Week One: Flourishing
Robert W. Roeser, Abra Vigna, Brooke Lavelle, David Germano, John Dunne, Abigail Lindemann
Student Flourishing Initiative Curriculum Committee
Introduction: On the Origins of the Art & Science of Human
Flourishing Course’s Theory of Human Flourishing
Main Inquiry of the Course
What does it mean to not just survive in this world, but to really thrive, flourish, and live a life of deep fulfillment and meaning during the short span of time that we're on this planet? It’s a question that has arisen in many historical periods, in many geographical places, and in many human hearts. In this course, we take up this question consciously and intentionally together in a spirit of shared inquiry and draw on ancient wisdom and modern science to enrich our inquiry. In so doing, we join with those who across time, place, and generation have wondered about, grappled with, and sought to answer these basic human questions: How to live a meaningful life and be truly happy? What are the factors that impede, or maybe promote, the ability to flourish? And perhaps most importantly in these times, what would a flourishing society or world actually look like and how can these be brought about?
Part of our task with regard to inquiring into the nature of flourishing is perhaps to reflect on, imagine, and explore what flourishing might look like for us in our lives and in our relationships with others. Another part of the task involves inquiring into the question: what is the relationship between happiness based on pleasure/feeling good and happiness based on ethical virtue and meaning? Still another part of the task seems to involve inquiring into the question: what is the relationship between being happy oneself and the happiness of others?
Business models, governance models, and political models have all been shaped implicitly and explicitly by different models of ethics and flourishing. In other words, everything we do, on some level, has been shaped by these questions, so it is important that we each discern for ourselves, what does it mean to live a good life? How has this vision been shaped by implicit values and assumptions, and what choices do we make each and every day to live with integrity with regard to the values and virtues we hope to embody?
One Approach to Flourishing
In this introduction, we provide a brief overview of the course content and themes that outline our view of human flourishing (e.g., Seligman, 2011) or what others call genuine human happiness (e.g., Ekman et al., 2005; Ricard, 2006), eudaimonic wellbeing (e.g., Ryan & Deci, 2001; Ryff, 2014), or thriving (Bundick, Yeager, King & Damon, 2010). The goal of this introduction is to provide students with information about how we came to our own particular view of flourishing that we teach in this course. With this information, it is our hope that students will then be able to better understand and evaluate this view fully and consciously. We were very intentional and worked for over a year to define the course structure. The structure of the course reflects our emergent “Theory of Human Flourishing.” This view is based in both previous theory and research, and newer theory and research on meditation and its influence on human happiness and development.
Foundations of Human Flourishing
Following this course introduction, we explore some of the “big ideas” that are shared across different cultural-historical traditions and ways of knowing regarding how one might cultivate a life of flourishing. In this course, we emphasize three such ideas in order to provide a sort of foundation for our inquiry into the question of what it might mean to flourish. These three ideas have been discussed in both wisdom traditions and modern science, and include (1) the idea that human beings have an intrinsic potential for positive change; (2) the role of practice and community in the process of positive change; and (3) the interdependence between positive personal and social change.
First, a life of flourishing is hypothesized to be possible insofar as human beings possess the potential to transform themselves in ways that lead towards flourishing—as seen in the study of the lives of historical/exemplary individuals (e.g., Erikson, 1958; 1969); resilience across the lifespan (Werner & Smith, 1992; Masten, 2001); and modern neuroscience (e.g., Begley, 2007; Davidson & Lutz, 2008; Stiles, 2008). Thus, the first foundational idea for this course is that our potential to change, to flourish, is possible, even following significant life adversity.
Second, the process of self-transformation involves the learning and development of new skills through structured practice over time. As the saying goes, “Train your mind, change your brain” (see Begley, 2007). What this means is that psychological mastery/skill development is accompanied by structural and functional changes in neuroanatomy of related brain systems (see Ericsson & Charness, 1994). The big idea here is that flourishing can now be conceptualized as the cultivation of specific kinds of ethical skills that are malleable—that can be learned through practice (MLERN, 2012; Varela, 1999). These include skills like empathy, mindful awareness, and compassion for self and others. What’s more, the development of these virtuous skills is being studied in relation to changes in brain, behavior, and social relationships in the directions of health, wellbeing, and growth rather than their opposites. To summarize, another big idea is that the process of flourishing involves learning various skills that create the conditions for a life of flourishing to, well, flourish!
