In positive psychology, flourishing is “to live within an optimal range of human functioning, one that connotes goodness, generativity, growth, and resilience.” Flourishing is the opposite of both pathology and languishing, which are described as living a life that feels both hollow and empty.
Flourishing is a positive psychology concept which is a measure of overall life well-being and is viewed as important to the idea of happiness. Many components and concepts contribute to the overall concept of flourishing and the benefits of a life that can be characterized as flourishing. It incorporates many other concepts in the positive psychology field such as cultivating strengths, subjective well-being, positive work spaces, etc.
The Study of Positive Emotions
Researchers have been interested in mental illnesses and their negative psychological consequences. However, many are coming to realize that studying positive psychological consequences and positive experiences is also beneficial. Barbara Fredrickson, who posited the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions, has helped to discover the wide variety of positive effects that positive emotions and experiences have on human lives.
Previous theories of emotion stated that all emotions are associated with urges to act in particular ways, called action-tendencies. For instance, anger creates the urge to seek retribution or to attack, fear creates the urge to escape, guilt creates the urge to make amends for actions, etc. People do not necessarily act on these urges when they experience these particular emotions, but rather people’s ideas about possible courses of action narrow to reflect these specific urges. These action-tendencies are not merely thoughts, but actions which also manifest physiologically, for example, when someone is afraid, blood flow increases to major muscle groups and pupils dilate, preparing the body to flee. Emotions have adaptive value, such as mobilizing and preparing our minds and bodies during times of danger. The reflexive action-tendencies that are associated with emotions probably developed over the course of humankind’s evolution.
Fredrickson was one of the first to note that most positive emotions did not follow this model of action-tendencies Positive emotions do not usually occur in life-threatening circumstances and thus do not generally elicit specific urges. Fredrickson proposes that instead of one general theory of emotions, psychologists should develop theories for each emotion or for subsets of emotions. More specifically, Fredrickson notes two characteristics of positive emotions that differ from negative emotions. First, positive emotions do not seem to elicit specific action tendencies the same way that negative emotions do. Instead, they seem to cause some general, non-direction oriented activation. Second, positive emotions do not necessarily facilitate physical action, but do spark significant cognitive action. For this reason, Fredrickson conceptualizes two new concepts: thought-action tendencies, or what a person will normally do in a particular situation, and thought-action repertoires, rather an inventory of skills of what a person is able to do.
The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions proposed by Fredrickson states that while negative emotions narrow thought-action tendencies to time tested strategies as handed down by evolution, positive emotions broaden thought-action repertoires. Positive emotions often cause people to discard time-tested or automatic action tendencies and pursue novel, creative, and often unscripted courses of thought and action. These positive emotions and thought-action repertoires can be seen as applicable to the concept of flourishing because flourishing children and adults have a much wider array of cognitive, physical, and social possibilities, which results in the empirical and actual successes of a flourishing life.
Flourishing is a concept of psychology that helps the social scientists and psychologists study and measure fulfillment, purpose, meaning, and happiness.Corey Keyes, a famous researcher in flourishing, argues that mental health does not imply an absence of mental illness. Rather, mental health is a “separate dimension of positive feelings and functioning.” Therefore, Keyes has operationalized many of the symptoms of positive feelings and positive functioning in life by reviewing dimensions and scales of subjective well-being and, therefore, creating a definition of flourishing.
Keyes claims that flourishing is the epitome of mentally healthy adults having high levels of emotional well-being; they are happy and satisfied; they tend to see their lives as having a purpose; they feel some degree of mastery and accept all parts of themselves; they have a sense of personal growth in the sense that they are always growing, evolving, and changing; finally, they have a sense of autonomy and an internal locus of control, they chose their fate in life instead of being victims of fate. Keyes reports that only 18.1% of Americans are actually flourishing. The majority of Americans can be classified as mentally unhealthy (depressed) or not mentally unhealthy or flourishing (moderately mentally healthy/languishing).
Modern researchers believe that individuals described as flourishing have a combination of high levels of emotional well-being, psychological well-being, and social well-being. Keyes states that mental health may be operationalized “as a syndrome of symptoms of an individual’s subjective well-being.”
To complete, or operationalize, the definition of what it means to be functioning optimally, or flourishing, there has been diagnostic criteria created for a flourishing life:
- Individual must have had no episodes of major depression in the past year
- Individual must possess a high level of well-being as indicated by the individuals meeting all three of the following criteria
- High emotional well-being, defined by 2 of 3 scale scores on appropriate measures falling in the upper tertile.
