An outline of the theories, definitions, and operationalizations of well-being and flourishing throughout the history of positive psychology.

Introduction

Since the dawn of the branch of positive psychology, psychologists have been theorizing definitions and operationalizations of human well-being or "flourishing" as it later became known. This review discusses seven distinguished measurements of well-being and flourishing, examining how they differ and what they have in common.

At a glance, what is the whole history of "flourishing" as a field of study? What is the history of its progress?

Why this matters to EA

Put simply: well-being is often regarded as the end goal and outcome of virtually all humanistic altruism.

80000 Hours defines social impact as:

"Social impact" or "making a difference" is (tentatively) about promoting total expected wellbeing — considered impartially, over the long term — without sacrificing anything that might be of comparable moral importance.

So the goal of many EAs is to promote wellbeing.

Further down that article, they also say:

Why "wellbeing"? We understand wellbeing as an inclusive notion, meaning anything that makes people better off. We take this to encompass at least promoting happiness, health, and the ability for people to live the life they want. [...] What wellbeing consists of more precisely is a controversial question [...]

They choose to take a philosophical approach to understanding wellbeing. But if there's a field of science that is actively trying to participate in defining "what wellbeing consists of more precisely", then we should pay attention and maybe even help out. (I believe this field of positive psychology could use a lot of help.)

  • If we want to be more precise about our "inclusive notion" of wellbeing, then maybe we should try "defining what's all encompassed in wellbeing that we should promote".
  • If we believe that "wellbeing should be a central focus in efforts to make a difference", then maybe we should take a shot at giving that an operationalization, model, framework, or theory.
  • ... Or maybe it's not feasible... maybe it should just go back to philosophy. We'll see.

Acknowledgement

All names listed here are only useful in aiding our learning and our memories. The reality is that no single individual is solely responsible for the ideas and breakthroughs mentioned here. Every person collaborates with a team. (And every team builds upon/from the entire history of our civilization.) Please assume that there is an "et al" (Latin for "and others") written next to everyone's names here. I just didn't want to write that everywhere because it looks awful and is equally awful for readability (because no one says "et al" or other Latin phrases in day-to-day conversation). There are several people not mentioned by name here who deserve just as much credit, celebration, and praise for their contributions.


Overview and outline of major theories

Abraham Maslow

In 1943, Maslow wrote a paper, "a theory of Human Motivation", that outlined well-being according to his ideas of intrinsic behavioral motivations and his breakdown of human needs in a "hierarchy".

Hierarchy of needs

  1. Physiological
  2. Safety
  3. Social / belonging and love
  4. Self-esteem
    • Lower
      • Respect from others
      • Recognition
      • Status
      • Fame
      • Prestige
      • Attention
      • Importance
    • Higher
      • Self-respect
      • Strength
      • Competence
      • Mastery
      • Self-confidence
      • Independence
      • Freedom
  5. Self-actualization
    • Mate / partner acquisition
    • Parenting
    • Utilizing and developing abilities and talents
    • Pursuing goals
    • Seeking happiness
  6. Transcendence
    • Altruism
    • Giving oneself to something beyond oneself

According to his definitions, self-actualization is:

  • The realization of one's full potential
  • Becoming the best person that one can possibly strive for in the service of both the self and others
  • Accomplishing everything that one can
  • Becoming the most that one can be

In his later years, Maslow explored the concept of "transcendence" (or "self-transcendence") while criticizing his original vision of self-actualization. He defines transcendence as:

  • Giving oneself to something beyond oneself
  • "Reaching the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness"
  • "Behaving and relating as ends rather than means to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos"

Due to its lack of a solid scientific basis, Maslow's theory is widely criticized and heavily contested in academia. Most criticisms are directed towards the methodology and the hierarchy. But the concepts of needs, motivations, well-being, and self-actualization are generally accepted as having some merit. Unfortunately, this theory related to well-being is not an operationalization and thus lacks clear measurements.

Basis

Maslow came up with his theory while studying monkeys and their patterns of behavior that addressed priorities based on individual needs (given the presence or absence of particular things that satiate and fulfill different needs, such as water or food). Thus he defined his notion of "deficit needs", and from there he then extended this concept to humans where he came up with the idea of "being needs." How exactly he arrived at his complete theory for humans is still a bit unclear. For example, some indigenous academics argue that he may have been influenced by the teachings and philosophy of the Blackfeet tribe, where he spent several weeks doing fieldwork in 1938. Others suggest he based this on what he called "the master race of people", such as Albert Einstein, Jane Addams, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Frederick Douglass rather than mentally ill or neurotic people. Maslow often narrowed the focus of his studies on the healthiest 1% of the college student population as well. Therefore, it is possible that the basis of this theory is biased in a few notable ways.

