Is There a “There” There? Can We Learn What Flourishing as a Human Being Looks Like?

By Blaine J. Fowers, Ph.D
December 2, 2021
New research explores criteria for a general theory of human flourishing across diverse cultures.
Is There a 'There' There? Can We Learn What Human Flourishing Looks Like?

This post is the tenth in a series from the 11 Awardees of the Templeton World Charity Foundation's Grand Challenges for Human Flourishing. The Foundation is investing US $60 million to grow the field of human flourishing to encompass scientific research, practice, and policy. Check back as we launch further requests for proposals under this important rubric.

For many thousands of years, human beings have asked ourselves, “What constitutes a good life?” This question has been pondered and debated traditionally in philosophy and religion, but social scientists have taken it up in recent years. Unsurprisingly, there remain many opinions about the good life, and there is now credible research to support many viewpoints, with no leading candidate as an answer.

The Templeton World Charity Foundation (TWCF) has launched the Innovations for Human Flourishing initiative to seek good answers to what it is to live well as a human being. There are three things about this initiative that are important. First, the TWCF has committed $60,000,000 to this initiative, which underlines the importance of the question. Second, the Foundation is defining the good life as flourishing rather than as happiness or as life satisfaction. Scholars of the good life generally see flourishing as a richer and deeper form of good living than merely feeling happy (which can come and go) or a cool appraisal of life satisfaction (a kind of thumbs up or thumbs down about one’s life.) Flourishing evokes the idea of a life constituted by meaningful activity, belonging to valued groups, growth and self-development, and other observable indications of thriving. Third, the idea of flourishing suggests that a good life is more than simply subjectively perceiving a good quality of life. Rather, flourishing is a matter of actively living in a good way as a human being. This is the question I want to focus on here: Is it possible to discuss meaningfully and usefully what constitutes flourishing as a human being?

Human Flourishing
The ancient Greeks discussed the concept of human flourishing with the term eudaimonia, and they taught that flourishing is constituted by living in a good way as a human being, not just the subjective perception of a good life. There are many reasons to doubt that one’s subjective perception defines the good life. For one thing, a person can be mistaken about whether one is living well. Simple examples include a self-satisfied criminal or a highly self-critical moral paragon. It is easy to overestimate or underestimate the quality of one’s life, especially if there is no agreed-upon standard by which one can assess that quality.

There are now several psychologists who have entered the fray to proffer definitions of the good life, most of whom have taken their cue from Aristotle to some degree. These psychologists have developed models of flourishing and then created self-report questionnaires to measure it. The models include Martin Seligman’s Flourishing Model, Carol Ryff’s Psychological Well-being, Tyler Vanderweele’s Flourishing Project, and Ed Diener’s Psychological Flourishing. I will not offer a point-by-point comparison of these models here, because I want to focus mostly on some very general points about their similarity. Suffice it to say that there is some overlap in the models, but there are also many differences in what they claim about human flourishing. Most importantly for the present, there are three general and striking similarities in the models. First, all these models were developed in elite, research focused universities in the United States. Second, they all claim to be universally applicable to humans. Third, all these authors moved directly to creating self-report measures of their models. Indeed, it seems that some prioritized measure creation over the definition of the model and its terms, as research psychologists often do.

As a result of these three similarities, all these models have been studied empirically and in a variety of settings. On the face of it, it seems like a positive development to move from armchair speculations about flourishing to tangible studies with real people. Unfortunately, we cannot just take these models and this research at face value. Some years ago, Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine, and Ara Norenzayan pointed out that psychology was almost entirely based on what they called WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) populations, and that this research does not represent humans in general, even in basic domains such as motivation, visual perception, and spatial reasoning. Henrich and his colleagues urged psychologists to be less cavalier about generalizing results from unrepresentative, WEIRD samples to humans in general. Another study published this year suggests that psychologists have heeded Henrich and his colleagues’ urging to some degree, with samples representing 11% of the world’s population, a large increase from the 5% representation a decade ago but still maintaining a significant overemphasis on Western people.

To their credit, the authors of the flourishing models have recognized the WEIRD sampling bias that threatens the value of their research. They have responded by initiating many cross-cultural studies of their models. In this research, they translate their measures into the languages of many countries (e.g., China, Egypt, Turkey, Colombia, Brazil, India, Russia, Pakistan, Japan, etc.) and compare their results across societies to assess flourishing. This is certainly a step in the right direction, but it is fraught with peril as well.

