Saturday, April 12, 2008

What does flourishing mean?

People who are flourishing are happy, but not all happy people are flourishing. It is possible for a person to be happy if kept in perpetual childhood, but he/she wouldn’t be flourishing.

In their book, Norms of Liberty, social philosophers, Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl, define human flourishing as consisting of:
“activities that both express and produce in a human being an actualization of potentialities that are specific to its natural kind – that is specific to the kind of thing a human being is. These activities constitute the achievement of a human being’s natural end or telos” (p 128-9).

Abraham Maslow viewed self actualization as a basic human need and an aspect of healthy human functioning. Nevertheless, the notion that it is good for us to actualize our potentialities as humans is a value judgement rather than a statement of fact.

Is flourishing a mental state? In his Nobel lecture, Amartya Sen argued against concentrating on mental state comparisons when considering personal well-being. He suggested that because people tend to adapt to their circumstances, some may feel satisfied with life even when destitute. Sen argues that it is important to consider whether people have “the capability to live well”.

Does this mean that flourishing is just about having desirable personal attributes (being healthy and intelligent) and abundant material goods, and being admired or respected by others? Julia Annas, a philosopher, writes about an experiment in which an associate asked business students what they thought a happy life consisted of. She reports: “All mentioned material things like a large salary, a nice home, an SUV, and so on. Well, he said, suppose that you find in the mail tomorrow that an unknown benefactor has left you lots of money, so that these material things are now yours for the having. Would this make you happy? Overwhelmingly they said no” (‘Happiness as achievement’, Daedalus 133 (2), Spring 2004).

The point that Annas is making is that when people are led into a discussion about what constitutes a happy life they are inclined to think of it as one in which they have “made something of their lives”, so that the material things are “an appropriate reward for their effort, ambition and achievement”.

The importance of earning rewards also shows up in brain research. In his book, “Satisfaction”, Gregory Burns notes that actively working to achieve a monetary reward results in more striatal activity than getting money passively (p 44).

The ideas of flourishing discussed above seem to be broadly consistent with the well-known view of the psychologist, Abraham Maslow, that humans have a hierarchy of needs. When basic physiological and safety needs are satisfied, higher needs such as love and esteem tend to monopolize consciousness and become active motivators of behaviour. Maslow argued that as people satisfy those needs they become motivated increasingly by the need to develop and actualize their fullest potentialities and capacities.

Postscript: I now doubt whether it is possible for people to be happy if kept in perpetual childhood. See subsequent posts that discuss Dan Haybron's views on the nature of happiness. (The search facility on this blog is a very good way to find things.)

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