What does it mean to thrive?
To thrive as a human being has become my purpose — the overriding goal that other subsidiary life goals should align with. I should be able to judge the value of other life goals by asking whether they further thriving or not.
What does thriving mean? The term sounds positive but vague. But the term is rich in meaning and can be interpreted in practical ways. Thriving has been discussed and considered for thousands of years. The Greeks used the term eudaimonia, often translated as happiness, but perhaps better translated as thriving or flourishing. There is a large body of knowledge about thriving from both philosophical and psychological perspectives.
Defining thriving is a challenge but a workable definition is needed if it is going to service as life’s purpose. It can’t be left vague. Thriving for me has several components, each with its history and impact.
I hoped early in my journey that purpose and thriving could be simple. Maybe a simple concept like love could be enough. Or perhaps a withdrawal from society to seek a purely spiritual life. Many people, perhaps most, adopt simple and narrow definitions of thriving and purpose. That may work for them and is better than having no purpose.
A narrow approach didn’t work for me because I see life as complicated. Narrow or simple purposes seem to ignore large parts of life. One can have a strong spiritual life but still feel something is missing. I wanted to define thriving with enough breadth and depth to guide my whole life, not just part of it.
The guidance I seek needs to be practical. Daily actions and decisions should connect with my purpose. The definition of thriving should be operational. Making purpose practical requires complexity because it is applied to specific situations where there are always complicating factors. I found no way around having a rich and multifaced definition of thriving if it was going to be my purpose.
Thriving is not a static goal – it is not achieved, and victory declared. There are degrees of thriving. One can do well for a while and then fall apart. Thriving as a never-ending process of becoming rather than a state of being. That is why it makes such a good purpose. It can guide you throughout life.
There is a deep body of knowledge to draw upon to produce a practical or operational definition of thriving. I didn’t have to make it. Aristotle provides a foundation with his concept of happiness (eudaimonia). His Nicomachean Ethics and related works are valuable resources. Many other moral philosophers such as David Hume, Emanual Kant, John Stuart Mill, and Adam Smith address the issue in their writings. Judeo-Christian teachings also address happiness and thriving. All have shaped my views.
More recently, psychologists have studied thriving and happiness. Martin Seligman, Jonathan Haidt, and Ed Diener have all researched happiness topics and written excellent books and articles. There is a whole field of positive psychology focused on what makes people healthy psychologically rather than the traditional focus on illness. There are empirical studies, definitions, data, and models on happiness and thriving. This science provides good insights and valuable theories of flourishing to go with the teachings of philosophers and religions.
It is a mistake to conflate thriving with feelings of well-being and happiness. People who flourish often have positive emotions. Many positive psychology books focus on positive feelings. Likely most people use feeling good and flourishing synonymously. Yet my view is that thriving is much more than feeling good. It is important but just a part and in some ways a minor one.
Thriving sometimes means acting in ways that don’t produce good feelings. Doing the right thing and being a good person is sometimes painful. 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.
I divide thriving into several dimensions that have been most relevant for guiding my life. These dimensions help me understand the concepts underlying flourishing. They also provide a practical perspective useful in daily life. These dimensions overlap and intersect. Work in one area can have benefits in another.
Where one stands regarding these dimensions is a question of degree. It is not yes/no. Instead, it is a continuum, often without an upper limit.
I pose several questions to determine how well I am doing. My answers lead to follow-up questions. If I am not doing as well as I want in one dimension (which is always the case), then I ask “Why not?” and then “What can I do better?” This process helps me move from idea to action.
Much of life is spent meeting essential needs for shelter, food, human relations, health, etc. In the distant past, it was nearly all humans did. Even with our relative affluence today it still is the central activity of life. It is the foundation for the rest of what we do so it should be recognized as an essential part of thriving.
My basic needs include the essentials for physical and psychological well-being. It includes food, clothing, and shelter. It includes physical health. It includes the basics for participation in society such as transportation and communication. It also includes meeting core psychological health needs such as love and human contact.