One set of methodologies for developing these skills of flourishing are called “meditation” or “contemplation” practices. The word contemplative means to mark out a space for observation; such practices are designed for us to make time to observe our minds and lives in ways that can help move us in the direction of flourishing. Accordingly, a new science is emerging that studies how we can develop our awareness, attention, and the power that these qualities can have for leading a life of meaning, purpose, and flourishing. This newly emerging field is called contemplative science (e.g., Goleman & Davidson, 2017), and research from this field forms a key part of this course. Contemplative science aims to integrate insights about the optimization of human development from both science and the wisdom of the world's contemplative meditative traditions in order to gain a better understanding of the nature of the mind and of life, as well as how various practices can help us to cultivate skills leading to a personally meaningful and socially beneficial life.
Contemplative science is unique in that its aim is not only to understanding the practices and related skills we can learn to acknowledge, see, and amplify the positive in our lives, but also to understand how such practices and skills can help us to work with the inevitable suffering that exists in our own lives and in the world. As opposed to trying to circumvent or avoid suffering, Contemplative science seeks to understand how we can work with suffering skillfully and how we can see that at times our suffering has gifts to offer us. This is why in the third week of the course we will examine the topic of resilience—how to continue to grow and develop in the face of challenges and adversity.
The third foundational idea in this course involves gaining insight into the interdependence between one’s own happiness and the happiness of others. Understanding such interdependence is thought to be a key dimension of living a life of flourishing (e.g., Dalai Lama, 1999; 2012). Many traditions, for instance, suggest that we are inherently social by nature and that we cannot thrive or flourish in isolation from community or by ignoring our responsibilities to others who, like ourselves, wish to flourish and not to suffer. Many wisdom traditions suggest that harm to one is harm to all. We will explore this idea of not only natural interdependence in the development of everything in the universe, but also a concomitant ethical interdependence in the way we exist in the universe in relationship to one another and the natural world.
The first three weeks of the course explore these foundations of what it means to flourish. Can we change? What skills need to be learned to foster flourishing? Can we really learn such skills—are they “malleable” qualities that can be developed in way that is similar to how one trains the body in a gym? How can we be resilient and continue to grow despite the challenges and adversities we experience? You are invited to explore and inquire into these questions with us. Following this exploration of the foundations of flourishing, we begin to explore the qualities of mind and ways of being that are thought to contribute to flourishing.
Theory of Human Flourishing: Course Curriculum
Another way we have had to be selective and synthetic in this course is related to selecting among the many human virtues that different cultural traditions (e.g., Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian, Hindu-Buddhist) have posited as helpful with regard to flourishing—the realization of deep fulfillment, meaning, and happiness in life that goes beyond just “feeling good” (which may not always be good for one in the long run). We wanted to focus on malleable (e.g., trainable) human qualities related to flourishing that have been investigated in both the arts and humanities (e.g., history, art, religion, philosophy) as well as the human sciences (biology, psychology, neuroscience, sociology)
After over a year of discussions among various members of the curriculum committee, a theoretical model of human flourishing was developed based on extant theories of wellbeing and flourishing in personality and positive psychology (Ryff, 2014; Seligman, 2011), insights into flourishing from the fields of social-emotional learning (e.g., Greenberg et al., 2003), contemplative science (e.g., Davidson & Begley, 2012; Goleman & Davidson, 2017; Ricard et al., 2006), and contemplative education (MLERN, 2012). All of these theories offer a model and a view of what underlies human happiness and wellbeing.
For instance, Ryff (2014) offered a model of flourishing encompassing six factors that are said to lead to wellbeing—including a sense of autonomy (being able to express one’s voice and choice in life), self-acceptance, an orientation in life towards ongoing personal growth, having a sense of purpose in life, enjoying positive relationships with other people, and developing competencies in which aspects of the world are mastered (e.g., being good at one’s job). As a second example, Seligman (2011) created a similar theoretical framework for understanding flourishing called the PERMA Model that includes five elements: Positive emotions (e.g., feeling good); Engagement in intrinsically motivating activities; having a sense of Meaning in life; enjoying Positive relationships; and experiencing a sense of Accomplishment in one’s life activities (e.g., job, family, etc.). Positive emotions denote feelings of happiness like joy and contentment; Engagement denotes being in a state of flow or immersion into a task or activity; Relationships refers to positive social connections that make a person feel supported and cared for; Meaning denotes having a greater purpose in life and feeling that one's life is valuable; Accomplishment includes having a sense of achievement by having goals and ambition in life.
