Flourishing reflects human self-actualization

Six domains of flourishing

Positive psychology researcher Martin Seligman’s book, Flourish, provides a broader context for desirable outcomes such as happiness and life satisfaction. According to Seligman, people flourish when their lives have three core features (positive emotions, engagement and interest in life, and purpose and meaning in life), as well as three of the following: self-esteem, optimism, resilience, vitality, self-determination, and positive relationships.

The combination of emotional, social, and psychological well-being can be regarded as flourishing. Researchers at Emory University in Atlanta wanted to know if flourishing predicted 10-year all-cause mortality. They used data from 3,485 participants in the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study to answer the question. The researchers found that death during the 10-year follow-up period was not related to mental illness but was linked with positive mental health. Less than 1.0 percent of the flourishing adults died during follow-up compared to 5.5 percent of the non-flourishing adults. Non-flourishing adults had a 55-84 percent increased risk of dying over the 10-year period depending on which covariates were included in the statistical models. Thus, the effect of the absence of positive mental health persisted even after accounting for confounding factors.

Post-traumatic growth can be regarded as a modern version of long-established idea redemption through suffering and denial. Abraham Maslow’s idea of self-actualization and Carl Rogers’s idea of humans’ actualizing tendency capture many of the beneficial features of post-traumatic growth. Well-being is a construct that includes emotional, psychological, and social dimensions. Emotional sub-components include cheerfulness, happiness, and life satisfaction. Psychological sub-components include self-acceptance, positive relations with others, personal growth, purpose in life, environmental mastery and autonomy. Social sub-components include social acceptance, social actualization, social contribution, social coherence, and social integration. Thus, well-being reflects far more than the simple absence of mental illness.

A 2004 review of studies of disaster survivors found that between 44 and 97 percent of survivors reported positive aspects of post-traumatic growth. Forty-three percent of the survivors of a ferry sinking in 1987, in which 193 passengers died, reported three years later that their view of life changed for the better. Experiences of well-being associated with post-traumatic growth align with psychological rather than subjective well-being. That is, with characteristics such as autonomy, a sense of mastery, personal growth, positive relations with others, self-acceptance, and purpose in life. Thus, those who have ewxperienced post-traumatic growth may have achieved a higher level of flourishing. Post-traumatic growth likely involves active engagement with the traumatic experience and its consequences rather than denial or avoidance. The severity of the traumatic event is less important that a person’s response to social, personal, and contextual variables.

Health is undoubtedly a central concern of most people. Well-being, however defined, is also important. While vital to a well-lived life, health and well-being don’t capture other important aspects of human flourishing. Harvard professor Tyler VanderWeele proposed that human flourishing includes six domains: 1) happiness and life satisfaction, 2) mental and physical health, 3) meaning and purpose, 4) character and virtue, 5) close social relationships, and 6) financial and material stability. The first five domains comprise universally desired ends, while the sixth provides a means to achieve them. Individuals and governments can redirect their time and other resources to promote these six domains of human flourishing.

Tyler VanderWeele found that frequent participation in religious services predicts increased likelihood of certain aspects of human flourishing. These include greater happiness, life satisfaction, mental and physical health, sense of purpose and meaning in life, character and virtue, and closer social relationships. The frequency of religious service participation predicts stronger links than does religious or spiritual identity. Social support appears to be an important mechanism that underlies these relationships. In addition, social relationships may reinforce religious customs and values that promote flourishing.

Medical practitioners tend to focus on patients’ bodies and downplay or ignore the mental and spiritual aspects of health and, especially, well-being. Simple instruments could be designed to evaluate domains of flourishing in clinical settings. Over time, repeated evaluations could provide useful information about trajectories of flourishing and its components.

Researchers at Harvard studied the individual effects of six aspects of flourishing (emotional health, physical health, meaning and purpose, character strengths, social connectedness, financial security). Participant included 1,209 employees with an average age of 44 years at a national firm. Data were collected at baseline and one year later. Each of the above six domains of flourishing independently predicted a higher composite index of flourishing after one year. The best predictors of higher composite flourishing included meaning and purpose, social connectedness, and financial security. Of the 40 items that were used to evaluate the six domains, the two that best predicted higher composite flourishing a year later were 1) I always act to promote the good in all circumstances, even in difficult and challenging situations, and 2) Based on my past health, I expect to be healthy long into the future. Adopting the healthy lifestyle choices of Cultivate Social Connections, Live with Purpose, and Develop a Positive Mental Attitude can help you fluorish.

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