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Concept Note: Flourishing

Matilda Nassar

Abstract

The concept of human flourishing means something different and unique to each and every person. While it is useful to have a specific definition of flourishing and the conditions that are necessary to foster it, the diversity of human experience and desire mandates the broader definition of flourishing as a state of being that allows a human person to thrive. Using this interpretation of flourishing, this concept note provides a thorough literature review, a case study, the professional experience of the author, and several main takeaways. Analysis of flourishing is conducted through frameworks of integral human development and the Capability Approach. Some key points that this analysis has suggested is the flourishing is both individual and collective, for it requires personal exploration, meaningful relationships, and a social structure that enables it.


I. Introduction

The concept of human flourishing can be traced back through the centuries to Aristotle and his ideas about a good life. In those days, “living well” meant something different than what it could mean in the modern world. Although life as Aristotle knew it doesn’t exist anymore, we can derive relevant meaning applicable to today. Many philosophers and ordinary people alike have not only ruminated on but sought to discover the ideals of a good life. It is common to hear people to refer to plants, having been nurtured in the right conditions, as flourishing. Likewise, a human person requires certain conditions that contribute to his or her thriving. What are these conditions? How do they come about? Are they objective or subjective? Are they absolute? Is it a simple equation of x plus y? Does capability factor into the equation, and if so, how? Is there an ultimate end? What constrains human flourishing? Is it sustainable? How does it relate to integral human development? These are but a few questions that come to mind when thinking about flourishing.  

II. Conceptual definition

Integral Human Development (IHD) is a field that emphasizes the development of the whole person and of every person. Understanding human flourishing within this framework is thus essential. The plethora of literature on the notion of human flourishing makes it clear that there is a general consensus on the conceptual definition of the term. However, there is disagreement on the measures and conditions that make up the definition. Because of this, it may be necessary to adopt a broader working definition of human flourishing. The broadest definition that can be applied to human flourishing comes from Aristotle; whose ideas can be interpreted simply as “living well” (Stanford Encyclopedia). Some potential synonyms are “thriving”, “blossoming”, “prospering”. Therefore, we can arrive at the broad definition of flourishing as a state of being that allows a human person to thrive. Having such a definition may seem open-ended or ambiguous, but it is preferable so that we can account for diversity in human capability and desire.

III. Relevant Literature

i.Conditions for Human Flourishing?

Many researchers and philosophers have set out to concretely define human flourishing. Yet, for reasons related to human diversity, such an exact delineation would by definition limit our understanding and implementation of integral human development, as every person is unique in his or her own way. There are, however, commonalities in the literature that enable us to propose the measures of human flourishing and the conditions that can lead to this state of being.

One can sometimes think that the concept of human flourishing is similar to the term eudaimonia (happiness) that was coined by Aristotle many centuries ago. Although they may seem one and the same, there is essentially only a one-way road between them if happiness is thought of in the traditional sense. This means that, while flourishing could lead to happiness, happiness does not, in and of itself, lead to flourishing. Cohen (2012) says this is because happiness is often misunderstood as the “gratification of desire”, but true happiness, or eudaimonia, if understood correctly, is the “satisfaction of right desire that will constitute successful human living…” and it is this path that can connect happiness to human flourishing (90). It is crucial, then, to think of human flourishing as a constantly evolving and ongoing process, and not merely an end to which to aspire. But what conditions constitute the process of or path to successful human living? 

Richard Kraut claims that those who flourish develop “properly and fully the potentialities, capacities, and facilities that (under favorable conditions) they naturally have at an early stage of their existence” (i.e. as children) (Cahn 12). However, Cahn argues against this definition for several reasons: first, that one cannot realize all of his or her “potentialities, capacities, and facilities” in one lifetime. Second, how can one know what their potential is from an early stage of existence, as Kraut put it? And third, who can make these decisions on one’s behalf? (Cahn 13).

It can be inferred that vulnerability plays a critical role in our understanding of human flourishing. Carse (2006) suggests that vulnerability simultaneously hinders and enhances one’s ability to flourish because, on the one hand, forces of nature and happenstance (disaster, disease, disability) could hinder flourishing; and, on the other hand, “being emotionally invested in relationships or committed to undertakings, being capable of nurturing and being nurtured, of loving and growing are necessary to realizing some of the most profound ‘goods’ of human life” (34-35).  There is comfort in knowing that all human beings are vulnerable in some way, whether it is by choice through relationships, or involuntarily through general happenstance.

ii. The Capabilities Approach to Human Flourishing

When thinking about the “profound goods of human life”, Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach (CA) comes to mind. The crux of this approach is in line with the ideas of IHD and is indeed called by some as the Human Development Approach. This can be defined as an approach to a “comparative quality-of-life assessment and to theorizing about basic social justice” for each and every person (Nussbaum 18). The quality of life assessment part of this approach is more important for our analysis of human flourishing and, although it ties into theories of social justice, such theories are beyond the scope of this discussion but will be explored briefly in later sections.  

