I don’t know how to answer that really.

Positive psychology is the science of wellbeing. It differs from the humanistic approaches of the 20th century – on which it is based – by its adherence, at least from the perspective of some positive psychologists, to empirical validation of its claims. Moreover, it is a discipline that seeks to understand and promote all personal and social institutions that contribute positively to human life and help people to flourish.

To flourish.

Human flourishing is an elusive phenomenon, like a butterfly, that is impossible to catch hold of when we try but flutters down and lands softly on our shoulder when we are not looking.

Although the study of flourishing has taken a more dynamic turn since outgrowing its boundaries as a purely philosophical matter and branching into the realm of positive psychology, it still seems, to use Sheldon’s phrase, a ‘smorgasbord’ of loosely connected topics and phenomena with no underlying theory that unifies its purpose. I’m inclined to agree – and it’s not as if Sheldon’s own proposed theory has revolutionised thinking in the area. Is flourishing a form of mental health, a type of general wellbeing made up of bits and pieces of ‘lesser’ types of wellbeing, or a state of having all of one’s psychological needs satisfied? Or, as I would argue, is it just a fashionable word to use to describe ‘good’ aspects of human functioning in general? To a degree, these understandings overlap and seem superfluous to a discipline that has been argued to be a smorgasbord! And there is a need to unify the construct of flourishing itself before we can legitimately claim to be interested in understanding what can predict it.

Hence, my thesis.

To accept the truth that the study of flourishing was inherited by psychology from philosophy should not compel us to also accept that ideations of flourishing proposed in the realm of philosophy are necessarily what psychological research must base its own ideations of flourishing upon. Why? Because it isn’t scientific. Science dictates, in agreement with logic, that human truths can best be discovered through study of people, not of a select group of them. In this case, prevailing psychological theories of flourishing are based seemingly upon either existing ideations dating back to philosophy, which cannot necessarily be justified, or upon the arbitrary assignment, on the part of the psychologists in question, of certain definitions of flourishing around which a similarly arbitrary theory can be constructed. Thus, what positive psychology today argues to be flourishing is simply not derivative of what flourishing is for people.

This brings us back to the claim of empirical validation. Yes, positive psychology proposes theories of wellbeing and has managed, legitimately and on many occasions, to validate such theories in the population. This, however, shows only that such theories are valid for the population and not that they are important. Because what’s important, people say themselves. That’s why I argue that a science of wellbeing must begin with people and not with philosophy or with the arbitrary assignments of theory by psychologists. What wellbeing is, people say, and what it means to flourish, people know. They know through the way wellbeing has been constructed in societies, in cultures, in ethnic and religious groups, in families, and in their own opinions. Thus only people can state with any credibility what kind of wellbeing is important, and how important, and what such importance signifies. Flourishing is not a product of philosophers’ deliberations or of artificial theory, it is a culturally constructed phenomenon, dynamic and subject to change across time, place, and person.

The cultural constructedness of flourishing is not, by any means, at odds with scientific enquiry. Rather, philosophical and deductive psychological theories are so. Science is in a position of studying what is, and what is about flourishing is in most part its elusiveness as a subject of scientific study. There is no way of measuring it objectively. Thus, it can only be defined through what people say.

My thesis is that flourishing is a construct, and, before that, a word, still misused in positive psychology, pitched into writing and conversation for its shock value as a description of all that positive psychology claims to stand for. This may be so. But without understanding and measuring flourishing in the way we believe it should be collectively, our knowledge of it will remain fleeting and dependent upon the narrow scope of thinking, in comparison to our collective, that produced its definition in the first place.

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