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Promoting Human Flourishing Beyond Foundational Concerns


This essay is a response to the article “Some Foundational Factors for Promoting Human Flourishing.” It offers a broader discussion of flourishing beyond foundational concerns and involves an integration of social science and the humanities.

The article “Some Foundational Factors for Promoting Human Flourishing” provides a helpful analysis of regional migration dynamics as they relate to flourishing. The authors operationalize flourishing by examining internal migration in the United States: people “voting with their feet” (p. 3) by moving from “unhappy” to “happy” communities. Specifically, they explore migration patterns at the county level and they find important regional differences. For example, in-migration in the Northeast is driven by high income and civic engagement, a pattern which is offset by out-migration from low-income and less civically engaged areas. Conversely, migration patterns in the West South Central and South Atlantic regions (e.g., Florida, Arizona) are shaped by the interests of retirees and flourishing in these areas may be contingent on the quality and availability of healthcare services. The authors conclude that the U.S. is “not suffering from a monolithic threat to its societal well-being. Rather, it is challenged by different ills in different parts of the country” (p. 17).

It is obviously important to understand these regional differences. But I ask a more fundamental question: what is flourishing? I acknowledge at the outset that the authors utilized existing data and that my suggestions for enriching the analysis of flourishing would require substantial new data collection. Therefore, my comments are not necessarily a critique of the article. But there are many different conceptions of “flourishing,” each of which reflects distinct philosophical and theological presuppositions, and these presuppositions are not always explicit in the burgeoning field of well-being research. The proliferation of measures of flourishing begs the question of whether there are essential elements that might be universally valued across cultures. Indeed, comparing findings across studies is somewhat challenging, leading to an increasingly common call for “greater international collaboration and conceptualisation consensus when measuring flourishing” (e.g., Hone et al. 2014, p. 62). In addition, regardless of how predictive “foundational” (to use a word from the article’s title) factors such as income, civic engagement, and healthcare might be for migration patterns, the concept of flourishing extends well beyond such foundations. Maslow’s (1971) well-known hierarchy of needs, to take one example, includes self-esteem and self-actualization, and, in his later writings, self-transcendence. Foundational factors certainly affect these higher concerns, but more research is needed to understand the nature and direction of these interconnections, and also to determine the relative importance of various domains to distinct subpopulations.

Moving beyond the foundations, VanderWeele (2017, p. 8149) helpfully defines flourishing as a state of “complete well-being” consisting of at least five domains: happiness and life satisfaction, physical and mental health, meaning and purpose, character and virtue, and close social relationships. All of these domains are ends in themselves and they are widely valued across social groups. A sixth domain, financial and material stability, is not an end in itself, but rather a means to sustaining the other aspects of flourishing over time. From this perspective, the aspects of a flourishing life highlighted by Clark et al. (2019)—such as income, voting, and access to healthcare—are better understood as various means to an end, not as the highest goods in life. People do indeed migrate for reasons related to financial well-being, political influence, and physical health, but this fact does not demonstrate that they are actually flourishing any deeper sense.

For philosophers like Aristotle, the good life was characterized by a eudemonistic form of happiness that flowed from the active pursuit of virtues such as moderation, wisdom, and courage, rather than materialistic concerns. Theologians such as Aquinas would add religious virtues such as faith, hope, and love (agape). From the perspective of the disciplines of the humanities, social scientific models of flourishing built primarily on means to ends have a restricted horizon that does not adequately reflect the ultimate ends of human life. Love seems a good candidate for an ultimate end, in the context of a “unity of the virtues” (Roberts 2012, p. 169), and it is worth noting that Aquinas viewed the virtues “not as acts of reason, but as strategies of love” (Wadell 2008, p. 1). Aquinas (Summa Theologica, parts 1–2, 26, 4) drew upon Aristotle when he argued, “To love is to will a good for someone.” This other-regarding (i.e., love-based) orientation resonates with a shift to the systems-level in conversations about thriving. Despite the relatively slow uptake by positive psychology to date, other disciplines have long recognized that the full meaning of “flourishing” transcends the narrow well-being of the individual self to encompass the thriving of the whole (Scharmer and Kaufer 2013). At its broadest, this includes not only all people but also the entire ecosystem—and for the spiritual and religious, the realm of the sacred.

Interest in the promotion of flourishing beyond the foundational concerns of financial and material well-being is becoming more evident in all sectors of society, including organizational management. Indeed, there has been a “shift in management from an economic focus to a balance of profits, quality of life, spirituality, and social responsibility concerns, a shift from a self-centeredness to interconnectedness, a shift from self-interest to service and stewardship, and a change from a materialistic to a spiritual orientation” (Guillen et al. 2015, p. 810). This turn facilitates the goal of humanistic management, which is to “promote human flourishing through economic activities that are life-conducive and add value to the society at large” (Von Kimakowitz et al. 2010, pp. 4–5).

One challenge that immediately arises is determining when an activity is truly “life-conducive.” Indeed, facile notions of “empowerment,” traditionally a core component of a flourishing life, are giving way to the recognition that the power to shape one’s life is often limited by “disempowering contexts of choice” that tend to operate outside of an individual’s awareness, underscoring the inescapable need for a kind of collective “practical reasoning” capable of ameliorating such structural problems (Drydyk 2008, p. 240–1). In fact, many of the common markers of a flourishing life—hedonic happiness, financial success, material possessions—might be understood as reflecting “adaptive preferences” (Elster 1983/2016). For example, people may desire a superficial, materialistic lifestyle because this is readily attainable in a consumeristic society, rather than the more difficult path of the virtuous life. Integrating the wisdom of the humanities into social scientific research offers greater possibilities for a right ordering of foundational and ultimate aspects of flourishing.


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Lee, M.T. Promoting Human Flourishing Beyond Foundational Concerns. Humanist Manag J 4, 235–237 (2019).

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  • Flourishing
  • Well-Being
  • Love
  • Humanistic Management