How does Sen answer quality of life questions through the Capability Approach? In many ways, the criteria for a quality of life assessment and the conditions for human flourishing intersect and intertwine. Sen identifies two primary elements to be able to assess quality of life: capabilities (hence the name) and functioning. “Capabilities” refer to what a person is able to do and to be, which is not a universal or fixed value (Nussbaum 20). “Functioning” refers to the “active realization of one or more capabilities” (Nussbaum 25). Therefore, it is not enough to merely be able to flourish, but one must also do those things that enable him or her to flourish. At the core of Sen’s analysis of capabilities and functioning is the notion of freedom. Freedom can both give us the opportunity to pursue the objectives that we value, and it can create a process for the choice itself (Sen 2009, 228). This means that freedom and choice have the highest normative value in terms of a person’s capability to do and be what he or she wants, as well as the ability to fully bring those capabilities to fruition and functioning. 

The concept of human flourishing can neatly fit into Sen’s Capabilities Approach. It accounts for human diversity and desire, which we established as crucial to our working definition of flourishing: a person is capable and able to carry out the conditions and actions that would uniquely lead him or her to thrive and flourish. However, a glaring limitation to this approach is the reverence of the notion of freedom. It can be argued that humans can never have complete and total freedom to make decisions or choices. Our choices are limited by our language, by our upbringing and thus our values and morals, by our social norms and traditions, by our finances, by significant past experiences, and by a whole host of other minute but substantial and interconnected points. What would humans do if we were unfettered by these chains? Is it enough possible to live a full life without such limitations and vulnerabilities? Is having complete freedom to explore capacity and functioning realistic and desirable? There is a line, a balance beam, between having freedom and having too much freedom. This relates back to Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia, which is to be understood as the gratification of “right desire”. In the same way, freedom can contribute to human flourishing if the freedom leads to the right process/outcome, which cannot be guaranteed. Human beings are notorious for making bad decisions and more freedom does not equal better decisions.

However, we can be conscious of freedoms that would allow us to develop and ensure basic capabilities for all humans. Therefore, Nussbaum (2011) creates a positive conception of freedom that incorporates basic capabilities, theorizing that flourishing would not be possible without such basic needs. The ten basic or “core” capabilities that Nussbaum outlines are: life; bodily health; bodily integrity; senses, imagination, and thought; emotions; practical reason; affiliation; care for other species and the natural world; play; and political and material control over one’s environment (Nussbaum 33-34). While these core capabilities may seem indisputable to some, there are many cases of people who, for example, are born with or develop a genetic disease, and yet they are still able to flourish within their capacity. Or, a person may have a cognitive disability, and might therefore not be completely capable of logical reasoning, but may otherwise be able to flourish. This suggest that even these most “basic” capabilities do not automatically indicate whether a person is flourishing or not.

The list of the ten core capabilities that Nussbaum (2011) delineates can therefore be used as a general guideline and not as a set of absolute truths. Rasmussen (1989) asserts that human flourishing is not “a single dominant end which competes with all other ends and thus allows no other ends to have value except as a means to it…Human flourishing is an inclusive end” (91). Thus, those persons who have diseases, cognitive disabilities, physical disabilities, or other uncontrollable obstacles to accessing the ten core capacities, would still be able to flourish within those parameters. Ideally, everyone would have full bodily health or practical reason but unfortunately these may not be realistic or achievable capabilities.

