We all want a good life. We want to flourish. We want to be free to pursue our own choices. But what does it take to flourish?
Is it enough to have the necessities of life? How important is freedom? Is health crucial? What things should we pursue in life?
Psychologists can give us some clues to increase our wellbeing, so we flourish as full human beings.
So many ideas
The more I research happiness, wellbeing and flourishing, the more ideas I find. I think we can summarise it down to these 4 aspects:
- Life circumstances – where we live and what we are given to start with.
- Personal choices – the day-to-day decisions that determine the way we live our lives.
- Life focus – the purpose and goals we focus on in life.
- Flourishing – the things in life that lift us above animals and make us truly human.
Let’s begin by recognising that there are things many of us take for granted but others lack, mainly because of where and when they were born. Without these, it is difficult to flourish.
- Subsistence. In most countries, this bare minimum is well within reach, but about 10% of the world (mostly in Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa) lives in poverty.
- Water & sanitation. Almost a third of the world lacks access to clean water and sanitation.
- Safety. Most poor people live in countries where there is conflict. Almost 40 countries are experiencing major or minor wars and a similar number (mostly in the Americas and Africa) have high homicide rates.
- Freedom. More than half of all countries are democracies, which generally provide a greater level of personal and political freedom.
- Health: Life expectancy has risen globally from about 45 years a century ago to about 70 today. But more than 50 million people live today in countries with a life expectancy of less than 45 years.
Other life circumstances are the result of the genetics and upbringing that we have been given. Our social class and wealth, our personality type, our predisposition to good or bad health, the stability and happiness of our family, are all factors here which we cannot control.
If we are fortunate enough to be on the right side of these factors, we are more likely able to start to move beyond survival to consider wellbeing and flourishing. But when we don’t have all these advantages, there are still ways we can gain greater wellbeing and flourishing. In fact, it makes it even more important that we take the steps we can.
We can be happier if we make certain choices about our attitude to life and to people:
- Live healthy. Eat well, drink enough water, exercise well (but do exercise you enjoy), take time to relax, sleep well.
- Time. Organise your time so you use it well, doing things that are important for you and help you towards your dreams.
- Gratitude. Learn to be grateful for what you have and practice gratitude daily. This seems to be one of the most important practices.
- Share your love. Tell the people you love that you love them.
- Music. Listen to music, and maybe dance to it.
- Mindfulness. Live in the now and, as much as possible, avoid stressing about the future or expressing frustration about the past.
- Smile. Be cheerful, friendly and easy on others. Smile a lot.
Many of these things work because they boost our dopamine, a brain chemical that makes us feel happier.
Here’s where things start to get deeper and less obvious. Despite what advertising and materialistic culture may tell us, wealth, pleasure, beauty and popularity can only take us so far, and we need to look beyond them if we want to be really happy and satisfied with life.
While many of the personal choices that make us feel happier are focused on ourselves and our behaviour, deeper wellbeing and life satisfaction start with fulfilling ourselves, but depend more on looking outside ourselves. Three aspects of life are important here.
The pleasant life
The pleasant life enjoys companionship and nature. We should cultivate a circle of friends, join an interest group with like-minded people and maintain a good relationship with a life partner if we can. Getting out into nature can help us relax and gain perspective. Keep a positive attitude as much as possible.
The good life
To build good relationships, we need to look outside ourselves. We use our strengths and abilities creatively to help others to be happy. This will start with our closest relationships and family, but should spread out to others. If we are cheerful, kind, helpful, forgiving and easy to be with, we will enrich others and be enriched ourselves in return.
The good life requires us to develop virtues that take us outside our own selfishness – wisdom & knowledge, courage, love & humanity, justice, temperance, spirituality & transcendence. These virtues will help us to be generous and act kindly towards others, and be grateful. Spirituality can be very helpful in bringing peace and harmony into our lives.
The meaningful life
This is the most important of the three. To be fulfilled and happy, we need to be altruistic. We do work that we enjoy and has value, not just for money – that is why doing voluntary work is so good for us (as well as good for others).
Most importantly, we use our gifts and strengths in the service of a cause or purpose that is greater than ourselves. This could be a political or environmental cause. It could be serving the disadvantaged or fighting for the rights of the oppressed. It could be a religious belief. Best of all, it could be a combination of more than one of these.
We flourish as human beings when we are able to live in these ways. We long for the freedom to be truly human, and not be coerced into living in ways that don’t bring satisfaction. The freedom to be ourselves, to make our own choices and be responsible for the outcomes, is one of the things that distinguishes us from animals.
But for freedom to be helpful requires three other aspects of humanity.
- Truth. We don’t like being deluded or misled. We long for reality and truth (most of the time!), for we know that we will make the best choices when we know the real situation. We will make the best decisions about health and relationships when we understand the facts. Truth makes freedom possible, but it also limits our freedom to those things that are true.
- Relationships. Close relationships unleash great power, for good and for evil. We really flourish when we love and are loved. But love can turn sour. Good relationships require us to treat the other as a person with their own aspirations and longings, and not as an object of our aspirations.
- Goodness. We find evil actions shocking. We see evil as an intrusion into normal life. Evil is the way things ought not be. Evil destroys what we love, whereas goodness builds up and strengthens what we love. Goodness is primary and evil is a distortion. So to flourish we may need to curtail some of our freedom for the sake of not hurting others.
So we long for freedom, truth, relationships and goodness, and we really flourish when these things are found in our lives.
My personal experience
I have found that christian belief provides many of these positive aspects of life.
- Relationships. Believers in almost any religion can behave badly towards outsiders (though most religions teach they shouldn’t). But they almost always offer strong relationships within that group, which, as we’ve seen, are very important for wellbeing.
- Purpose. Following Jesus is a cause greater than myself, and, when I manage to follow his teachings, leads me to be more altruistic and less self-focused – which is critical for wellbeing.
- Flourishing. Christian theism provides a strong basis for truth and goodness, and hence for human flourishing.
- Hope. My belief in Jesus gives me hope for the future and plenty to be positive and grateful for.
- Spirituality. Christian practices such as prayer, meditation, worship and reflection are all helpful in being peaceful, mindful and less stressed.
Of course other religions, and secular practices, can provide many of these positives also, although modern atheism seems (to me) to provide less of an incentive or reason to be ethical and fewer resources for spirituality.
But I find christian belief very helpful for all these aspect of wellbeing and flourishing. That doesn’t amount to a “proof” that it is true, but it is evidence. After all, if my faith was detrimental to flourishing, it would be a reason to re-think.
May you find your purpose and flourish!
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