Sep 08 2017

How People Thrive

happy-facesThere is a science to happiness and to what we might call thriving (sometimes called flourishing) – not just surviving, but being happy and fulfilled. Obviously any such phenomenon is going to be very complex and variable, but some clear patterns are emerging in the psychological literature. A recent study by Brown et al reviews that literature in an attempt to summarize what we know about thriving.

Brown identifies a number of factors that contribute to thriving, but the core seems to come down to two things: being confident and being good at something. Other researchers looking at the same question have had a slightly different emphasis, but I think are essentially saying the same thing. Thriving correlates with living with purpose, for example. Other studies emphasize community and having a belief system (which may just be a proxy for having a purpose). Having a purpose in life has even been associated with better physical health in older adults.

Here is the full list of factors that Brown identifies as correlating with thriving:

A: Is:

spiritual or religious,
someone who enjoys learning,
socially competent,
believes in self/has self-esteem.
B: Has:

employer/family/other support,
challenges and difficulties are at manageable level,
environment is calm,
is given a high degree of autonomy,
is trusted as competent.

So, we like to feel that we have a purpose, that we are challenged but not too much, and that we have the skills, support, and opportunity to meet that challenge. Interestingly, the description of people who are vulnerable to recruitment by terrorist organizations are those who lack these same things – a sense of control, competence, and an opportunity to succeed. This breeds resentment, depression, even desperation.

Many studies focus on religion as a specific variable. There is a solid correlation between being active in a religion and happiness. That same research, however, shows that being religiously active contributes to happiness through two main underlying factors – having a sense of purpose and social connectedness, the same two factors that keep coming up in the literature.

Of course you can have a sense of purpose and can have a robust social network without being a member of any particular organized religion, but religion does make it easier. It comes pre-packaged with purpose and a community. There are plenty of secular analogues, however, such as being a member of a social movement or cause.

There appears to be a number of lessons we can take from this research. For individuals, if you want to be happier and feel more fulfilled, then focus on the attributes listed above. Engage in life-long learning. Try to master something – anything. If your day job is not fulfilling, find another career path, or take up a hobby that will fill your life with some purpose and give you a skill to hone.

Further, invest time, effort, and resources in building your personal community. Make and maintain meaningful connections. Join an existing community that shares your values and interests.

Also notice the things that are conspicuous for not being on that list of what makes people happy. The research clearly shows, for example, that material possessions do not make people happy. However, to further clarify this, material resources are important to happiness up to a certain point – that which is necessary to meet our basic physical needs and to help us feel secure. Some things also give us time (time-saving devices), which also contributes to our happiness, especially if you use that time to do something you find meaningful.

Further, gifts which give experiences result in greater happiness and enjoyment that physical things.

There is a complex relationship between income and happiness. In general, greater income results in greater happiness, but there are some nuances in the data that need to be discussed. First, this relationship is strongest among the very poor. Income positively and strongly correlates with happiness at the lower end of the income scale, and gets weaker above a basic living wage. This makes sense since money can buy security, opportunity, the luxury of time, and health – up to a certain point.

Further, the correlation is strongest for overall happiness (how happy are you in general?) but is not present for moment-to-moment happiness (how happy are you right now?).

Finally, the correlation may not have a simple cause – it may not be or only be that money makes us happy. It may be that people who work hard and are confident are both happy and make more money.

I think the lesson here is not to focus so much on wealth and on obtaining things, thinking they will make you happy. Rather, focus on nurturing the features that make people feel fulfilled, including learning, being flexible, networking, and developing skills. Obviously for people living in poverty, that is a major issue, but developing these traits may help them escape from poverty.

All this does lead to the other implication of this research, beyond the individual to the societal. For a society to thrive and flourish optimally it should facilitate thriving of its members. Our public policies should at least consider how best to give people the opportunity and resources necessary to thrive. Some of this is a matter of basic social and economic justice.

Providing the social infrastructure for thriving is also important, however. This may be as simple as facilitating the existence of groups and organizations that have a purpose and provide a community and purpose for individuals to join.

I recall the discussion around the Iraq war and the notion of nation building. Some commenters at the time pointed out that under a regime like Hussein’s the social infrastructure was destroyed. There were no rotary clubs or the like. There was no social infrastructure. So when the government was toppled, the resources simply did not exist for people to participate in rebuilding their communities and their society. Building social capital like that takes generations.