The problem of the achievability of some of these capabilities or conditions for human flourishing has led some philosophers, notably Yearley (1993), to examine the accessibility of flourishing to human beings. He says that there is always a “significant gap between…whatever may be ultimately good and our grasp of it” (235), which can be interpreted both on a theoretical and on a practical level. We may be able to delineate core capabilities that most likely would lead to a good life, but we may not be able to achieve them in real-time. Or, our understanding of the conditions for human flourishing may fundamentally be wrong. Yearley (1993) warns, then, against the dangers of idolatry, and that people who seriously pursue the “good life” or the process of human flourishing are prone to such idolatry (236). What good is it to pursue the good life, if achieving what is good becomes the non-negotiable end? One who vigorously chases his or her human flourishing at all costs, could, in the process, become consumed with one’s own success, which could, in the end, detract from true flourishing.

iii. Human Preference in Human Flourishing

We have decided to leave our definition of human flourishing open-ended to allow for human diversity in capability and desire. However, the concept of desire, like the notion of preference (what values a person assigns to capabilities and functionings) are subject to doubt. To clarify, a person might believe that fame and fortune are the conditions for his or her flourishing, but how is this preference identified and who is able to judge its truth? How is the decision-making process developed in humans? A philosopher might say that fame and fortune does not lead to true human flourishing, but that person may feel that it does. In this instance, would the emphasis be placed on the preference/desire of a person? Would this still be the case if a person decides that his or her flourishing depends something that goes against our collective social or moral values? There is a certain danger to allowing humans to choose what flourishing means to them in the same way that it is dangerous to impose universal conditions of flourishing.

In addition to the dangers present on both ends of the flourishing spectrum, Code (1999) opens up a new discussion about the dangers of human preference: what if the flourishing of some depends or tramples upon the flourishing of others (67)? Code (1999) gives several examples of when this phenomenon has occurred: the argument that allowing women into the workforce “unjustly thwarts” men’s flourishing, the claim that too-liberal immigration policies “threaten the jobs and living spaces” of the actual citizens, and the assertion that indigenous people need to live on reservations to “enjoy the company of their kind” (67). Furthermore, Alexander (2018) introduces what can be understood as a “capitalistic” element into his analysis of human flourishing in the Capabilities Approach: property. He says that human flourishing is the “moral foundation of property, both as a concept and as an institution” and that property law “strives to realize” the conditions for flourishing (Alexander 4). But property has traditionally been a manifestation or sign of wealth and power, precisely because of its ability to generate conditions for flourishing. Thus, these ideas about preference not only call into question the ethics of human flourishing, but it also illuminates issues of privilege and power dynamics. Historically, the powerful and privileged in every society has decided how to write history and how to allocate resources, with the result that marginalized people and people of low socio-economic classes are usually written out of history textbooks and receive the least amount of resources. Therefore, is the concept of human flourishing a concept for the privileged, written by the privileged? It is socially and ecologically problematic? How much agency do people really have to flourish? Is it the responsibility of the person or the responsibility of the state? Or both?

The Capabilities Approach takes into consideration the social justice aspect of flourishing, which allots certain duties and responsibilities to the state (which will be discussed in more detail later). However, on an individual level, how mandatory is it for a person to ensure his or her own flourishing? Sypnowich (2018) argues that, under conditions of equal opportunity (i.e. state policy), “whether people flourish or not is taken to be a matter of their own responsibility” (314). The assumption that underlies this statement is that people are rational beings capable of making their own decisions and who know how to flourish. However, we know that this is not always the case. While some people are cognitively unable to make logical decisions, other people may not have had the privilege of being taught rational decision-making skills, whether by their parents/guardians or through the school curriculum. Failure to flourish, according to Sypnowich (2018), would be the responsibility of the person. Although there must be an understanding of and an adherence to personal accountability, this perspective ignores the reality in favor of the ideal.

If one must be taught how to flourish, one must be equipped with those skills at an early age. Sypnowich (2018) makes the claim that adults have the responsibility to teach children how to flourish. But again, for adults to be able to do that, they should already have those skills. Yet, there is no guarantee that they do. This is also where the diversity in human preference for conditions of flourishing comes into play. What one person may decide is a condition for his or her flourishing may not be another’s preference. Therefore, how can we implement a curriculum to prepare children to flourish? And where would such a curriculum be taught? For such a curriculum to be possible, there must be unanimous evidence and agreement on the conditions of human flourishing, which there currently is not. In addition, a curriculum for human flourishing could be seen as an imposition upon a person’s autonomy (i.e. freedom), which many philosophers argue is most important element in the process and achievement of flourishing. Here we can see a contradiction. Freedom to choose how to flourish according to one’s preferences and values is the highest mandate of proponents of the Capabilities Approach, yet a set of mandatory core capabilities that all people must follow represents an imposition on a person’s capacity and autonomy.

Sypnowich (2018) places the responsibility of flourishing on the individual person. However, this leads us to several questions about the role of agency: what is the purpose of having the freedom/ability to flourish if one decides or chooses not to do so? Can we say, in good conscience, that people should have the right to choose if they want to flourish?