- Positive affect
- Negative affect (low)
- Life satisfaction
- High psychological well-being, defined by 4 of 6 scale scores on appropriate measures falling in the upper tertile.
- Personal growth
- Purpose in life
- Environmental mastery
- Positive relations with others
- High social well-being, defined by 3 of 5 scale scores on appropriate measures falling in the upper tertile.
- Social acceptance
- Social actualization
- Social contribution
- Social coherence
- Social integration
- High emotional well-being, defined by 2 of 3 scale scores on appropriate measures falling in the upper tertile.
Psychologists study well-being and subjective well-being by conceptualizing, measuring, and studying the measurement structure of mental health. Subjective well-being, is an individual’s perceptions of their own lives in terms of their affective states, psychological functioning, and social functioning. Many social scientists study and measure flourishing through self-report measures. Individuals are asked to respond to structured scales measuring the presence of positive affect, absence of negative affect, and perceived satisfaction with life. Participants are specifically asked about their emotions and feelings because scientists theorize that flourishing is something that manifests itself internally rather than externally.
Components of Flourishing
Researchers have argued that flourishing is characterized by four main components: goodness, generative, growth, and resilience.
In another view, an important component of flourishing making it such a strong concept in positive psychology, is that it must be a true pursuit of human flourishing; it must be a genuine search for positivity that is grounded in the reality of current circumstances. When it is feigned positivity may be more negative than good. Flourishing and the pursuit of an optimal lifestyle is one that encourages a truly genuine and heartfelt pursuit.
Major Empirical Findings
The Antonym of Flourishing, Languishing
One reason to study and cultivate flourishing is to learn about the antonym of languishing and depression. Cultivating flourishing does not eliminate depression; instead depression is on the opposite side of the scale from flourishing. However, it is important to note how much more beneficial flourishing is in comparison to either depression or languishing, which can be considered as the midpoint between the two concepts.
A study by Keyes found that there are major costs of depression, which 14% of adults experience annually: it impairs social roles; it costs billions each year due to work absenteeism, diminished productivity, and healthcare costs; finally, depression accounts for at least one-third of suicides. Therefore, it is important to study flourishing to learn about what is possible if issues such as depression are tackled and how the ramifications of focusing on the positive make life better not just for one person, but also for others around them.
Flourishing has significant positive aspects magnified when compared to languishing adults and when languishing adults are compared to depressed adults, as explained by Keyes. For example, languishing adults have the same amount of chronic disease as those that are depressed whereas flourishing adults are in exceptionally better physical health. Languishing adults miss as many days at work as depressed adults and, in fact, visit doctors and therapists more than depressed adults.
General Benefits of Flourishing
Positive emotional feelings such as moods, and sentiments such as happiness, carry more personal and psychological benefits than just a pleasant, personal subjective experience. Flourishing widens attention, broaden behavioral repertoires, which means to broaden one’s skills or regularly performed actions, increase intuition, and increase creativity. Secondly, good feelings can have physiological manifestations, such as significant and positive cardiovascular effects, such as a reduction in blood pressure. Third, good feelings predict healthy mental and physical outcomes. Also, positive affect and flourishing is related to longevity.
The many components of flourishing elicit more tangible outcomes than simply mental or physiological results. For example, components such as self-efficacy, likability, and prosocial behavior encourage active involvement with goal pursuits and with the environment. This promotes people to pursue and approach new and different situations. Therefore, flourishing adults have higher levels of motivation to work actively to pursue new goals and are in possession of more past skills and resources. This helps people to satisfy life and societal goals, such as creating opportunities, performing well in the workplace, and producing goods, work and careers that are highly valued in American society. This success results in higher satisfaction and reinforces Frederickson’s Broaden and Build model, for more positive adults reap more benefits and, are more positive, which creates an upward spiral.
Studies have shown that people who are flourishing are more likely to graduate from college, secure “better” jobs, and are more likely to succeed in that job. One reason for this success can be seen in the evidence offered above when discussing languishing: those that flourish have less work absenteeism, cited by Lyubomirsky as “job withdrawal” (6) Lyubomirsky, S., King, L. A., & Diener, E. (in press). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131, 803-855. Finally, those that are flourishing have more support and assistance from coworkers and supervisors in their workplace.
Flourishing has been found to impact more areas than simply the workplace. In particular community involvement and social relationships have been cited as something that flourishing influences directly. For example, those that flourish have been found to volunteer at higher levels across cultures. Moreover, in terms of social support and relationships, studies have shown that there is an association between flourishing and actual number of friends, overall social support, and perceived companionship.