Further research into the question of thriving is clearly needed to flesh out all the complex relationships, and how best to promote thriving on an individual and societal level. There already is a lot of data to point is in the right direction. The simple answer, at least on the individual level, is to do stuff. Do something that develops you as a person and gives you a sense of purpose. Do not spend your resources surrounding yourself with comfort and things – surround yourself with opportunity and purpose.

36 responses so far

36 thoughts on “How People Thrive”

  1. SteveA says:

    “There is a solid correlation between being active in a religion and happiness.”

    I would guess that having a ‘Get out of Death’ card (no matter how illusory) is a big factor here.

  2. SteveA says:

    A while back I heard an interview with a famous (in the UK) comedy actor who had quite a surprising answer when asked what the happiest part of his life had been. After half a century on stage and screen, he said the happiest he’d ever been was when he was conscripted into the Parachute Regiment as a teenager (that was when we had compulsory National Service).

    The reasons he gave were, that everyone had a job to do, everyone knew how to do their job, everyone was working towards the same goal, and everyone looked out for each other.

    I’ve heard similar from other people with a background in the armed services.

  3. _rand15_ says:

    There’s an aspect not mentioned in the post, but worth remembering. People tend to get used to their circumstances, as when you can’t smell a persistent odor after a time. I’ve read that it’s that way for happiness. After a while, you don’t notice that you feel that way. This can lead people to underestimate their degree of actual happiness (I suppose it could work in reverse, say for anger, too).

  4. hardnose says:

    This seems to confirm the old “flow” theory of happiness. They found that people are happiest when working hard on something that requires concentration.

    I have always felt that is true, but it’s a calm form of happiness.

    There are other kinds of happiness that are more momentary and joyful.

    I guess happiness in general could be defined as feeling that you want whatever it is to continue. As opposed to the opposite.

    About religion — atheists always explain it away as a source of happiness. They always say it’s really from having social connections at church. But for me, religious (or spiritual) faith provides a way to turn off negative thoughts, and to change direction mentally.

    It allows me to know I am not really “me,” but part of something infinitely greater. Also, I like knowing that something much smarter than humanity is really in charge.

  5. Johnny says:

    Thanks for an interesting post, Steve.

    Denmark is often considered the happiest country in the world. And Denmark has a high level of popular participation in voluntary associations, so at least there is a correlation:

    “Denmark is a society where citizens participate and contribute to making society work. More than 40 percent of all Danes do voluntary work in cultural and sports associations, NGOs, social organisations, political organisations, etc. There is a wealth of associations: in 2006, there were 101,000 Danish organisations — worth noting in a population of just 5.5 million.

    The economic value of this unpaid work is DKK 35.3 billion. Combined with the value growth from the non-profit sector, public subsidies and membership fees, the total economic impact of the sector represents 9.6 percent of the Danish GDP.”

    (As a sidenote, Denmark is also one of the least religious countries in the world.)

    I know that a significant number of skeptics, skeptical outlets, etc, tend to emphasize that the social aspect of the skeptical movement (pubs, meetups, etc) is very important. In the light of the findings you have posted here, I can see why a science-supporting movement like ours would do so. 🙂

  6. mink says:

    I recommend “The Happiness Hypothesis” by Jonathan Haidt. I think anyone coming at the question from the perspective of an atheist and/or skeptic will find value from his insights into finding happiness. One example that has been touched on here has to do with spirituality. Having abandoned religious belief years ago, I also made the mistake of abandoning spirituality as well. To be clear, I’m not talking about needing to believe in some new age quackery. But, he reminded me that spirituality can come from just an appreciation of nature or of one’s place in the universe. I know this isn’t a new idea — it’s the same kind of thing that you can learn from reading Carl Sagan. Since reading this book, I’ve renewed efforts to put myself in nature and open myself up to a sense of wonder.

    I’m certainly not doing justice to the book. But, I think any skeptic that struggles with questions of happiness or purpose in life might appreciate some of his insights.

  7. Ian Wardell says:

    I suspect people are happier in small closely knit communities with a shared history and identity, where everyone knows each other, and where they do traditional work rather than doing repetitious work for some faceless company in the modern world.