Model of Flourishing in this Course
The Model of Student Flourishing in this course encompasses four main dimensions: (1) Awareness, (2) Connection, (3) Wisdom, and (4) Integration. These four dimensions of flourishing are explored in detail through 11 more specific qualities of flourishing (e.g., focus, emotion, mindfulness, interdependence, compassion, diversity, identity, values, aesthetics, courage, and performance). A sense of flourishing is hypothesized to be based on the quality of awareness insofar as our capacities for attending to and being aware of ourselves, others, and the world around us set the stage for all other actions and efforts. Without awareness, our action is driven less by intentional and ethical considerations, and often by automatic habits and reactions that may or may not be in our best interests in the long run. Being aware and awake is thus the foundation of our model. Similar to the works of Ryff (2014) and Seligman (2011), we also see the quality of our relationships with others as critical to a sense of wellbeing and flourishing. In particular, understanding the sheer interdependence of our lives with those of others and understanding how such interconnectedness leads to ethical qualities like compassion and inclusion are keys in this model. The third component in this definition—wisdom—refers understanding one’s self, values, and capacities for creativity and appreciating beauty in the world. Finally, our fourth dimension—integration—refers to the necessity of acting with agency / free will and authenticity insofar as one is able to live out one’s values in the context of everyday life and relationships.
Similarities and Differences with Other Views of Flourishing
As such, the model of human flourishing in this course is similar to the models of flourishing describe above in its focus on the human potential for agency (free will) and self-transformation, on the important role of practice in self-transformation, and on the importance distinction between hedonic (e.g., feeling good) and eudaimonic (e.g., experiencing meaning) views of happiness and flourishing.
On the other hand, our model of flourishing is unique from other models in that it emphasizes attention / awareness and compassion (e.g., Ekman et al., 2005; Davidson & Begley, 2012) as well as the arts and aesthetic experience (e.g., Fox, 2011) as foundational dimensions of flourishing. As such, the model includes a focus not only on personal relationships, but also on wider issues of how our personal flourishing is bound up with social or communal flourishing (e.g., Dalai Lama, 2012). Students are invited to explore this big idea throughout the course, but especially in the module on “Connection” and the three-week focus on themes of interdependence, compassion, and diversity in relation to flourishing. This aspect of the course, and the systems thinking underlying it, derives from conceptions of “secular ethics” (Dalai Lama, 1999).
Another key differentiating feature of this model is that to “know” flourishing is to practice and embody the concepts under consideration in a first-person way, emphasizing procedural forms of learning and skill development (see MLERN, 2012) related to what Aristotle called “virtue” and Francisco Varela (1999) called ethical know-how. This is accomplished in the course through engaging students in reflective practices (e.g., Hart, 2004), including formal mindfulness, compassion, and yoga practices (see Roeser et al., 2014).
One of the most important insights from the modern neuroscience of learning is the distinction between declarative and procedural learning. Declarative learning is conceptual learning “about” things. We can teach the value of wellbeing and the importance of happiness and basic goodness, but this declarative understanding does not translate into the learners becoming happier and exhibiting a higher level of wellbeing. Procedural learning is embodied habit learning that operates through different neural circuits and requires practice to accomplish. There are certain skills such as playing the violin or riding a bicycle that are acquired primarily procedurally. You cannot read a book or attend a lecture and expect that this will help to learn such a skill since it requires practice. We view wellbeing in the same way—while declarative learning is important to provide a conceptual framework for students, we lead with procedural learning and provide access to direct experience that will form the seeds of new habit learning.
Pedagogy of Human Flourishing: Course Structure
In order to teach a class on flourishing, we had to create not only the theoretical model of what flourishing is, but also a pedagogical model that supports a collective inquiry into the nature of flourishing in our own lives. Thus, this course is structured and run a bit differently than other college courses you may be taking this semester. This is a flipped course, which we will explain below, in which we have two whole class sessions with the full 60 students in the class twice a week, and Friday labs in which we meet with a teaching assistant (TA) and a smaller group of classmates (n = 20).
Our weekly whole class sessions replace passive lecture learning with a highly experiential choreographed workshop-styled environment fostering active learning, skill cultivation, reflective experiential exercises, and deep peer-to-peer dialogs. This facilitates the active development of skills instead of just content reception; engages students in healthy experience- and values-based face-to-face communication with each other instead of problematic social media exchanges; and fosters a deep connectedness between intellectual study and the fabric of student lives. Each class begins and ends with a simple contemplative practice to enable students to settle and focus their minds. The bulk of the class consists of experimental exercises exploring the quality of flourishing in question (resiliency, focus, etc.) with a focus on stimulating personal experiences relevant to the topic; facilitating exploring it and its intellectual presentation in relationship to students’ own life, experiences, memories, and aspirations; and creating opportunities for peer-to-peer exchanges on the topic that blend the personal and the intellectual aspects. These exercises are followed by experience-based exchanges with one or two other students guided by deep listening training, which trains on talking to another person in ways that support them in exploring their own experiences. These exercises are interconnected with the readings, talks, and interactive surveys and reflections done over the weekend, such that any given exercise may be a debrief of the results of those activities with the aid of a fellow student. Periodically, the instructor will weave in elucidations of difficult points and lead broader dialogs to connect the exercises to the intellectual topics. Finally, the instructor will also often bring one or more student(s) to the front of the class and ask about his or her experiences and reflections with regards to an exercise just done in relationship to the week's topic to model how to have an experience-based and sensitive conversation with another person.