A Ratio for A Flourishing Life
There is evidence that ratios of positive to negative affect can distinguish individuals that flourish from those that do not. Specifically, normal functioning is characterized by a ratio of positive to negative affect near 2.5, however optimal functioning, or flourishing, is characterized by a ratio of positive to negative of 4.3 The point at which flourishing changes to languishing is called the Losada line and is placed at the positivity ratio of 2.9. Those with higher ratios, have broader behavioral repertoires, greater flexibility and resilience to adversity, more social resources, and more optimal functioning in many areas of their life. Those below the Losada line can be characterized by languishing children or adults and suffer those consequences that studies have shown accompany a languishing life.
Research has also discovered there is an upper limit to happiness and how positive we can be. When humans reach the upper limit the dynamics of flourishing begin to disintegrate, which means that positive benefits such as higher productivity and increased creativity do not occur and actually regress at these high levels of positivity. This disintegration occurs at a positivity ratio of about 11.5. Therefore, problems do occur with too much positivity, which means that negativity plays an important role within flourishing. This specific type of negativity is termed appropriate negativity, which can be described as time-limited, soluble feedback that is connected to specific circumstances. Appropriate negativity could also be renamed as constructive criticism. This feedback is important because it allows us as humans to modify our actions, thoughts, and motivations and refocus or improve our pathways and continue to grow and develop in the adjusted, more positive way until we are offered appropriate negativity again, at which point we will readjust our strategies and pathways again
The definition or conceptualization of mental health under the framework of flourishing and languishing describes symptoms that can cooperate with intervention techniques aimed at increasing levels of emotional, social, and psychological well-being Furthermore, as Keyes implies, in a world full of flourishing people, all would be able to reap the benefits that this positive mental state and life condition offers.
Keyes focuses on children as well as adults. He cites that children will be directly affected by the concerted effort to motivate adults to flourish. He brings up the example of a school filled with flourishing teachers. He emphasizes that this area of study, of where teachers are on the scale of well-being, is very understudied and could benefit the school system. He states that we can not expose our children to languishing adults and expect them to flourish. Therefore, the application is far reaching into the depths of our school systems. While the children might not be directly attempting to flourish, they are feeling the benefits of those around them consciously attempting to flourish. Furthermore, if students can be made to flourish, then the benefits to the education process will be even greater, as flourishing can increase attention and thought-action repertoires.
Flourishing also has many applications to civic duty and social engagement. Keyes believes that most people do not focus enough on those aspects of life and focus instead on personal achievement. Keyes suggests that people should provide encouragement to children, and adults, to participate socially. People that exhibit flourishing are engaged in social participation and people that are engaged in social participation exhibit flourishing. Therefore, he suggests that people should give their kids a purpose, which will create a sense of contribution and environmental mastery that will enhance feelings of well-being and fulfilment.
Flourishing has been noted to have connections with the overall concept of human nature. A view generally known as Neo-Aristotelian comes from modernized theories incorporating doctrines of Aristotle It claims that human flourishing offers a view of the human good that is objective, inclusive, individualized, agent-relative, self directed and social. It views human flourishing objectively because it is desirable and appealing. Flourishing is a state of being rather than a feeling or experience. It comes from engaging in activities that both express and produce the actualization of one’s potential.
The concept of flourishing is built on Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions, but some researchers have suggested that there are other functions of positive emotions. Mackie and Worth propose that positive emotions diminish cognitive capabilities. They showed that when exposed to a persuasive message for a limited amount of time, subjects experiencing a positive mood showed reduced processing as compared with subjects in a neutral mood. Others have suggested that positive emotions diminish the motivation but not the capacity for cognitive processing. Flourishing is still a newly-developing subject of study and, more tests need to be done to fully define, operationalize, and apply the concept of flourishing; this lack of research is also one criticism of the concept flourishing.
Flourishing is something that must be cultivated over the course of a lifetime, but the consequences of research can be far reaching. People who experience and express positive emotions cope more effectively with chronic stress and other negative experiences. The benefits of flourishing extend beyond the individual and have implications for communities and society as well. It has a role to be played in educational reform, greater workplace productivity and healthcare on a national scale. Further research in flourishing, and positive psychology in general, would greatly add to the applicable body of knowledge in the field of psychology beyond the specific field of abnormal psychology and help to improve oneself, one's community, and one's world.
- Positive Affect
- Negative Affect
- Subjective well-being
- Positive Psychology
- Psychological well-being
- Social Well-Being
- Personality Strengths