Newly Revealed Secrets to Flourishing

Newly Revealed Secrets to Flourishing
Posted on November 22th, 2022.

Friends, money, and other factors may matter more than romantic partners.


  • Every influential psychological approach to flourishing maintains that positive relationships are important.
  • Self-worth and meaningful work also contribute to flourishing.
  • Other important factors include money, food, housing, safety, and social justice.

“Would you describe yourself as someone who’s flourishing at this point in your life? Why or why not?” Those were two of the key questions asked during in-depth interviews conducted by an interdisciplinary team of scholars led by University of Connecticut anthropologist Sarah S. Willen. Their findings were reported in “Rethinking flourishing,” published recently in the journal SSM – Mental Health.

Lots of research on flourishing has come from the field of positive psychology, in which flourishing is described in terms of personal psychological characteristics and experiences. The most influential psychological perspectives on flourishing emphasize the importance of factors such as positive relationships, meaning and purpose, self-acceptance/self-esteem, engagement/flow, and positive emotions/happiness. Those researchers typically study flourishing by creating questionnaires that measure those kinds of factors, and then studying people’s answers to the questions they are asked.

Professor Willen and her colleagues took a different approach. They asked people to talk about their experiences of flourishing in their own words. In addition to asking the participants if they were flourishing and why, they also asked, “What would you say people in general need most in order to flourish—say, the top three things?”

Participants were 167 adults from the Greater Cleveland, Ohio, area. Eighty of them were community members; as a group, they were demographically similar to the nation as a whole, and the quantitative analyses of the data focused on them. The other participants were public health professionals, community leaders, clinicians, and metro-wide decision-makers.

When discussing the factors important to flourishing, the participants sometimes described the kinds of personal and interpersonal experiences that positive psychology scholars assumed they would. More importantly, they also pointed to the significance of other factors almost completely absent from the positive psychology perspectives that have dominated our thinking about flourishing for decades.

The Psychological Factors Important to Flourishing

Friends may be more important to flourishing than romantic partners or family

Every influential psychological approach to flourishing maintains that positive relationships are important. Willen and her colleagues found that, too. When coding the answers given by the people they interviewed, they did something that turned out to be very revealing: They looked separately at what their interviewees said about their spouses, romantic partners, and other family members and what they said about people who were not family, including friends, colleagues, mentors, neighbors, and community members.

More than half of the participants, 53%, said that they experienced “warmth, trust, satisfaction, or contentment, or a sense of feeling respected, cared for, or loved” with their romantic partners, spouses, or other family members and that those kinds of positive relationships helped them flourish. But a far greater number, 71%, said that they flourished because they had those kinds of positive relationships with people other than family members, such as their friends.

Self-worth and meaningful work also contribute to flourishing

More than half of the participants, 56%, said that a strong sense of identity or self-worth was central to flourishing. Only 28% said that a sense of purpose or meaningfulness was important to flourishing, though 44% said that meaningful work was significant. About a third, 34%, said that religion or spirituality was essential to flourishing. In positive psychology, engagement/flow and positive emotions/happiness have been theorized as important to flourishing, but the participants did not mention those kinds of factors.

Beyond Psychology: Money, Food, Housing, Safety, and Social Justice

Two of the three most important factors described by the participants have been almost entirely missing from accounts of flourishing in the field of positive psychology.


A stable income was described by 70% of the participants as essential to flourishing. The importance of income became evident in another way, too: Of the participants with incomes of more than $100,000, nearly 9 out of 10, 88%, were flourishing; of those with incomes under $30,000, fewer than half, 46%, said that they were flourishing.

Life circumstances (“social determinants of health”)

Nearly 7 in 10 participants, 69%, mentioned one or more factors that, like income, were not psychological, but instead were about the circumstances of their lives. They said that in order to flourish, they needed access to housing, food, transportation, and education, quality neighborhoods and physical environments, and a sense of safety. Other analyses showed the same thing. For example, of those who had a college degree (BA) or more education, nearly three-quarters, 74%, said they were flourishing. Of those who had less education than that, just over half, 54%, said they were flourishing.

Participants noted that their ability to flourish was undermined by discrimination, oppression, and negative experiences with the police or the justice system. Of the participants racialized as white, two-thirds (67%) were flourishing. Of those racialized as Black, fewer than half, 48%, said that they were flourishing.

The participants in the study included some successful Black professionals. Based on their achievements, they should have been flourishing, but the racism and discrimination they faced made flourishing more difficult.

Societies, Not Just Individuals, Are Responsible for Flourishing

In an essay about their work published in The Conversation, Sarah S. Willen, Abigail Fisher Williamson, and Colleen Walsh said that the kinds of tips for flourishing that psychologists offer can be helpful to people whose basic needs have already been met. Those tips include, for example, cultivating kindness, practicing gratitude, and nurturing connections with other people.

But that kind of advice is less useful to people who are struggling. As the authors explained:

“The path to flourishing is no simple matter of mind over matter. It also depends on society’s systems and structures: Safe, affordable housing. A living wage. Solutions to systemic racism. Affordable, quality food and health care, including mental health care. As decades of public health research has shown, factors like these deeply affect health and well-being.”

Source: Psychology Today

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