These class sessions are followed by one-hour smaller lab sections at the end of the week focused on exploring contemplative practices that offer concrete ways to develop the experiences, skills, and capacities relevant to the elements of flourishing. Each Lab begins by reviewing the previous week's practices and then ends by introducing the coming week's practices. Students can ask questions or share experiences about those practices and then have the opportunity to do them together in a group setting. The instructor then introduces the next week’s practices for cultivating flourishing, answers questions, and leads the students in doing the practices together. This helps better conjoin academic work with skill development, so that students are more explicitly learning how to cultivate the skills they need to master the intellectual content of the course, while the class is also making efforts to indicate how such skills have broader import in the students’ personal and future professional lives.
Out-of-class time begins on the weekend as students go online to explore the new topic with an interactive platform, taking advantage of young people’s proclivity for online resources and audio-video materials. The platform begins with accessible video talks and tightly integrated readings that we are authoring; there is one interactive talk and reading each on scientific and humanistic perspectives on the quality of flourishing being explored. These talks and readings provide relevant theoretical frameworks, concepts, and vocabulary, including the quality’s value and dynamics and the ways it can be implemented in individual lives, communities, institutions, and the larger natural world. They include embedded short review questions to assess student preparation and to ensure the necessary understanding and comfort level with these ideas such that we can explore and discuss them in the coming class sessions and labs. They also include reflective exercises that experientially explore a topic raised in a talk or reading. These reflective exercises may also include a written worksheet component where students answer questions, the results of which are used in class sessions to explore deeper in exchange with other students, as well as to reflect upon the aggregate results from all students in dialog. The platform also offers guided versions of the contemplative practices aiming to cultivate the quality of flourishing in the student’s own life and experience. During the week, the primary responsibility at home, unless an assignment is due soon, is to keep up a daily practice.
Flourishing: No Path, Many Paths
The question is not really just how to survive, but how to thrive,
with passion and compassion, with humor and style. —Maya Angelou
One seed of wisdom or “big idea” that has arisen from the collective human quest into the nature of flourishing is that there is no singular best way to live a life of deep fulfillment and meaning as long as one acts ethically with regard to others’ wishes to be happy and not to suffer (Cahn & Vitrano, 2015). There is no single path to happiness, in short, but rather the hypothesis is that there are many paths to flourishing (see Smith, 1991).
The main ways of knowing that we will be focusing on in our investigation of flourishing are the sciences, the arts, the humanities, and embodied wisdom, including that which resides within you.
We hope to offer a sufficient variety of sources of wisdom such that readers will encounter one or more that resonate with their innate wisdom in preparation for discerning their own formula of flourishing as it relates to a sense of collective wellbeing. In the next section we explore the strengths and limitations of each of these ways of knowing and summarize high-level commonalities among them.
Visions of Flourishing from the Humanities
Throughout history, diverse thinkers from various philosophical and religious traditions have considered what it means to live a full life of flourishing. From ancient China to ancient Greece, from India to the Middle East, and from Africa to the Americas, great teachers and spiritual seekers have offered—and often debated—models of the good life and methods for realizing it. Below we briefly survey just a few of those models to provide the reader with a sense of the range and diversity of models of flourishing. There is, of course, a great diversity among these models—some focus on transcendence or connection with God or the divine, while others offer views of flourishing grounded in understandings of human or biological nature. Our goal here is not to compare these models, but rather to offer students a chance to consider the diversity of these traditions and to reflect upon the ways in which these traditions—or aspects of them—have influenced ways in which we imagine and try to enact “the good life.”
For instance, in ancient Greece there were a diversity of traditions of what it meant to live “the good life.” In Aristotle's view, human flourishing, or eudaimonia is not concerned with just pleasure or obtaining wealth or honor or praise or status, but living a life of virtue and meaning in accordance with reason. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle wrote that wisdom is the most perfect of all the virtues and that a life of contemplation constitutes perfect happiness (X.VII, 1177a, b). Thus flourishing is not a state or feeling so much as it is a cultivated stance or habit that accords with virtue. Epicurus, on the other hand, understood happiness, conceived of as pleasure, to be the highest good. He understood the virtues to be not an end unto themselves, but a means to achieve such happiness. In his view, the good was anything that brings pleasure. The differences in these views affect not only the meaning of the good life but also the ways in which one cultivates it and the various virtuous qualities or states underlying it.
