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What does "flourishing" look like?

19 Jul 2011 | Lindsay Doran

In September 2010, an eclectic group of 25 men and women were brought together at Gravetye Manor to give our best thoughts on the subject of "flourishing". Our host was Dr. Martin Seligman, founder of the Positive Psychology movement, and the attendees included two headmasters, a doctor, a psychiatrist, a poet, an economist, a neuroscientist, authors, professors, students, philanthropists, two game inventors, and one movie producer (me).

The goal we discussed was the possibility of a flourishing world:  51% of the earth's population flourishing by the year 2051, and steady improvement after that. In brief, this is what I learned at Gravetye about flourishing.

What flourishing looks like for individuals

Flourishing individuals are basically happy people, and their happiness is derived partly from generosity.  They don't only do things for themselves, and they don't only do things for other people - there is a balance.  They have a number of positive relationships, and they feel that their lives have meaning.  They are forward-thinking and optimistic: they take steps to achieve the things they want to achieve, they take actions that will lead to a better future for themselves, their loved ones, their community, their country or even the world.  They think life is worth living.  They have learned to frame even their most negative experiences in a positive way (i.e., instead of "I can't figure this out" they substitute "I haven't figured this out yet"; instead of "I can't walk" they substitute "Walking is the only thing I can't do").

It goes without saying that the people who have brought about anything important - the development of the polio vaccine, peace in Northern Ireland, the vote for women, the rescue of trapped miners, etc. - first had to believe that those victories were possible.  The same applies to individuals who have put an end to personal debt, achieved a healthy weight, made peace with a permanent disability, or looked for and found a job or a loving spouse.  Even the grouchiest of them was an optimist, a person who lived in the realm of the possible. Without optimistic individuals, nothing can be achieved.

What flourishing looks like for a society 

The flourishing society is a society with institutions that are proactive and positive rather than reactive and negative.  Health care aimed at prevention rather than picking up the pieces when people become ill, injured, depressed or addicted.  Schooling that aims for happy, creative and flourishing children, rather than sullen resistant children in an environment that feels more like a prison than a place of learning.  Policing aimed at preventing crime rather than catching and punishing criminals.

What flourishing looks like for a government

The flourishing government measures the life-satisfaction and well-being of its citizens rather than just measuring their financial status.  We have long known that making a lot of money and owning a lot of things are no guarantee of happiness and often lead to the opposite - ambition, greed, envy, debt, depression.  Yet we measure the health of our country according to the stock market, the number of people who buy homes, or the amount of goods that were produced, bought and sold in a month.  In a world in which sustainability is an obvious problem if people continue to consume at the current rate, we measure the health of the country according to how much we consume.  The challenge is to protect employment while altering the perception that we need to buy things in order to achieve the happiness we want to achieve.

Of course the goals of any government must include enough food and clean water for its citizens, the maintenance of infrastructures, health care, education, security, etc.  But it turns out that the best way to achieve any of those goals is to begin with the nurturing of flourishing individuals.

How to Begin

Since I returned from Gravetye, I have practiced a discipline whereby I spend five minutes each day doing something to make myself happy (since I'm often desk-bound, this usually consists of going to the internet and watching something like the "Summer Nights" musical number from "Grease" or the "End of the World" skit from the 1960s comedy team Beyond the Fringe) and five minutes each day doing something to make someone else happy (a phone call, an email, a letter, a favour large or small for a loved one or a stranger).  Just strengthening the well-being muscle in myself and in one other person each day feels like a good foundation for everything else that needs to be done.

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Lindsay Doran is a film producer based in Los Angeles. Her producing credits include Sense and Sensibility, Nanny McPhee, and Stranger Than Fiction.

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