What does it mean to thrive?

My goal in living is to thrive. But what does thrive mean practically? A vague concept is of little use when making daily decisions on how to live. What is needed is an operational definition that can lead to useful guidelines for living and can help gage progress.

The positive psychology movement has produced many books and articles on thriving and flourishing. There has been good research on what contributes to a person thriving. Martin Seligman, Jonathan Haidt, and Ed Diener have all written excellent books on the topic. These influenced my thinking.

Equally important are some of the great moral philosophers (e.g. Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Mill, and Smith). Aristotle provides a foundation with his concept of happiness or eudamonia. The Judeo-Christian traditions have also shaped my views on thriving.

It is a mistake to conflate thriving with feelings of well being and happiness. While people who flourish often have positive emotions, and many positive psychology books focus on positive feelings, flourishing is much more than feeling good.

I believe people who thrive often act in ways that don’t make them feel good. Sometimes doing the right thing and being a good person causes pain and suffering. Immanuel Kant said, “Morality is not the doctrine of how we may make ourselves happy, but how we may make ourselves worthy of happiness.”[i] Part of thriving involves being a good person which may not contribute to feeling happy.

Thriving is not a static goal – you don’t achieve it and declare victory. It is a state of being. One can thrive and then not thrive. There are degrees of thriving so perhaps thriving is more a state of becoming than a state of being.

Thriving can be viewed in several dimensions which helps in understanding the concept. What questions must be asked to assess whether I am thriving or not? The following are the basic questions to ask. Most of the answers will be a matter of degree. What we want to know is how far are we in achieving a state of flourishing.

[i] Immanual Kant, Critique of Practical Reason

Are my basic needs being met?

For most of human history, the focus of living has been on meeting basic needs for food, shelter, clothing, and essential community. Even today, in our relative affluence, much time and effort is spent meeting basic needs.

Determining what is basic is personal. I know from life experience that I can be satisfied, perhaps even happier, when the basics are really basic. A nicer house and fancier car are nice but go beyond the basics for me.

Basic health is part of the category as well. It is easier to thrive if we are healthy. But there are many examples of people thriving with severe illnesses. What we do to be healthy is part of flourishing.

Basic emotional or psychological needs fall into this category. The need for love and friendship for example. These are the baseline psychological needs for foundational mental health. We can have our basic psychological needs met without being “self actualized” in Maslow’s terms.

Am I at peace?

It would be wonderful to wake each morning feeling at peace and confident of meeting the day’s challenges with serenity, calm, and patience. This part of thriving addresses our emotional state and our attitude on life. Life is hard and there is much to cause anxiety, fear, and anger. Being at peace is the absence, or minimization, of these negative feelings. This is a hard state to describe and difficult to maintain. It is people like the Dali Lama who seem to have find a way to approach each day with joy and serenity despite facing many problems and obstacles.

Am I acting in the best interest of others?

This is a big and complicated part of thriving.  It involves our relationship with others and our community. Self-interest is our natural state. That is not in itself bad. We are unlikely to meet our basic needs without it. But what about our role in meeting the needs of others?

Self-interest can go to extremes and result in an imbalance between individual interest and public interest. Aristotle noted, “Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god. ”

Our economic system is based on self-interest.  Adam Smith observed, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” One of the marvels of free-market economics is how self-interest produces public good. Much of what we do in life is for our own well-being. But most of that also benefits others because we produce what other people want and need. The challenge is to be sure what we produce in the course of making our living actually makes other people well off.

Then there is acting to benefit others when it’s not in our interest. There are, of course, degrees to consider. There is reciprocal altruism where we sacrifice for someone else but hope they will sacrifice for us sometime in the future. There are the sacrifices we make for love. We may sacrifice for a spouse or a child out of love and our commitment to put their interests ahead of ours. There is patriotism and love of country. Some will sacrifice, even their lives, because of commitments to their community.

There are of course many lesser examples ranging from simply being polite (listening to someone else’s story when you want to tell your own) to generosity to the less fortunate. I recall a saying from my father (which he may have learned from his father) that we should always do more than our share.

I believe a person cannot thrive unless one provides value to others and, when needed, puts other’s well being first to the detriment of their own.

Do I demonstrate character excellence and virtue?

Excellence of character involves many things, particularly virtue, and deserves more discussion than can be done here now. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech captures it well. He said, “I have a dream that my four young children will be judged on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.”. An essential part of flourishing is setting a high bar for our character and achieving it. Would we be happy if other’s judgment of the “content of our character” were the only test of whether our life was well lived?

Character and virtue can seem like antiquated ideas; something from past generations before we became enlightened and realized how important the individual is. Yet character and virtue are essential to thriving. We would never say someone is thriving if they had a poor character and more vices rather than virtues. Character and virtue is a topic rich in wisdom and fundamental to determining how to live well and flourish.

What do you not need to thrive?

What isn’t part of thriving? It is common today to read and hear advice on how to live a full life. We can read about how to have a better orgasm and what should be on our “bucket list.” Most of that is a distraction.

The absence of pain or suffering is not crucial for thriving. Pain and suffering are part of life and unavoidable. Some pain and suffering are necessary. Good character often emerges from adversity.

Other commonly mentioned signs of a successful life – wealth, fame, public recognition, status – are not part of thriving. A thriving person may be wealthy and famous but that is not why they are thriving. The poorest and least recognized person can thrive.

Like all social species, status and hierarchy are highly valued. Thriving is not having high status. Rather it is what we do with the status we have. Likewise, we must consider the impact of our achievements. Are they simply for our shallow pleasure and gratification? Or are they in service to a higher good and something greater?.

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