Various models of flourishing also have deep roots in China. The mythical Laozi, who speculated to be the author of the Tao Te Ching, the most translated work in world literature after the Bible, explores how the Tao, or the way, finds expression in virtue through naturalness and flow. The Tao is considered to be a kind of spiritual force from which virtue springs. In this tradition, flourishing and virtuous people are those who learn to act effortlessly and spontaneously in or through cooperating with the spirit of the Tao. In other words, virtuous activity flows from effortless action, not through the cultivation of particular characteristics or virtues. One is already endowed with or permeated by such qualities and rather needs to simply be, naturally.
For Confucius (551-479 B.C.E.), a deeply influential Chinese spiritual teacher who was inspired by the Tao Te Ching, the goal of life centered on living admirably and on treating others well and with compassion. His teaching centered not only on individual development, happiness, or pleasure, but also on helping people participate in a larger secular social order by learning to negotiate their own personal needs in relationship with the needs of their families and communities. These teachings are grounded in the cultivation of four key virtues of Confucianism: (1) jen (benevolence or humanity); (2) yi (duty or justice); (3) li (etiquette); and (4) zhi (wisdom or perspicacity) (Cleary, 1992).
Diverse traditions of flourishing also emerged in South Asia, including Hinduisim and Buddhism. Various teachings found throughout the vast Hindu tradition concern themselves not only with pathways to liberation, but also with dharmic duty or action and surrender to or union with brahman, the sacred. Though they diverge in some core ways from Hinduism, various Buddhist traditions also concerned themselves with the possibility of and pathway to liberation or awakening. These traditions differed in many ways, but one key difference concerned whether the qualities of awakening were already present in one’s being and needed to be revealed or uncovered, or whether qualities of awakening—or what we might consider flourishing for our purposes—needed to be cultivated. Dōgen, the founder of the Soto School of Zen, emphasized the imminence of Buddha nature, the sense that we have the capacity or qualities of awakening or enlightenment—in other words, flourishing—already within us. The process of enlightenment, therefore, is a kind of unfolding, a gradual realization of the qualities of enlightenment more and more. In this model. an experience of flourishing was not just focused on individual practitioners, but described the sense of holding people within a field of care or the sense of communities of practice across time and space. Thus, our sense of flourishing, our awakening, is tied not only to individual work, practice, or duty, but really to the practice and the work of many who have come before us and many who will come after (Yokoi & Victoria, 1990).
Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions also put forth models of human flourishing drawing upon their various philosophical and theological orientations. In the Old Testament, the two books of Proverbs provide commentary on ways of living virtuously and consequences for living un-virtuously. The Proverbs lift up the virtue of wisdom and the importance of insight, learning, and the acquisition of knowledge. Similarly, Maimonides, the prolific Torah scholar, saw happiness as ultimately an intellectual pursuit and emphasized self-actualization through fulfillment of one's own rational or intellectual development.
In Christianity, Aquinas’s (1224-1274) account of the Seven Heavenly Virtues includes the cardinal virtues of wisdom or prudence, justice, courage, and temperance along with the theological figures of faith, hope and charity, or love. The cardinal virtues can be cultivated, but the theological virtues—of which love is supreme—are accessible to humans through connection with God. To abide by such virtues in one’s life was the road to flourishing.
Earlier, Saint Augustine, author of the doctrine of original sin whose work had profound influence on much of Catholicism, taught that humans can only find happiness or flourish through grace or through the reconnection with God. His writings suggest that human beings have fallen from grace and need to reconnect so that we can come to be restored and thus experience happiness or flourish.
Alfarabi (870–950 C.E.), regarded as the founder of Islamic philosophy, was known for his interpretive works on Aristotelian philosophy. His text Fusul al-Madani (Aphorisms of the Statesman) deals with the virtues and the healthy human being. He sees the cultivation and exercise of the virtues—including wisdom, intellect, cleverness, wit, moderation, courage, generosity, and justice—as a spiritual act leading to flourishing.
