can flourish with time and effort. To flourish, one must thrive in 5 of the following domains.
5 Aspects of Flourishing
1. Positive emotions, happiness, and life satisfaction are vital for flourishing (Frederickson, 2007).
These aspects of flourishing can be assessed by asking yourself, “How happy do I usually feel?”, “How satisfied am I with my life as a whole?”, “Do I feel optimistic about my future?”.
2. Mental and physical health are both important for flourishing.
Feeling physically sick or suffering from depression, anxiety or other psychiatric or medical conditions can make it more difficult for you to flourish.
3. Meaning and purpose in life are necessary components for flourishing.
Do you feel like the things you do in your life are worthwhile? Likewise, do you feel like you have a purpose (or maybe purposes) in life? Answering yes to these questions is a sign that you might be flourishing.
4. Having close social relationships that are satisfying is a core aspect of flourishing.
Even having a few people you feel that you can count on, whether family members or close friends, can maximize your flourishing.
5. Character and virtue are qualities that some researchers and philosophers suggest are necessary for flourishing (VanderWheele, 2017).
Some virtues include wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance (which involves forgiveness, humility, and self-control). Acting in ways that aim to better yourself, others, and society is thought to be an important part of living a good life.
Pathways to Flourishing
Certain domains of life have been found to foster multiple aspects of flourishing. These are:
Marriage has been associated with higher life satisfaction, better mental and physical health, and lower levels of loneliness. Conversely, divorce (and growing up in a divorced household) is associated with poorer mental and physical health, lower levels of happiness and life satisfaction, and worse relationships between children and parents. Does this mean that being married alone can cause you to flourish? No—it is more likely that being in a satisfying committed romantic relationship (one that is not likely to end in separation or divorce) is what can lead to flourishing.
People who are employed have higher levels of life satisfaction, better family and marital relationships, and better mental and physical health. While little empirical research has examined the link between employment and meaning and purpose in life, it is thought that employment is one domain that can foster this aspect of flourishing. For example, if you were a healthcare worker or essential worker in 2020, you may be feeling a stronger sense of purpose in life.
Higher levels of education have been found to predict higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction, though this is because those who are more educated are also more likely to have higher levels of income, be employed, and be married (all important factors that can impact flourishing!). School is also an environment that can improve character development, though more empirical research is needed to examine this pathway to flourishing.
These are not exhaustive or inclusive of all domains of life that may foster 1 or 2 aspects of flourishing (e.g., participating in exercise certainly benefits mental and physical health!).
8 Ways to Flourish
There are many activities that can contribute to living a flourishing life (VanderWheele, 2020). Here are a few:
Gratitude journals (writing down things in life you are grateful for) have been found to increase several aspects of flourishing. Other gratitude exercises can be done with a friend or romantic partner.
Savoring does not just refer to how one appreciates the taste of a meal—one can savor positive experiences by thinking about positive events, sharing or celebrating something good with others, and paying more attention to positive emotional experiences. These exercises have been shown to improve happiness.
3. Imagining Your Best Possible Self
Thinking about your ideal life (like the example at the beginning of this article) or best possible version of yourself in the future increases happiness, life satisfaction, and optimism, important elements of flourishing.
4. Acts of Kindness
Doing things you wouldn’t normally do to help others or be kind has positive effects on multiple aspects of flourishing, like happiness and positive emotions. These acts can even inspire others to do the same.
Volunteering, like acts of kindness, can help you flourish by providing a sense of social connection, purpose, happiness, and well-being.
6. Participating in religious services
Attending religious services can promote flourishing by increasing meaning in life, character development, and close social relationships.
Going to therapy for mental health or marital counseling is a great way to help you, and your relationships flourish. Multiple kinds of therapy have been found to have positive impacts on mental health and relationships.
8. Setting goals at work and at school
Thinking about how to improve your productivity and happiness at work can help you flourish. This could involve taking time to reflect on your work environment and restructuring tasks, or setting concrete, achievable goals and making plans to overcome obstacles.
Remember that flourishing is something that can take time. But we can take small actions each day to start flourishing a bit more.