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.

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