In contrast to the wisdom of men that has made it into all disciplines uplifted by the university, there is always much to be learned from those denied such formal acknowledgement due to their gender, race, age, level of ability, or sexuality. For example, the Council of Grandmothers, a council of 13 indigenous grandmothers from around the world who came together in response to seemingly increasing violence, apathy, degradation of the environment, and so on promotes the wisdom lineages of maternal care. The Council encourages us to learn to consider wellbeing or healing in communities of practice, and to consider how our wellbeing is deeply tied and embedded in relationship with other humans, other beings, and our environment writ large. Through the 2006 book Grandmothers Counsel the World, the Council explores diverse perspectives of these indigenous models of health, healing, flourishing, and wellbeing; although, we can see many similarities that cut across time and space. We would do well to remember that many models of flourishing that we are taught in traditional educational environments often fail to present the full range and diversity of all thinkers, saints, teachers, preachers, and communities who have taken up the question of the good life.
Science as a way of knowing. The scientific method is a way of generating knowledge through systematic observations and evaluation. The scientific method was created in an attempt to create a common and systematic way of observing the world in order to identify patterns so that individual and/or group bias (e.g., perspective) is minimized. Different scientific traditions, or sub-disciplines, have preferred ways of observing the world and drawing conclusions about patterns or the absence thereof. Some very much believe in the existence of an “objective” truth independent of point of view, while others attempt to control for point of view via experimentation or statistical techniques. Still others seek to include their point of view as a variable to be considered in the patterns observed. Some scientists believe there is a fundamental, shared reality while others firmly believe everything to be subjective. Most scientists are somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, believing there are some shared rules governing existence and a great deal of playfulness, or variation, that cannot be accounted for.
Throughout your college career and beyond a key thing to keep in mind is that scientific knowledge is actually always partial. We know there is much we do not know and perhaps cannot know. For example, one key tendency we believe is shared among human beings is a tendency toward a confirmation bias. This refers to the inclination to see that which confirms our beliefs and to filter out of our awareness the information that contradicts what we already believe to be true. To guard against the desire to only see that which confirms our preexisting assumptions, ideas, and images of the world, various methodologies for observing and analyzing observations have been standardized. Efforts to reduce bias is, in fact, the key hallmark of science. Unfortunately, the most rigorous methods for reducing bias are the most resource intensive and so are less often employed. As a result the majority of data collected through social science research is collected from white, middle and upper class college students in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (e.g. WEIRD) societies (Henrich, Heine, & Norenzayan, 2010). As such, we must be careful to assert universal patterns among humans until key findings are replicated in a variety of samples collected in a variety of ways from a variety of societies.
Additionally, the scientific method and the classical philosophies it is based off of are derived from a Western tradition that has possessed a relatively myopic focus on the individual. As a result, much of the empirical inquiry into human nature and flourishing looks at individual-level variables. The scientific community, however, increasingly is broadening its view to take into account social ecology—the bi-directional influence of individuals, social systems, and physical environments—when developing theories about human flourishing. With context in mind, we find consistent evidence that humans evolved by and through caring, cooperative relationships such that our full potential is limited in their absence. Diverse disciplines possessing expertise in a variety of ways of observing the world, including neuroscience, developmental psychology, evolutionary psychology, community psychology, and sociology, have built an extensive body of evidence supportive of the propositions of many wisdom lineages that, essentially, all of life is connected and that our fates—including our capacity to flourish—are bound together.
Thus we are tasked as consumers of science to take a critical look at every headline that purports, “research shows…” before accepting whatever comes after as gospel; it is our job to consider how bias has influenced the people writing about the research, the people doing the research, and the data being analyzed. It is important to consider the theory that guided the research (e.g. what the scientists were looking for and likely hoping to confirm) and what might be the unstated assumptions (i.e. implicit) about the nature of the human being that are behind the arguments an author is making. It is also our job to dig deeper, to ask questions like: Who decides what is “scientific” knowledge versus “folk” knowledge? What steps were taken to reduce bias (e.g. who did they collect data from and how did they do it?). And then of course: Whose perspective is informing the kinds of interpretations and conclusions we make from that data?
Since bias refers to the limitations of looking and thinking from a specific vantage point, one way to reduce bias is to increase the diversity of perspectives taken into account when trying to understand the nature of a shared reality. Unfortunately, in the field of psychology traditionally and also in the emerging field of human flourishing, we are still in need of a greater diversity of ideas and people to really increase our ability to reduce bias and unwarranted inference.
While science is a powerful if imperfect effort at understanding the vast mystery of the physical, natural, and human worlds, it is not the final say on life. Given its limits, pursuing or consuming science requires humility and a sense of awe at the great mystery into which we're trying to gain some insight.
