The concept of human flourishing began with the Greeks and the word they used was eudemonia. According to The Basics of Philosophy web page on the word, it “is a moral philosophy that defines right action as that which leads to the “well-being” of the individual . . .” The word is often defined in English as “happiness;” although, it would be more accurate to define it as “well-being” or “human flourishing” or a “good life.”
Eudemonia is more often associated with Aristotle, especially developed in his Nicomachean Ethics, but was used earlier in the works of Plato and other Greek philosophers. Aristotle thought that eudemonia was best achieved through leading a rational life. He spelled out how best to do this in the above book through his “doctrine of the mean,” which is a form of virtue ethics. It supposes that each virtue is the mean between two extremes. For instance, courage falls between cowardliness and foolhardiness. He also believed that eudemonia was best achieved in a community or the polis.
I will not go further into Aristotle’s use of eudemonia, and I will for now on refer to it as human flourishing or one of its cognates. I will now go into what I think is involved in gaining a flourishing life and related (hopefully) topics. As usual my view is based on my own interpretation informed at times by what others have had to say about it and scientific research.
First, human flourishing is much more than about just happiness. I would say it encompasses what is known as personal wellness, which commonly contains eight categories. These are (not in order of importance): social, emotional, spiritual, environmental, financial, occupational, intellectual, and physical.
They are all intertwined to some extant, though each can be explored individually. It is hard to work on almost any of the others when physical wellness is greatly compromised. If your environment is full of crap—noise, trash, dirt, etc. I think the other components will suffer as well. And, of course being emotionally unwell can definitely take the sails out of all the others.
I will talk about these aspects of personal wellness in turn, as well as explore some of the connections between them. I will give them in approximate order of importance to me.
Spiritual wellness: This is definitely the least important aspect of personal wellness to me. This will come as no surprise for those that have read some of my other blog postings. I will not go into my history in regards to this area. Suffice it to say that after I became an atheist once again I held on to and searched for some concept of “spiritual” that would still be useful to me. But, over the years I have discovered that there is no spiritual world. Or, at least for me.*
I once defined the spiritual as the search for order. This would probably fit Einstein’s notion of the term. Currently, I favor the notion that the spiritual encompasses being in contact with something greater than yourself.^ This I think fits in better with people’s actual spiritual practices, whether it is god, a church, community, groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, or the universe as a whole (these would be pantheists). In general most people, but definitely not all, gain some sort of balance in their lives because of this involvement. Community might fit me, but I do not consider this as greater them myself. I think it would subtract from individual personhood rather then add.
Environmental wellness: This area is not so important for me. I seem to do well under a variety of conditions. I am also not environmentally proactive, except for explaining to others such things as global warming; although, I do recycle most things, and my carbon footprint is considered small.
So, what encompasses environmental wellness. I see it as made up two components. One is how the environment affects a person. Like I mentioned above, things like pollution, disease, noise, crowding, and clutter affect how we live. Some of these things affect some more than others, but all have at least a small role to play in someone’s personal wellness. The other component is how we affect our environment: do we recycle, litter, waste energy, or influence others to act environmentally or not. By participating positively in your environment, for most people, brings a healthier sense of well-being.
Financial wellness: I chose this next because I do not have much money, but I do have enough to meet my needs and most of my wants and desires. Granted, I could find things to do or have, if I had a larger income. This could happen because I just applied for a page position (shelving books part-time) at my local library.
I would say that the basis of financial wellness is having the money to eat (and eat healthy), for stable housing, and health care. At a higher level a life lived without some desires being fulfilled would be less than flourishing, so having the money to meet at least a minimal amount of desires is good for this type of wellness. I am fortunate that having the money to eat also fulfills my desire to cook and bake, and there are lots of low cost Kindle books to purchase that are able to feed my reading desires. At an even higher level financial wellness includes benevolence, sharing your wealth with others, helping to meet these peoples’ needs and wants. I think Aristotle discussed benevolence or a like virtue in his book on ethics (see above).
Occupational wellness: This area of personal wellness is one that I have only, and at that sporadically, worked on. A little over a year ago I applied to a local used bookstore and a, within walking distance, grocery store. Both fit two of my interests and were part-time positions I could work at two days a week. More recently, within the last couple of weeks, I apply for the above mentioned page position.
So, why might occupational wellness be needed. The most important aspect is the benefits to flourishing of being productive. It is good for the self-esteem, or so it seems obvious to me. Now, despite not having a paying job, I do feel productive because of two small volunteer endeavors, my writing (I am solidly on goal to meeting my goal of writing twenty-four blog posts this year) and my cooking and baking activities. There are other things as well, but these are the major ones that make me feel productive, and hence is important in my having a healthy self-esteem.
Social wellness: I place social wellness before the final triad because without these three in place the my social wellness would be harder to work on. I say this because of my experience without my three top wellness categories. My social wellness starts with my long-time partner, Bette. We have been through thick and thin over the last thirty years. You could say she is my anchor. My social wellness circle widens into Baxter, my cat, and then my parents. From there it widens further with my friends at CBH Life Skills. These friendships enrich my life more than I would have ever believed. And, finally my neighbors bring up the rear. Of course, my policy of niceness and kindness to all cements the deal. I do not claim that it actually extends to everyone, but way more often then not it does hold.