If the only difficulty with the WEIRD bias were the sampling bias, these cross-cultural studies would be a big step toward solving this problem. But stop and think a moment about what these psychologists have done. They claim to have universally applicable models of flourishing, but these models were developed in Western universities, with Western ideas. These researchers then created self-report questionnaires based on their Western understanding of flourishing. There is some record that some of these authors examined non-WEIRD views of flourishing, but the prevalence of Western thought remains clear. This suggests one of two unacceptable implications: either the WEIRD conception of flourishing should simply be applied to everyone around the world or flourishing is only really available to WEIRD populations.

Culture and Flourishing
Anthropologists have been quick to call attention to the ethnocentrism of the WEIRD conceptions of flourishing. They have amply documented that concepts of a flourishing life vary greatly across cultures. The focus on the individual person in the WEIRD models of flourishing is alien to many cultures, wherein one might find that harmony with one’s ecology or one’s cultural traditions are seen as far more important to a good life. These rich anthropological accounts suggest that the WEIRD models are flatly insufficient because they do not address the broad domain of flourishing.

One possibility made evident by anthropological research is that flourishing is an entirely culturally relativistic concept, but complete relativism leaves no possibility for comparison or dialogue about flourishing across cultures. This is an unsatisfying conclusion that many anthropologists have rejected. In addition, complete relativism is just the opposite of the universal premises underlying the psychological models of flourishing. This relatively simple dichotomy—between universal flourishing and entirely relative flourishing—makes it hard to move forward and generate knowledge about good living. So, my research team and I have asked ourselves: Is there a third alternative?

What Would Be Required for an Account of Human Flourishing?
In our research team, we are exploring the possibility of a general account of human flourishing. The jury is still out on whether we can successfully develop such an account, but we think we have progressed far enough to outline some criteria by which we can assess the success of our endeavor. I include here a non-exhaustive list of criteria for a general account of human flourishing.

To understand flourishing for humans, an account must:

  • Be based on a well-founded conception of human nature because the account must be psychologically and sociologically realistic. Some likely examples of facets of human nature include human social nature and the human inclination to find meaning, but there may be many relevant elements of human nature.

  • Be consistent with and provide an explanation for existing research on well-being.

  • Be multidimensional because virtually all accounts of flourishing are multifaceted rather than reducible to a single factor such as happiness or life satisfaction. The evident cultural variability also means that multiple elements need to be included.

  • Be abstract and flexible enough to accommodate cultural variation because this variation is evident across cultures. This is likely to include elements of flourishing that are not centered on the individual.

  • Be flexible enough to accommodate individual variation because individuals vary in what constitutes a good life, given their inclinations, talents, opportunities, and choices.

  • Include observable features of living well, rather than being based solely on self-report.

My research team and I believe that there will be some additional features to any successful general theory of human flourishing. These features reflect our expectation that cultural views of flourishing are likely to have qualitative differences and that there is no single prescription for a good life.

  • It is unlikely that any specific cultural views of flourishing will explicitly include all the elements of flourishing identified in the general theory.

  • It is likely that cultures will weight the elements of flourishing differently, resulting in varying configurations for living well.

In the end, I do not think we should be satisfied with WEIRD models that assume their universality while harboring significant ethnocentrism, nor with the idea that there is no general way to discuss flourishing across cultures. The development of a general account of human flourishing is a work in progress, however, and it is impossible to know whether this is an achievable goal at this point. One thing is abundantly clear, however. We cannot hope to develop a general account of human flourishing unless we build in significant input from many parts of the world from the ground up. My research team and I are pursuing this input through a series of interviews with cultural experts around the world. These interviews are a mere beginning to understanding flourishing in a culturally responsive way, but we think that this input is essential for anyone serious about flourishing for humans in general.

This means that I cannot answer the question of whether there is a “there” there at this time. We can only begin to answer that question by going “there” (to people around the world) to see if we can find some degree of common ground about what constitutes a good human life. The “there” we seek is this common ground about good living. We are very excited about the prospects for this research and eagerly await results. This is a timeless question that also has poignant contemporary relevance.

Blaine Fowers (Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin in 1987) is Professor of Counseling Psychology at the University of Miami. He is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association. His primary scholarly interest is in exploring the moral dimension of psychology, both in research and practice.