IV. Flourishing and Integral Human Development

The field of integral human development (IHD) is a field that combines elements of peace, development, ethics, and economics to arrive at a holistic understanding of a human-centered theory of development in an ecologically minded context. IHD focuses on the development of the whole of each and every person, deriving its ethics from principles of Catholic Social Teaching with a particular emphasis on human dignity. Therefore, it is relatively easy to fit the concept of human flourishing into the broader framework of IHD.

If the whole of each person is to be developed under the umbrella of IHD, special attention should be paid to the capabilities, functionings, and the greater context in which a person lives, operates, and flourishes. We defined flourishing as a state of being that allows a human person to thrive and we outlined some conditions and capabilities that could contribute to state of being. If flourishing is a process and an end to which we all should aspire, and if IHD promotes the development of the whole person, then it follows that any framework for flourishing would start at the individual level. Although some of the outlined “core capabilities” in the Capabilities Approach should be unpacked and rethought, the overall paradigm takes each person as an end (Nussbaum 18), which is consistent with the principles of IHD.   

V. Flourishing in Development

When thinking about human-centered development (IHD) and the concept of flourishing that was fleshed out robustly in the literature review, we can and should sew threads that connect the two. Flourishing is a fundamental part of IHD. Indeed, if we are not aspiring towards the flourishing of every person, what then is the point of human development? However, because the conditions that constitute flourishing are unique to each and every person, it may be challenging to directly incorporate the notion of flourishing into development work. Thus, we can look to a particular case that integrates happiness, which is closely related to flourishing, into development plans. Although the intent and effectiveness behind Western-led international development efforts requires deeper analysis than what is provided here, we can say that such traditional efforts have largely failed to facilitate the establishment of structures and institutions that are able to sustainably provide basic needs, leaving many developing countries reliant on development aid and humanitarian assistance. 

In 2018, The London School of Economics and Political Science published an article titled Development as Happiness: A New Approach to International Development?, in which they question “whether and how governments should incorporate happiness into their development agenda” (LSE).  The opening claim is that the focus of international development programs should be on more than merely the provision of basic public goods (food, shelter, basic healthcare, education, etc.). Development shouldn’t stop there but instead go beyond.

The article argues that our global framework for understanding and implementing development is flawed. This framework does not distinguish between the different levels of development in countries nor does it account for diverse and community-specific needs. For example, development has so far been construed as “an exclusive domain for the poorest of the poor”, when there are many middle-income countries where “issues of accountability, participation, redistribution of income, and protection of human rights” (LSE). However, when global, regional, and local development goals revolve around increasing the standard of living, a certain assumption is made that economic opportunity is the epitome of “living well”. Happiness, flourishing, and living well require a context that can nourish them, as we have discussed in detail above, which is not merely the fulfillment of basic human needs. Material impoverishment “should be isolated from other sources of the poor’s unhappiness such as social and cultural representations and stigma” (LSE). This article highlights the multifaceted aspect of development and proposes to center happiness in development programs.

According to the 2020 World Happiness Report, the top ten cities in the world whose inhabitants positively evaluated their lives were mostly Scandinavian, Australian, and Swiss, which all have similar levels of high development, environmental awareness, and free time to explore interests and hobbies. The bottom ten cities in the report are in some of the least developed countries in the world, mostly in Africa and the Middle East. However, they are “distinct from other less developed countries around the world by having experienced recent histories of war…continuous armed conflict…civil war…political instability…or devastating natural catastrophes with long-run impacts” (World Happiness Report 2020). The report also states that the effects of such events or contexts on subjective well-being have been documented in the literature. This suggests that flourishing is not merely a decision carried out by an individual person, but that human flourishing is fostered collectively through societal conditions.

VI. Professional Development Experience

Much of the peace and development that I have been involved in throughout my short professional career has indicated to me that the current frameworks and policies that govern our development agendas are incompatible with flourishing. There is a general global emphasis on wealth as the best manifestation of success and flourishing, but little to no exploration of the capability to flourish beyond material wealth. As the research indicates, human flourishing requires various conditions and contexts that may have nothing to do with economic prosperity (although it seems that some baseline is needed). My experiences in different contexts and capacities have suggested that human flourishing is an exception, not a norm. This was illuminated during my time working in Dubno, Ukraine, as an English Education Specialist. Dubno is a small town in western Ukraine with a population of 35,000 and without a diverse range of job opportunities. The average household income of Dubno residents is very low.   