The Science of Flourishing. There are often three basic aims in any kind of science: description, explanation, and application. Accordingly, the aims of a science of flourishing are (1) to gain insight into the nature or characteristics of flourishing by first describing it via theories and measurement; (2) to understand and explain what facilitates flourishing and what impedes it by assessing the interaction between individuals and their environments over time; and (3) to apply what we have learned in the world so that more structures and institutions are conducive to flourishing—structures like education, government, medicine, or psychotherapy.
While there is a great deal of agreement on biological thresholds for human survival, there is a considerable amount of variation in how different disciplines define and measure flourishing. There is even greater diversity in how different disciplines conceptualize the range of possible factors that influence the development of human flourishing. Some of this can be explained by level of analysis; does the discipline look primarily at the level of the individual? The gene? The family? The society? Some of this can be explained by the implicit (i.e. unstated and often unconscious) assumptions that guide the scientist or discipline in question—assumptions about human nature, about what matters, and about what counts as a legitimate source of evidence or method of observation and analysis of evidence.
The first main force that feeds into the science of flourishing is called humanistic psychology, which arose in the middle to latter part of the 20th century and was founded by people like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. Humanistic psychologists were scientists seeking to answer the question: What does it mean to be fully human? This represented a divergence from the pursuit of psychoanalysis, which sought to understand the relative influence of the subconscious in directing human action, and behaviorism, which studied the ways in which contingencies in the form of positive reinforcement or punishment shape our behavior. Humanistic psychology expanded our focus beyond the forces that drive our behavior nonconsciously to consider the intentional decisions we make.
You may have heard of Abraham Maslow's famous theory of human motivation called the hierarchy of needs. Using a pyramid as a metaphor, Maslow postulated that humans have an inherent drive for reaching their full potential—what he called self-actualization—but that it’s impossible for them to reach it (the top of the pyramid) without first having their lower physical needs (e.g., food, shelter) and psychological needs (e.g., security) met. Self-actualization was considered the apex of human capacity in humanistic psychology and thus is an initial theoretical conceptualization of flourishing in psychology. Humanistic psychology can be characterized as a growth-oriented, positive view of human psychology that emphasized human dignity and the ways in which a resource-deficit environment impedes flourishing. It also was the first to emphasize the centrality of making and having choices once one has ample resources to pursue self-actualization.
Aside from humanistic psychology, the vast majority of psychological research in the 20th century was focused not on how individuals flourished, but on understanding why certain individuals did not flourish and instead suffered from of depression, anxiety, or substance abuse. In response to this focus on pathology that had dominated the field of psychology over the bulk of the 20th century, the term positive psychology was coined by psychologists Martin Seligman and Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi. In their seminal paper formally introducing the term (2000), the authors argued that we should reorient psychology away from a singular focus on alleviating suffering toward a more expansive focus on what it means to be fulfilled and happy and to lead a life of meaning and purpose.
Hearing this call, various models of human flourishing have been offered by scientists of a variety of training backgrounds. Examples include, as mentioned in this essay’s introduction: Seligman’s five-factor PERMA model of happiness and Ryff’s six-factor model of psychological wellbeing, as well as and Deci and Ryan’s three factor self-determination theory of motivation (SDT) (2000). Important common factors underscoring all of these models are: responsive relationships; appropriately challenging activities; and a positive sense of self. And while Maslow’s theoretical hierarchy of needs model has not held up to rigorous empirical testing, the importance of a felt sense of volition—or freedom—has a growing body of evidence testifying to the importance of having and making choices in wellbeing, learning, and persistence despite frustration. Indeed, SDT is an entire meta-theory in the positive psychology movement devoted to investigating the correlates and outcomes associated with feeling volitional versus controlled in one’s life.
Additionally, in order to feel free to make decisions, one has to have options to choose from and opportunities to exercise choice. In other words, one needs equitable access to resources, a sense of mattering to the community, and a meaningful vote in negotiating the rules of the community that shares the resources (e.g., power) (Prilleltensky, 2014; Solar & Irwin, 2010). Accordingly, the absence of these sources of power and signs of belonging are deemed fundamental causes of population-level poor health outcomes (Hatzenbeuhler, Phelan, & Link, 2013; Leitner, Hehman, Ayduk, & Mendoza-Denton, 2016; Raifman, Moscoe, Austin, & McConnell, 2017).
Lastly, findings from a variety of disciplines suggest that human nature evolved with and through cooperative and caring social relationships. Cooperative and caring relationships are characterized by a balance of individual freedom and collective responsibility. Data from neurobiology, cultural anthropology, and developmental science suggest that due to our cooperative and caring nature, when we are flourishing we unlock our capacities for effective self-regulation and a concomitant prosocial concern for others (Fry, 2006; Hrdy, 2009; Narvaez, 2014; Narvaez, Gettler, Braungart-Rieker, Miller-Graff & Hastings, 2016).