    Modern life can be a perpetual debilitating state of anxiety and stress. Compare to hunter-gatherers. Any “stress” they felt would presumably have been short lived. Escaping from a predator might have short term stress, but then there’s the thrill of escaping from such a predator, relying upon others to save your life, and you saving other peoples’ lives in your turn. It’s living life in the raw and all the thrill that entails.

    In the modern west we are cosseted from all the harsh elements of life. I’ll probably die an old man rather than get eaten by a predator. But perhaps, safe and rich as we are, the modern western way of life loses something. It loses the sheer rapture of being alive. If we never experience any dangers, then the sheer thrill of having overcome dangers is also lacking.

    But we do live in the West. My advice is to have short term goals so that we get a sense of satisfaction when we complete them. For example, learn and become proficient in some subject and perhaps even become an expert.

  8. BillyJoe7 says:

    Happiness is not everything.

    Religion may make you feel happier, but the expense is believing things that are not true, believing in things that don’t exist, subjugating yourself to the power and ideas of others, and having a false sense of reality. And religion makes those who are not religious decidedly unhappy when those ideas are forced on them and constrain their sense of freedom.

    Happiness without religion.

  9. BillyJoe7 says:

    “It allows me to know I am not really “me,” but part of something infinitely greater. Also, I like knowing that something much smarter than humanity is really in charge”

    For the life of me I can’t understand this sentiment.

  10. Ian Wardell says:

    BillyJoe7, who are you to claim that peoples’ beliefs in this regard are false? I agree that most organised religion seems to me to be nonsense. However, many people have an innate apprehension of something greater than themselves, even if you lack it. They have the feeling that their lives and all things have an ultimate purpose and they’re a very important part of that purpose. And such a feeling receives validation from mystical and similar experiences.

    Of course, we can’t simply switch a feeling on, so I left it out in my above post. But you’re positioning yourself as some God-like authority who knows that they are all deluded. That you know more than the most wisest and intelligent people that have ever lived. Forgive me if I harbour reservations here.

  11. BillyJoe7 says:


    I didn’t think I had to start all my comments with “in my opinion”.
    But it is an opinion based on the available facts rather than a “feeling” or “apprehension”.
    And mystical experiences are not validating, they are misleading.

    And “god-like authority”? Is that your attempt at a joke!

    You don’t need to be the most intelligent person who ever lived to understand that facts outweigh feelings and apprehensions.

  12. arnie says:

    Ian, “In the modern west we are cosseted from all the harsh elements of life.”

    Wow! That gets my vote for the most naive statement of the century so far. What sand dune or orifice is your head buried in? Or no newspapers or TV in your isolated location?

  13. Ian Wardell says:

    Why do you think it is naive Arnie?

  14. arnie says:


    Are you pulling my leg or have you really not noticed that we in the “modern west” are buffeted by many “harsh elements of life” such as hurricanes, diseases, injury and death from many accidental and non-accidental sources. etc., etc., etc.? While we are more protected from some of life’s harsh elements than previously or than some other peoples, we are less protected from others than previously or some other peoples.

    Your statement is not only naive, it is obviously grossly false and I would have thought by now you, and everyone, might have noticed that. Duh….

  15. Ian Wardell says:

    The harsh elements of life are vastly less than we experienced pre-civilisation.

    I need some substantive arguments advanced against my original post, not childish nitpicking.

    For much of history, mankind lived a life full of dangers with the constant threat of death, and suffering, and loss. Close brushes with death from predators with the consequent comradeship and camaraderie when others save your life, and you theirs. The collective outpouring of emotions, the bitter and sweet taste of life in the raw.

    But, in the modern west, such dangers are either eliminated or blunted. We lose the sheer rapture of being alive.

    Now, do you agree with me or not?

  16. Willy says:

    I get plenty of “sheer rapture” from being alive, enjoying the many little things and the occasional wonderful thing. I enjoy facing life’s problems and overcoming them–or not. I don’t need the threat of being eaten by a lion to make life exciting.

  17. Pete A says:

    “I need some substantive arguments advanced against my original post, not childish nitpicking.”

    I’m sure that you are in dire need of arguments. Without them, you will have nothing to add to your boring blog 🙂

  18. arnie says:

    I agree, this is boring. I didn’t make my comment to get into arguments, just to note, with amazement, at your naivete.