There are studies that show (do not ask me which ones) people with social support systems do far better in life on so many scales. They are generally healthier, more balanced, and happier. Living a life with no sense of social wellness is like living in social poverty, and life often fails to thrive and flourish. Of course, you do have your recluses, but I would bet happy recluses are a rare breed.
The final three categories are more intertwined than the previous five. The physical influences both the intellectual and the emotional components to personal wellness; the intellectual influences both the physical and the emotional components; and the emotional influences both the physical and the intellectual components. In what follows I will discuss them in order of importance for me, but it must be understood that they are close upon each other’s heels, and problems in anyone of these areas can greatly affect the other areas. After I have taken them in turn, I will try to say more on the tangled web among them.
Physical wellness: I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes almost three years ago, and I subsequently decided to change my lifestyle. After attending a diabetes class at my doctor’s office and taking an online nutrition class my diet improve over the next four months. Now I would have to say I eat a healthier diet than most people I know. I say this not to directly compare myself with anyone, but to indicate the sea change that occurred in my diet. In addition to my diet I worked up to two twenty minute walks at a brisk pace a day.
I notice so many positive effects from my new lifestyle. Some of these are: I had more energy, my balance and agility were better, my mood which had already improved over previous year picked up even more, and I felt I had greater intellectual ability, which included being able to write my blog.
But, all was not smooth sailing. I suffered with a stomach mass last summer, which eventually turned out to be benign, but included a cancer scare. The symptoms of the stomach mass along with the effects, mostly subtle after awhile, and from having to take opiates for pain, and the eventual tapering off process when they were no longer needed because my body had become physically dependent on them, did not allow me to take my walks very often, and my appetite tanked. I was also hospitalized for about two weeks, half of it in isolation because somehow I came down with chicken pox. Along with these physical effects my writing slacked off, and of course, I did very little cooking for months. And there were very short periods of depressed mood, especially during the tapering off process.
So, I think you can see how having physical wellness helps to improve both the emotional and intellectual wellness along with the purely physical benefits of good health. I also think that a healthier lifestyle all other things being equal (or inter alia as is said in philosophy), leads to a longer life, and a longer life means you can accomplish more, which I would consider a good thing.
Emotional wellness: Given my mental health issues, you may think that this category of wellness would be tops. I will try to explain why it is not when I talk about intellectual wellness. One thing I have learned to appreciate over the past four years is the difference between mental health and mental wellness. Before this time I thought not being mentally ill (depressed and anxious for me) was all there was to expect. Now, however, I have come to discover how much more there is to life than not being mentally ill, or at least non-symptomatic. I should really say rediscovered because there were times in the past, but not for over twenty-five years, that I had the richer life that I now enjoy.
So, what have I learned. One thing is that emotional wellness takes action on my part. It is not about taking medication, going to therapy, and attending groups; although, these things are necessary for me. It is about living and experiencing life. It is about the flavoring and shades that are part of living. I was made aware of the flavor metaphor possibilities when Bette said “salt adds flavor to life.” So, what actions of mine have contributed to my emotional wellness? Having more social contact, better able to assess life situations, having goals (providing purpose in my life), investing¹ in a variety of interests, and recognizing the good things in life are among the things I did and still do. But, I do them for their own sake; the emotional benefits just come along with theses actions.
Emotional wellness could be considered the ability to emotionally react to the world in a flourishing manner for the psyche. Flourishing here includes negative or uncomfortable feelings. Negative emotions can enrich life as well as positive ones. Proper emotional functioning is about matching feelings with our internal and external environments.
Intellectual wellness: Intellectual wellness is top dog, or is that cat, for me. The reason I place this area of personal wellness first is because of the value of clear thinking to me. Clear thinking I feel is my highest value. Without it not only am I prone to disease, but my life is far less bright. Proneness to disease includes more than mental illnesses. Without clear thinking I would be far less able to keep my diabetes in control. For wellness concerns it is the clear thinking that enables me to have a brighter life.
I attribute the start of my clear thinking to being taken off of klonopin for anxiety. After my use of it turned abusive, and my doctor became aware of it, he took me off it immediately—no discussion. After the discontinuation of it my thinking began to clear, and after six months I was no longer dealing with a constant state of anxiety, just the normal kind. I think that the clear thinking allowed me to more realistically assess my life situations. This maybe a case of things are not as bad as they seemed.
I believe that intellectual wellness helps us navigate the world more effectively, and gives our thinking more pizzazz. It contributes to all the other areas of personal wellness, more than any other area, at least for me. If your intellectual wellness is poor or lacking in some capacity your life will not flourish as well as it could.
