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Human flourishing: Could a philosophical concept impact health?

A statue of the philosopher Plato.

Aristotelian Flourishing

The question of what it means to flourish as a human has been around for eons. In ancient Greece, circa 300 B.C., Aristotle first coined the term and defined it as “the way we are supposed to be as human beings.” Flourishing implied the cultivation of virtue, a hallmark in Aristotle’s philosophy. He posited that we are supposed to cultivate good character in order for our souls to flourish — a state that transcends superficial happiness.

The notion of Aristotelian virtue ethics was founded on the premise that all men have the potential for virtue and character excellence. The philosophy asserts that character is brought forth from reasoned choice to act well, but the ability to act and feel as one must be habituated by practice. Therefore, the thoughts and decisions we make daily compound to mold who we are and form depth of our character. Hence, the rational thing to do is to cultivate moments of meaning and virtuous action, no matter how small, in daily life.

Flourishing and Holistic Well-being

Harvard University’s Human Flourishing Program has identified six domains of flourishing. Although this list is not exhaustive, it’s based on ideals that are “nearly universally desired, each constituting an end in and of itself.” To clarify: These goals are so obviously desirable and good that an explanation of “why” one would desire them is not necessary:

1) Happiness and Life Satisfaction

2) Mental and Physical Health

3) Meaning and Purpose

4) Character and Virtue

5) Close Social Relationships

6) Financial and Material Stability

Researchers are exploring these domains in the context of health outcomes. For example, studies have found that a sense of purpose significantly reduced mortality in adults, and improved postoperative recovery rates. Correlations also exist between socioeconomic status (analogous to domain 6) and health outcomes.

Given that flourishing does not occur in a vacuum, but in the context of society, it’s no surprise that this philosophical principle shares much in common with the social determinants of health — the social and economic conditions that influence the overall health of an individual or a group. For example, in the U.S., lack of insurance, which is more prevalent among minorities, is a barrier to integration in the health care system and can result in decreased access to care. However, unlike social determinants of health, which are often structural, deeply rooted, and far more difficult to address, flourishing is readily accessible to the individual. This is largely because the foundation of flourishing requires cultivating character virtue and a sense of purpose — both within the power of the mind.

Harmonizing all aspects of flourishing is challenging enough in one’s own life; it’s even more difficult to promote flourishing in the lives of others. Personally, I think the easiest domain to start with is the empowerment of purpose and personal autonomy. This is also an intuitive domain for us, as health care workers, to apply within our own lives —to address the burnout that is becoming increasingly prevalent in the profession. In a 2018 study, Thomas P Reith1 described burnout as “a combination of exhaustion, cynicism and perceived inefficacy resulting from long-term job stress.” Rising rates have been attributed to “too many bureaucratic tasks (e.g., charting, paperwork), spending too many hours at work, and increasing computerization of practice (electronic health records).”

This increase in job dissatisfaction is not limited to health care professionals alone, and it highlights our culture’s appetite for meaning and fulfillment — a broader view of flourishing beyond success alone.

For more on human flourishing, see below:

Podcast: Stream July 11, 2019: Human flourishing and public health by Harvard Public Health | Listen online for free on SoundCloud


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