    I think your proposition that “for much of history” humans had more sheer rapture at being alive is pure fantasy. if you have any evidence for that please feel free to present it.

  19. Christopher1 says:

    A man who was dragged out of his parents’s basement kicking and screaming goes on and on about how we lose something by never leaving their basement. Irony anyone?

    Ian trolls to justify his existence. He’s accomplished nothing since leaving school (he’s never had even one job) and it’s too late to amount to anything now, so he trolls to give himself a sense of worth. Take that away and he has to face that he’s no more than a leach that consumes consumes consumes, but never produces anything. Read my blog = Notice me!

    Responding only encourages him. Pay him no attention and he’ll troll somewhere else that gives him the attention he demands. Then this grown little boy will be somebody else’s problem instead of yours.

  20. Ian Wardell says:

    Some things are obviously the case even though there might not be any scientific evidence to support it. However, by all means believe what you like. I’m simply saying what I believe.

  21. RickK says:


    It is well known that people find meaning and fulfillment, as well as community and positive emotions during times of disaster. Read “Paradise Built in Hell” by Solnit.

    But.. that’s from the point of view of the survivors who are healthy enough to help others and who live tell the story. I think the overall happiness level is somewhat moderated when you factor in the happiness levels of all the dead and wounded and those who’ve lost loved ones.

    When you pine for the good old days, you must not neglect to add the dead into your equations.

  22. hardnose says:

    “Religion may make you feel happier, but the expense is believing things that are not true, believing in things that don’t exist, subjugating yourself to the power and ideas of others, and having a false sense of reality.”

    There are lots of religious people who don’t believe the superficial details of specific religions, and aren’t subjugated by anyone. We get the benefits of religion without being irrational.

    Some people can’t stand the idea of gods lording it over them, and therefore they hate religion. That’s fine, as long as they realize they are being emotional, not rational.

  23. hardnose says:

    HN: “It allows me to know I am not really “me,” but part of something infinitely greater. Also, I like knowing that something much smarter than humanity is really in charge”

    BJ7: “For the life of me I can’t understand this sentiment.”

    You may think humanity is in charge, and you may like to think that. I am very glad it isn’t true.

  24. bachfiend says:


    ‘You may think that humanity is in charge, and you may like to think that. I’m very glad it isn’t true’.

    Humanity isn’t in charge. What makes you think that any one of your critics actually thinks that that is the case? Humans aren’t in charge, and will inevitably go extinct when the conditions in an indifferent Universe change sufficiently.

    It’s just we don’t think that there’s adequate evidence for the existence of gods who have the wellbeing of humanity at heart. Or that humans have paranormal powers, such as precognition. Or that mutations are directed, non-random and to the needs of the organism. Or any of your other examples of ‘woo’.

  25. hardnose says:

    Most of you believers in scientism believe that human scientists can understand and control nature.

  26. chikoppi says:

    [hardnose] Most of you believers in scientism believe that human scientists can understand and control nature.

    Fusion. Gene therapy. Synthetic DNA. Remote semi-autonomous science labs on other planets. Gravitational telescopes. Particle colliders. Genome sequencing. Cellular immunotherapy. Superconductors. Quantum dots. Artificial photosynthesis.

    Those “human scientists” sure are good for nothing. What clueless ignoramuses.

  27. CKava says:

    I can’t believe I am about to say this but…

    I (sort of) agree with Ian.

    I mean not in general (obviously) but specifically about modern lives (especially in Western nations) being WAY less precarious than those experienced throughout most of the history of our species and with his vague notions that sharing in challenging experiences helps to bond people together.

    He is still over romanticising the past and I don’t agree with ‘the sheer rapture of being alive’ stuff but I think we should be careful not to immediately dismiss a point just because it comes from Ian or hardnose. That definitely pushes the scale of a point likely being ideological nonsense, but occasionally they do make valid points. Broken clocks and all that…

  28. bachfiend says:


    ‘Most of you believers in scientism believe that human scientists can understand and control nature’.

    Yes partially to ‘understand’ nature – nature is complex, and complete understanding is very difficult and unlikely to ever be achieved. Definitely not to ‘control’ nature – complete understanding of nature is lacking, and there are always unforeseen side effects and complications occurring with attempted manipulations of nature.