You can see how intellectual wellness affects emotional and physical wellness, or maybe I should explain a little more. Without being well intellectually I would have more difficulty in ascertaining better ways to achieve physical wellness and my ability to assess my emotions would be poorer. In a sense intellectual wellness shines a light on all other areas of personal wellness. But, my emotional wellness affects my ability to be intellectually well. When I am depressed or anxious my intellectual wellness suffers, and more profoundly the deeper these states are. And, by being physically well it improves my brain functioning. How could it not? After all the brain is just as physical as your heart or stomach. And, better brain, better emotions.
I will now broaden the scope, as well as addressing some ethical issues involved with a flourishing life. As mentioned above Aristotle’s view on how to achieve a flourishing life or obtain a state of well-being was through a rational life lived in a community. His community was rather stunted in comparison to what modern enlightened people think of it as. His community was basically all male property holders with a few other kinds of individuals. He excluded women, slaves, and laborers in his community. I on the other hand would include all individuals in the realm of community and broaden the approach beyond rational thinking.
Complete rational thinking is rather barren except in certain highly restricted areas, such as logic. For one it is hardly possible to separate rational thought and emotions or feelings (I will use these terms as interchangeable in this blog; although there are differences). We not only “think,” but we often think with passion or its opposite. I put “think” in scare quotes because that term needs much more exploration than I am willing to supply here.² Sometimes when I write I feel excited, perplexed, profound, or joyful. It is the latter that is my prime motivator. I should stress that it behooves the individual to not let his or hers rational thought to be clouded over by any emotion, but it is best not to ignore them either.
For a flourishing life there is more than just thought and feeling. There is also action. This is where a lot of the areas of personal wellness come in. For instance, it takes action to deal in the social sphere. While thought and emotion certainly figure into it, in this sphere it is interaction with others that is the key function. This would fit into Aristotle’s notion of a political community, and is where you find moral interaction. Of course, the physical component is mostly action too. The occupational area of a flourishing life also takes a lot of action.
Now, how do we come by improving our lives? Here Aristotle has in my opinion an excellent method as briefly mentioned above; it is called virtue ethics and uses the “doctrine of the mean.” This doctrine locates each virtue as the midway point between two extremes. The point of this placing seems to me that not only do you know what to strive for, you also know what to avoid. Niceness—my personal favorite—can be place between being nasty and being walked all over. I value niceness and feel it plays a significant role in social wellness and ethics in particular. There are virtues involve in all areas of personal wellness. For instance, intellectual honesty plays a large role in intellectual wellness.
The point of virtue ethics is that if one practices these virtues day in and day out on a consistent basis, then one will in other situations, calling for a particular virtue, one will act in the appropriate way most of the time. In my way of thinking by practicing virtues connected with each of the areas of personal wellness I described one would increase hers or his personal wellness over all, this person’s life will be a flourishing one. One would be in a state of eudemonia.
While it is not realistic to be in a state of wellness or flourishing at all times and in all areas, one can strive to be in the best state of wellness he or she is capable of. And, by flourishing in life I mean more than just personal wellness. Part of this more is the capability of obtaining meaning (people or things of importance) and purpose (such as goals which provide life with direction) in one’s life. I think that each individual provides whatever meaning there is in hers or his own life. The same goes for purpose. We are not born with either of these things. In some cases we may be genetically endowment with certain talents (e.g. music), which can help shape purpose in our life. But, even these talents are shaped by experience.
To finish up I will say that some people (Sam Harris³ in particular, and I suppose those that agree with him) consider whether an action is ethical or not depends on whether that action contributes to human flourishing or not. Harris includes other animals with sufficient consciousness as having the same ethical due—more or less. This type of ethical theory is a form of objectivism. It provides objective standards on what is ethical or not. But, different people have different objective standards. Walter Sinnot-Armstrong’s³ standard is to avoid harm. I suppose that these two standards are just different sides of the same coin. Obviously, one cannot flourish if one is being harmed, and if one is harmed it subtracts from one’s flourishing.
Harris also believes that science, particularly neuroscience and psychology can help us decide what can or cannot contribute to human flourishing. Combined with his standard, one is better able to act ethically the more one knows about what contributes to a flourishing life. This assumes one has the proper motivation for acting though. Does this standard work? Much of the knowledge needed to promote human flourishing is yet to be obtained; although, there is enough results that seem sound enough. So, Harris’s whole deal is somewhat of a promissory note—stay tuned, and hope for the best.
Am I in agreement with either Harris or Sinnot-Armstrong? Not exactly. I fully admit that both human flourishing and avoiding harm are admirable goals, but they by themselves do not provide a cause for why we find these types of ethical goals admirable. The cause of human beings choosing these types of goals is that we a driven to them by moral feelings. Does this negate reason? Not at all. Not only do we have a feeling for these ethical goals, but they also appear to be reasonable, so I think their acceptance is a matter of both reason and moral feelings. And, why not? I think there is good reason to suppose that feelings and thoughts are intricately connect as discussed briefly above.
In ethical conclusion and conclusion in general seeking a flourishing life is an important component both in one’s own life, and the life of other human beings. A flourishing life can be both a personal goal and an ethical goal.