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Mental Health

Discover the Keys to a Flourishing Life: Experts Share Findings of a Groundbreaking Study

Plus, the simple 'snapshot secret' to greater long-term happiness

When you think of the word flourishing, what leaps to mind? Maybe if you’ve been touched by the green-thumb gods, it’s a super-lush lawn. Or, if you’re anything like us, it describes the way-too-tenacious weeds popping up. But if you ask the scholars spearheading the Global Flourishing Study — a five-year-long project involving 20 countries and 200,0000 participants — flourishing­ is all about “living in a state when all aspects of one’s life are going well.”

Researchers on the project have pinpointed five core facets of flourishing: happiness and life satisfaction; physical and mental health; meaning and purpose; character and virtue; and close social relationships.

“You can enhance your flourishing not only by changing how you think but how you act,” reveals Tyler J. VanderWeele, PhD, director of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard. He says everything from practicing gratitude to leaning on a higher power can help you find deeper happiness. We don’t just want to survive — we want to thrive. Read on for a Q&A where experts share their keys to more joy every day.

FIRST for Women: How exactly do you define flourishing?

Rabbi Joel Stein, author of Rediscover Your Wisdom: Drawing on Answers from Your Past to Achieve Self-Improvement, Growth, and Success:

Flourishing is a state of being in which we experience a deep sense of fulfillment, purpose and well-being in all areas of our lives. It’s inherently holistic and goes beyond fleeting moments of happiness to encompass emotional, psychological and spiritual aspects of life. Distinguishing flourishing from other emotions involves recognizing its enduring nature and its connection to your values and sense of self.

Unlike other emotions that are easily triggered by external circumstances — like anger at your partner for not doing the dishes or excitement when your waiter arrives with your food — flourishing happens as a result of introspection: asking yourself what your purpose is, the direction you want to go in life and who you want to become.

FFW: What is the biggest roadblock to feeling this joy?

Stein: An important part of flourishing is celebrating your accomplishments. The biggest obstacle to that is perfectionism. We tend to dismiss our achievements because “they could have been better,” and focus on perceived shortcomings. I suggest a different approach: Imagine how you would rate a friend who had achieved the same thing. Would you be as critical of them as you are of yourself?

By measuring your accomplishment against how you would talk to your friend, you might realize that even though it could have been better, it doesn’t mean that you achieved nothing. You should acknowledge how far you’ve come! This helps you reach a state of flourishing by encouraging a more balanced perspective.

mature woman breathing deeply with her hands on her chest, as she enjoys a flourishing life

FFW: What role does religion play in a flourishing life and how might it help us become more resilient?

Tyler J. VanderWeele, PhD, editor of Measuring Well-Being, is Co-Director of the Initiative on Health, Spirituality, and Religion at Harvard:

Over the past couple of years, the Human Flourishing Program has undertaken what we believe to be the most comprehensive study to date on the role of religious service attendance in shaping health and well-being in the United States. We found that… individuals who attended religious services weekly or more were 16% less likely to become depressed and showed a 29% reduction in smoking and a 34% reduction in heavy drinking.

The overall picture is that religious communities play an important role in promoting longevity; preventing depression; encouraging healthy behaviors; preventing hopelessness and loneliness; and boosting happiness, social integration and a sense of purpose in life.

FFW: Is there one aspect of flourishing that you’ve found especially surprising?

Jeffrey Rubin, PhD, author of The Art of Flourishing, is the creator of meditative psychotherapy:

The vital, often overlooked role beauty plays in our lives. When we think of that word, beauty, we may picture a lovely face, a gorgeous tableau or an incredible work of art, and that’s great — but it’s narrow. Beauty encompasses so much more, reflecting everything from a moving performance to an exciting sporting event, even a beautiful soul. When we expand our definition of it, we open ourselves to more joy. I’m reminded of an anecdote about renowned yoga teacher T. K. V. Desikachar and a young man in his 20s who came to see him.

The man had been depressed and asked Desikachar to teach him. But Desikachar refused. Instead, the yoga teacher told him to buy a cheap camera and take pictures of symmetry in nature — from roses to butterflies to ferns — every day for six months. After that time, the young man no longer felt hopeless because the world made more sense to him, and he found more meaning in life. Just like he discovered, to truly flourish, we must slow down and see with new eyes, to have direct experiences with life and beauty — to enjoy intimacy with the moment by stopping to savor it.

Older woman happily taking a close-up photo of a flower as she enjoys a flourishing life
Susumu Yoshioka

FFW: Studies show strong social connections are key to happiness. What’s the fastest way to deepen ties?

Rubin: I would say the key is to give people our presence, really be there in the moment and empathize with their perspective. Years ago, I was invited to a get-together with neighbors, and I dreaded it because I can’t do small talk — I hate the superficiality of it. So I said to myself, I’m going to go in there and ask deeper questions, like, “What’s the most interesting book you’ve read or the best movie you’ve seen?”

At first there was an awkward silence and I thought, Oops, I went too far. But soon everyone at the party was sharing more about their lives. I realized that because of the speed of life and work, we’re used to chatting about the lowest common denominator, the most trivial stuff. Yet people want to be asked deeper questions. It’s one of the fastest ways to connect.

FFW: What do you say to people who worry they don’t have time for self-care or mindfulness?

Rubin: Build it in, rather than try to fit it in. I remember when I started practicing tai chi, I would squeeze in 10 to 12 minutes here and there. But something like my regular basketball game with my best friend? I always found time for that. I couldn’t figure out the difference between these two activities — why did I find time for one and not the other? Until I realized I was building basketball into my schedule, while I was just trying to “fit” in tai chi, and it didn’t really have a place on my calendar.

Jot down the activities in your life that work for you, whatever it is, from meditating to a regular call with a friend, and very deliberately schedule them, like, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 12 pm to 12:30 pm. Self-care needs to be a nourishing meal, not a quick snack — and we need to create space for it.

For more simple ways to boost happiness:

Research: Curiosity Is the Secret to All-Day Happiness — Here’s How to Unleash Yours

Studies Show Small Acts Can Increase Happiness Dramatically — Make These 4 Cheery Changes Right Now

Top MD Shares the Surprising Secret to Lifelong Joy: Unleashing Your Inner Child

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