People differ in what they consider basic. For establishing purpose in life, I favor a bare-bones definition. I know from experience I can thrive with very little in terms of physical comfort. A bigger house and a fancier car are nice, but they are the frosting. It is not bad to have them, but they aren’t essential to thriving. The Stoics favored being indifferent to physical luxuries.
Physical and psychological health are perhaps a bit different in that severe illness of either type can impede thriving. But there are many examples of people thriving despite significant physical and mental illnesses. For my purposes, I ask whether I am healthy enough to get on with life.
Asking whether basic needs are being met helps set priorities. If they aren’t, then meeting them is a top priority. Early in adult life that is properly our focus as we figure out how to have a place to sleep, food to eat, and support a family if we have one. Later it can help temper the pursuits of things that may seem like basic needs but are unnecessary.
This aspect of thriving involves our emotional state and attitude toward life. It is about achieving a level of psychological health allowing us to surmount life’s challenges with calm and confidence.
This is not peace that comes from withdrawing from the world and avoiding problems. At times I considered that sort of peace desirable as a life goal. I achieve it when backpacking in the wilderness. As nice as it is, it is a temporary respite from the complexities and problems of living in society and playing a part. It is not a life plan and is not very practical. One can’t live on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Being at peace is not necessarily experiencing joy or enthusiasm for each day. Those feelings are great when they occur. Being at peace may make it easier to feel joy. But the state I desire is deeper and more nuanced. In many ways, it is not just emotional but equally a state of mind. It is difficult to feel calm when the mind is racing and disordered.
I desire a mental attitude and strength of character that allows me to be effective in difficult situations. It involves perspective, emotional control, and the confidence of knowing I can survive the most difficult circumstances, and perhaps even be better for it.
There are many famous examples of people who experience great misfortune and physical and emotional hardship yet persist through those events with a positive attitude and self-assurance. They make good decisions and act in tough situations. They can sustain a good attitude over time. I admire those people and hope to learn from their experiences.
Attaining this state of mind is not easy and maintaining it is harder. I would love to wake each morning feeling at peace and confident of meeting the day’s challenges. That is unrealistic. But with study and practice, I increase the odds of having the right state of mind when I need it. That state of mind seems essential to thriving.
Thriving involves more than just our individual, self-centered state of mind and condition. Often discussion of happiness and thriving is inwardly focused. Equally important is how we interact with others and our community and the impact we have on them.
Self-interest is a big part of our nature. It is most often our default state under stress. That is not bad. Basic needs are unlikely to be met without it. But what about our role in the welfare of others? Can we thrive if others are not?
Thriving needs to incorporate our effect on others because we live not as isolated individuals but as part of a community. 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.[ii]” We evolved as social animals. Even the most extreme back to the earth hermit depends on others to live.
A significant part of our relationship with our community is economic. Much of our economic life involves both self-interest and community benefit. 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.[iii]” One of the marvels of free-market economics is how self-interest can produce public good when the system is wisely regulated to reduce solely self-interested behavior. While we may work for our well-being, our work, if done right, benefits others because we produce what they want and need.
Work, paid or not, is an important factor in thriving. Yes, we may work to meet our basic needs. But the type of work we do and how well we do it affects others. It is an opportunity for us to contribute to our community. The challenge is assuring our work is benefitting others and not just providing us a living. Not all work is beneficial to society.
Closely related to work is achievement. Achievement comes in many forms. It can range from building a successful company to coaching a winning youth soccer team to passing a badly needed public policy change. The drive to achieve and excel can be motived by self-interest. People get wealth, status, and fame through achievement. Those outcomes are not important for thriving. What is important is the benefits for society from achievement.
We benefit from the scientist making a breakthrough discovery and the entrepreneur creating a product we value. For every famous achiever, thousands are making more than ordinary contributions that we benefit from. There are, of course, many factors affecting whether an achievement benefits society. And there can be some controversy. Regardless, the idea that we can try focusing our drive for achievement in ways that benefit others is important. Part of thriving is making good use of our natural gifts to benefit others.
