Whether you love or hate your job, relationship and living situation — it can be hard to know if you’re actually happy and what that word even really means. That said, these psychology professors are suggesting that flourishing may be a better word for it.
While flourishing may sound abstract, Harvard now has a Human Flourishing Program that helps students carve out fulfilling lives.
“Flourishing is not just a mindset,” explained Tyler J. VanderWeele, who is the director of the program at Harvard. “Flourishing I think of as living in a state in which all aspects of one's life are good — this extends beyond just thinking or making a decision.”
While VanderWeele admits that flourishing is only partially, but not fully, within a person’s control, he specifies that it’s different from the term “well-being” because “flourishing includes physical well-being and social well-being also.”
Experts discuss advice on how to flourish in all aspects of life.
In his work with trauma patients, Dr. Frank Anderson, who is a psychotherapist and psychiatrist based in Concord, Massachusetts, describes flourishing as a combination of self-connection and self-alignment. When he’s working with patients, he encourages them to embrace the negative feelings, as they are our body’s way of protecting us.
“Our natural instinct, when we experience something difficult, is to push it away, primarily to avoid the painful feelings associated with it,” Anderson said. “This avoidant response, even though well intended, often blocks self-connection.”
Instead, Anderson encourages his patients to identify how their external behaviors — say nerves due to social anxiety — are a result of internal trauma. “Embracing our feelings, gives us the opportunity to deal with what’s troubling us, while avoiding them or distracting ourselves from them, keeps our distress active and unaddressed,” Anderson said.
Focusing on relationships
Margaret S. Clark, a social psychologist and professor at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, explains why relationships are a crucial factor for everyone’s happiness.
“In close relationships (those with friends, family and romantic partners) relationships flourish when members trust one another, attend to one another’s needs, and are responsive to partners (meaning that they understand, accept and care for their partners),” Clark said.
To flourish in your relationships, Clark notes that it’s important to engage in mutually beneficial activities — even if that’s spending time together relaxing — because they can lead to growth for both members. She also explains that it’s important to support one another in individual goals — even (or especially!) when you are not directly benefiting from those goals. From there, Clark says that couples should make sure that they avoid keeping track of things in a transactional way or suppressing emotions.
"Conflict and disagreements can and do occur in flourishing relationships and they can help the relationship grow if each person values resolving them in ways that are optimal for the people in the relationship and the relationship itself,” says Clark.
How to flourish personally
For those who would love to start flourishing mentally, but maybe find themselves in some sort of an emotional funk, there are some things that can help. The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard encourages students to practice gratitude, recognizing the positive events in life and imagining (and even journaling) about their vision for their best possible selves.
If you want to take these cognitive exercises one step further, you can start working on changing your behaviors. For example, if you’re journaling about your positive vision for your life — write down your character strengths and then participate in activities that allow you to put them to use.
Obviously kindness is always the best option in every scenario, but the Harvard program notes that it’s actually good for your health if you go out of your way to be kind. One study found that when people were instructed to go out of their way to do kind things for others multiple times per week, for weeks at a time, the people were less anxious and felt more connected to others.
A good way to put these behavioral changes to practice is through volunteering. It provides you with a schedule, a direct goal that you can accomplish over a set time, and ultimately a sense of greater satisfaction.
Can you flourish through loneliness?
As everyone is trying to reignite their social lives after a year spent indoors, it’s important to recognize that it’s OK to feel lonely. Anderson encourages people to take note of the moments when they find themselves self-medicating with food, work, exercising or drinking alcohol. Then, identify the emotion that you’re trying to escape by doing those things.
“People typically develop a range of behaviors that attempt to keep their sadness or loneliness at bay,” says Anderson. “The way to get to the root of the problem is to first appreciate the attempt at keeping the underlying pain at bay.”