    As I noted, the Universe is indifferent to the existence of humans. Humans will eventually go extinct when the conditions in the Universe change sufficiently to our detriment. There are no gods, no universal intelligence, concerned with human wellbeing, comforting though such a belief may be.

  29. arnie says:

    I understand what you mean but let’s not forget that currently humans are part of the universe just as is everything in and of the universe. Many humans, and likely other animals, are not indifferent to the existence of humans. To not be indifferent requires a brain and the universes only brains, as far as we know, exist in the living beings of the universe. What the universe as a whole lacks, according to all available evidence, is an overarching brain of its own apart from the brains of its living beings. Therefore no universal consciousness.

  30. bachfiend says:


    I think I made my point clear enough. Just the visible Universe, 90 billion light years across with 10^11 galaxies and 10^22 stars, make the Sun and its solar system (let alone humanity) not even a rounding error.

    All Life on Earth could be wiped out tomorrow and it would affect the Universe not one little bit.

  31. BillyJoe7 says:

    Chikoppi: “I (sort of) agree with Ian”

    I would rather say that I agree with Steven Pinker. 😉

  32. arnie says:

    And of course, I agree with you. I was just sneaking in a point about the fact that intelligence/consciousness and “caring” in the particular means absolutely nothing regarding consciousness in the universal. Amazing, though, how widespread that baseless fantasy is.

  33. chikoppi says:

    [BillyJoe7] Chikoppi: “I (sort of) agree with Ian”

    I believe it was CKava you are referring to, not me.


  34. CKava says:

    BillyJoe7> Sure.

    It’s definitely not Ian’s invention which is probably why it is a more reasonable point than usual.

  35. Dan Dionne says:

    CKava, you stated what I was thinking about Ian’s first post and his central statement.

    Let me get this out of the way–I love modern life. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I’ve also read The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Pinker, and it transformed my understanding of the world. I recommend that book to everyone. We have it sooooooooo good, having left behind slow starvation, death by tooth infection, and the terror of the demon-haunted world.

    But life as hunter-gatherers is also our evolutionary niche. That’s the way of life our ancestors honed for millions of years. I used to wonder what the “natural” human would be like, living in the wild with no culture or social contact, like a feral creature, as if that was somehow more authentically human. It took me a long time to realize I was wrong–our natural state includes culture, language, and small social groups in the hunter-gatherer environment.

    I think Jared Diamond hit on something in his book The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? He notes that ethnographic observations of traditional societies describe adult hunter-gatherers as supremely, almost pathologically, confident and assertive. They may not know physics or biology, but they know their local world instrumentally, inside and out, from birth. They know how to manipulate the materials they have available, how to hunt the animals nearby, how to gather good food. They don’t have any external obligations or schedules beyond what they make for themselves. Their societies are radically egalitarian and they generally treat their children as independent agents from birth, free to make their own choices (and suffer the consequences) instead of coddling them. Thus, they grow up with an incredible sense of autonomy and mastery for as long as they stay healthy and well-fed. This sense of confidence and mastery varies between individuals and between tribes, but it’s often the norm.

    I’m not appealing to the naturalistic fallacy, as if hunter-gatherer life is just plain better. Traditional societies suffer from rampant violence, deprivation, disease, injury, superstition, and just plain ignorance, and I wouldn’t give up my techno-luxuries for anything. But it’s a balance of trade-offs. It’s possible many people might actually feel happier in a small, close-knit, hunter-gatherer-style society where, outside of relatively rare disasters, people envision themselves as masters of their local environment.

  36. GrahamH says:

    ‘I suspect people are happier in small closely knit communities with a shared history and identity, where everyone knows each other, and where they do traditional work rather than doing repetitious work for some faceless company in the modern world.’

    I suspect living in a bubble where most people do the same kind of work (be it trafitional or not) makes most people happy. Knowing people in the ‘faceless’ industry as well as workers in more ‘traditional’ fields, there is little difference. Generally speaking the job is just something to get money to socialise. As long as they don’t have to think too much, then life just goes by.

    As an outsider to the ‘normal’ social life, and as someone who actively dislikes the mutual stroking of small talk, mutual masturbation, and as one who considers facts to be more important than opinion, socialising within the norm is not a way for me to be happy.

    People in the social norm, I suspect, have little realisation how many people there are outside of their bubble (and yet expect the outliers to comform and demonstrate significant ‘hostility’ to those who speak, think, act differently).

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