This part of thriving also includes acting to benefit others when it is not in our best interest. There are degrees to consider. There is what is sometimes referred to as reciprocal altruism. Here we sacrifice our immediate self-interest and well-being for someone else’s well-being with the hope, perhaps expectation, they will sacrifice for us in the future. These are good but common. We help our neighbors in part because we may need their help sometime in the future.
Then there are the sacrifices we make for love where the sacrifice may never be repaid. These are the most difficult and involve the most sacrifice. We may sacrifice for a spouse or a child out of love. We commit to putting their interests ahead of ours. What we do for their benefit may cause us pain and suffering. It can mean taking on responsibilities we never wanted. It can mean foregoing long-held dreams.
There is also patriotism and love of country. People sacrifice, sometimes their lives, because of commitments to their country.
There are many lesser examples of putting others’ needs ahead of ours. It can be as simple as being polite and listening to someone else’s story when you want to tell your own. It can be more substantial such as contributions to the less fortunate. The little things add up and create the habit is looking for ways to act in the best interests of others.
I believe a person cannot thrive unless one provides value to others and, when needed, puts others’ well-being first to the detriment of their own. Emanual Kant said that we must always treat people as an end and never solely as a means. This imperative recognizes that we should act in ways that benefit others and not just use them to get what we want.
In simpler terms, my father use to say that we should always do more than our share. It is a helpful reminder to look for ways to help others whether it helps us or not.
Character and virtue provide good measures of how well we behave. That behavior is often how we are judged by others. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech captures it simply. 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.[iv]”. Many consider living a virtuous life the hallmark of living well and thriving. I would be satisfied if my character were the only test of whether I had lived my life well.
Character is particularly important because we control it. Character is not given. We are not born with a well-developed character. It is something developed through choice. It is perhaps the only thing that is truly ours. We can exhibit virtue and character regardless of our life circumstances.
Character and virtue are huge topics deserving more discussion than can be done here now. They will be addressed extensively in other essays. But to summarize, I see character as the sum of the virtues we exhibit. Virtues for me fall into traditional categories such as wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance. These may seem antiquated; discarded ideas from past generations before we became enlightened and realized how important the individual perspective is. Yet, would we say someone was thriving if they had a poor character and more vices rather than virtues? Character and virtue are topics with a rich history and with much to contribute to living well.
It can be helpful to consider what is not necessary for thriving. We are inundated with advice on what makes life fulfilling, meaningful, and happy. The advice comes through books, articles, podcasts, the media, and advertising. Most of the advice is a distraction. Thriving is not about having fantastic sex, checking off items on our “bucket list,” or following the latest happiness fad.
The absence of pain or suffering is not crucial for thriving. Pain and suffering are unavoidable. Some pain and suffering may even be necessary for thriving. Good character and important life lessons often emerge from adversity. Friedrich Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger[v].”
Pleasure is not necessary for thriving. We are constantly urged to seek pleasure, enjoy ourselves, and have fun. Most of this advice involves physical or sensual pleasure. It’s not that we should avoid pleasure. But we should not focus on sensual pleasure if we expect to thrive. We should seek the deeper pleasures associated with achieving good goals and living virtuously.
Traditional signs of a successful life – wealth, fame, and recognition – are not part of thriving. A thriving person may be wealthy and famous, but that is not why they thrive. The poorest and least recognized person can thrive.
Like all social species, humans value status and hierarchy. Many consider high status a part of living well. But high status is not essential to thriving. Rather thriving is about what we do with the status we have. Likewise with achievement. It is not the accolades we receive for achievement that matter but the impact of our achievements. Are we driven to achieve to get praise and recognition or to provide value to others regardless of recognition?
There are many ways to define thriving. These questions have helped me to understand what thriving means in practical terms. They help me assess where I am and to plan to get better. It is a process. I am always falling short. The questions and their answers help create a path forward.