Contemplative Science. This new scientific field that we referred to in the course introduction similarly suggests that effective self-regulation and compassion for others may serve as fundamental elements of human flourishing. Similar to the science of flourishing, contemplative science aims to integrate insights from the scientific study of human development and human psychology with the wisdom of the world's contemplative meditative traditions in order to gain a more nuanced understanding of the nature of human flourishing and to identify tools and practices from these meditative traditions that help cultivate a personally meaningful and socially beneficial life.
Contemplative science studies the possibilities for human transformation across the lifespan through engagement, specific practices, training, and support from others. Most contemplative traditions emphasize that through relationships based in humility and deep gratitude we can shift the quality of our attention from reactive to reflective and actually change our experience of the world to embody greater compassion, connection, and courage, which are common reflective qualities of flourishing among wisdom traditions.
Choosing to change the quality of one’s attention and awareness in order to cultivate greater compassion focuses in again on an element of human agency or volitional decision-making, which we saw in the broader science of human flourishing; however, as Maslow initially suggested and many disciplines have demonstrated, making individual choices is only important in a context that provides more resources than stressors and affirms the value of life without conditions. As we discussed via the humanities traditions as well, a sense of freedom to choose and, perhaps more importantly, a range of options to choose from are common themes in the discourse of flourishing.
Many of the models of flourishing mentioned above have influenced the way we all live our lives, whether we are conscious of it or not. Even if have not explicitly studied Aristotle or diverse religious or philosophical models of flourishing or awakening or seriously contemplated what it means to live a good life, some of these models have had at least some influence upon us—they have influenced various educational and political systems, cultural interactions, and portraits of what it means to be a good student, person, and citizen. These models have also likely influenced inherited family wisdom, including stories and sayings passed down to us that help us understand the type of values or virtues we should develop and the kind of lives we should lead (whether we agree with them or not!). These models of flourishing have also impacted cultural norms of what it means to be healthy and well, which has significant implications for the ways in which we learn—implicitly or explicitly—to take care of ourselves, each other, and our world.
It is therefore important that we take a careful look at the frameworks that shape and guide our sense of direction in our lives. Like the frame of a picture, frameworks highlight what to attend to and what not to attend to—they emphasize certain aspects of experience while de-emphasizing others. In other words, frameworks may make certain aspects of experience—such as certain values, norms, or ways of being—seem more central or worthy than others. While frameworks provide a shared sense of coherence—a way of making sense of the world—they also limit what seems possible. Without investigating the frameworks that shape our behavior and beliefs, we may fail to fully question—or realize—our full potential for agency and flourishing.
Each day presents to us a fresh start—an opportunity to examine the life which we wish to live. We each are endowed with the capacity to choose how to conduct our lives, to spend our time, and behave in this world. We can choose to seek meaning in our lives, do less harm, and spread more good in the world. In this course, we’ll provide opportunities for you to hone the ability to hear your own wisdom to serve as your guide into adulthood.
Emerging Commonalities between the Sciences and Humanities
From the sciences, we see that our species is more inclined to experience flourishing when our environments have more resources than stressors, especially the resource of unconditional positive regard. From the humanities we see a consensus that living a life of flourishing is strongly associated with cultivating a deep sense of interconnection, which is most likely to be available when one resides in contexts that affirm the unconditional value of one’s existence. In other words, we are more likely to flourish when we are not afraid of rejection for being ourselves. Dissolving the fear of rejection in turn affords us the freedom to be fallible and imperfect—in a word: human. A deep sense of interconnection in common humanity is often uncovered through discernment practices that involve finding the overlap between what the world needs and what brings you joy to give and subsequently parsing that truth without resisting the discomfort that accompanies growth and persistence.
What does it mean to not just survive in this world, but to really thrive, flourish, and live a life of deep fulfillment and meaning during the short span of time that we're on this planet? This is the inquiry at the heart of this course, and you have everything you need, with a little guidance, to explore and answer this question for yourself.
As you navigate the landscape of academia, your social and emotional life, and your professional future, you are presented with hundreds of opportunities to facilitate your own personal wellbeing as well as our collective wellbeing as a species and a planet. In this course we will explore the hallmarks of our species and its purpose for survival as well as opportunities to harness those hallmarks for flourishing. From plasticity to courage are traits we share with many other beings on the planet; although, as far as we can tell, the level of complexity is greatest in homo sapiens
We look forward to learning with you together in this most timeless and existentially important endeavor!
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