Through community assessment tools such as questionnaires, surveys, and interviews, I was able to identify significant gaps in the secondary education system. No doubt the curriculum was rigorous, but students lacked essential skills that would allow them to succeed and thrive after their secondary education ended. Therefore, alongside my Ukrainian counterparts, I developed project HAPPY (Helping and Preparing Proactive Youth) Dubno, a program to train both students and educators in essential skillsets, which included resume writing, public speaking, conflict management, teamwork and leadership, and project design and management. These skills targeted areas in which people tend to seek fulfillment: the economic sphere (jobs and careers), the interpersonal sphere (friendships and relationships), and the internal sphere (individual interests and hobbies).

The various outcomes, successes, and failures of this project emphasized several important lessons. The first and the most important lesson is that school curriculums must be rewritten to include the teaching of the aforementioned skills to prepare young people to flourish in the world beyond their school. If people, when they are young, are given the necessary tools to understand and seek their own flourishing, they are more likely to explore and fulfill their capabilities and potentials, for the simple fact that they have more time to do so. I chose to train both students and educators in order to ensure sustainable capacity-building and positive feedback loops in the community. A shared sentiment among the educator participants was that they wished they could have had these trainings sooner. Project HAPPY Dubno was named as such because of an awareness of the role that happiness plays in our lives and as well as a desire to embody this awareness in our development work. 

VII. General lessons

Because flourishing may look different for each and every person, it is challenging to summarize general takeaways from our study of this concept. However, it is clear that there are some generalizable lessons that people, societies, and development workers can benefit from in their search for human flourishing. First, that flourishing may be equated in broad terms to “living well” or “happiness”, which is not derived necessarily from material wealth and immediate gratification. Second, that each person may develop a different meaning and manifestation of flourishing in his/her life. Third, that each person must be equipped with tools to seek his/her own means of flourishing according to his/her capabilities. Fourth, that meaningful relationships are central to flourishing. And finally, that society must foster conditions and provide services to meet at least basic human needs such as access to nutritious food, clean water, shelter, and healthcare.

VIII. Conclusion

For as long as humankind has had conscious thought, the search for happiness has been at the forefront of understanding the meaning and purpose of life. Throughout the centuries, many religious leaders, philosophers, and doctrines have put forth various theories or guidelines about happiness. However, as we have outlined in this concept note, flourishing and happiness are not the same thing. Instead of working toward happiness, the pursuit of which may end at material wealth or consumerism, we can begin to reorient our individual and collective goals to better encompass our understanding of human flourishing. While it is clear that the capability to flourish must be fostered through multiple avenues, we should not overlook the small steps in search of the big picture.


Bibliography

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CAHN, STEVEN M., and CHRISTINE VITRANO. "FLOURISHING?" In Happiness and Goodness: Philosophical Reflections on Living Well, 12-15. Columbia University Press, 2015. Accessed January 18, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/cahn17240.8.

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McMullin, Irene. 2019. Existential Flourishing: a Phenomenology of the Virtues. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nussbaum, Martha C. 2011. Creating Capabilities. Harvard University Press.

Rasmussen, Douglas B. "Individual Rights and Human Flourishing." Public Affairs Quarterly 3, no. 1 (1989): 89-103. Accessed January 21, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/40435703.

Sen, Amartya. 2009. The Idea of Justice. Harvard University Press.

Sypnowich, Christine. 2018. “Flourishing Children, Flourishing Adults: Families, Equality and the Neutralism-Perfectionism Debate.” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 21 (3): 314–32. https://doi.org/10.1080/13698230.2017.1398477.

Sustainable Development Solutions Network. 2020. The World Happiness Report. https://worldhappiness.report/ed/2020/cities-and-happiness-a-global-ranking-and-analysis/  The London School of Economics and Political Science. January 11, 2018. Development as Happiness: A New Approach to International Development? LSE Blog.

VanderWeele, Tyler J. "On the Promotion of Human Flourishing." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 114, no. 31 (2017): 8148-156. Accessed January 21, 2020. doi:10.2307/26487183.

Yearley, Lee H. "CONFLICTS AMONG IDEALS OF HUMAN FLOURISHING." In Prospects for a Common Morality, edited by OUTKA GENE and REEDER JOHN P., 233-53. PRINCETON, NEW JERSEY: Princeton University Press, 1993. Accessed January 23, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7sfw3.14.

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