Key contributions

Abraham Maslow may have popularized the idea that:

  • There is a relationship between motivation, needs, well-being, and self-actualization / self-transcendence.
    • This relationship should be studied by psychologists.
  • Psychologists should strive to study what constitutes positive mental health.

References and resources

Carol Ryff

In 1989 Ryff developed a model/theory that determined that six key elements contribute to an individual's psychological well-being, contentment, and happiness.

Six-factor Model of Psychological Well-being

  1. Positive relations with others: engagement in meaningful relationships with others that include reciprocal empathy, intimacy, and affection
  2. Purpose in life: strong goal orientation and conviction that life holds meaning
  3. Self-acceptance: positive attitude about one's self
  4. Personal growth: develops continually, welcomes new experiences, and recognizes improvement in behavior and self over time
  5. Environmental mastery: makes effective use of opportunities and has a sense of mastery in managing environmental factors and activities, including managing everyday affairs and creating situations to benefit personal needs
  6. Autonomy: exhibits independence and regulates his or her behavior independent of social pressures

Measurement

She created an accompanying psychometric inventory called The Ryff Scale of Measurement. The questionnaire asks respondents to rate statements on a likert scale of 1 to 6, where 1 indicates strong disagreement and 6 indicates strong agreement. Higher scores indicate higher psychological well-being. Normally this self-assessment either has 54 items (9 per factor) or 84 items (14 per factor). Here is one example for each factor:

  1. Positive Relations with Others: "People would describe me as a giving person, willing to share my time with others".
  2. Purpose in Life: "Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them".
  3. Self-Acceptance: "I like most aspects of my personality"
  4. Personal Growth: "I think it is important to have new experiences that challenge how you think about yourself and the world".
  5. Environmental Mastery: "In general, I feel I am in charge of the situation in which I live".
  6. Autonomy: "I have confidence in my opinions, even if they are contrary to the general consensus".

Basis

Ryff based her theory on the principles of "Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics", "where the goal of life isn't feeling good, but is instead about living virtuously." A key foundation of her model is the principle that "a good life is balanced and whole" (across multidimensional aspects of well-being). She drew inspiration from the concept of eudaimonia and virtue ethics from the Ancient Greek philosophy of Aristotle. She was drawn to join the philosophical questions about the meaning of a good life with a scientific, empirical psychological theory — to bridge philosophy and psychology while also ensuring empirical rigor and testability. She noted Aristotle, John Stuart Mill, Abraham Maslow, and Carl Jung as all being a part of the diverse selection of her influences.

(Unfortunately, outside of her principled premises from virtue ethics, nicomachean ethics, and concepts of eudaimonia and her collection of influences from famed philosophers and psychologists, she did not further outline her choices of criteria for her model, such as establishing a systematic methodology.)

Key contributions

Carol Ryff may have pioneered the idea that:

  • Psychologists should define, outline, and operationalize well-being. (Well-being can and should be measured.)
  • Psychological well-being, contentment, and happiness can be modeled by a number of core factors. (Well-being can be broken down into key elements.)
  • These factors can be effectively measured using a psychometric inventory that simply uses a likert scale self-assessment questionnaire. (Well-being can be and should be measured using subjective scales.)

References and resources

Corey Keyes

Keyes is considered to have coined the term "flourishing", introducing and developing the concept in positive psychology. He collaborated with Carol Ryff in testing her Six-factor Model of Psychological Well-being, and in 2002 he published his theory of flourishing, which included a breakdown of well-being.

Theory of flourishing

Measurement

Keyes used self-report measures to create diagnostic criteria for flourishing. For each of the three dimensions of well-being, the person has to score highly (in the upper tertile) on the majority of the scales:

  • emotional well-being requires 2 of 3,
  • psychological well-being 4 of 6, and
  • social well-being 3 of 5.

Basis

Keyes "operationalized symptoms of positive feelings and positive functioning in life by reviewing dimensions and scales of subjective well-being." When coining the term "flourishing", he wanted to create a term that represented "the epitome of mentally healthy adults." (He also coined the term "languishing" to contrast "flourishing".) Much of Keyes' work focused on studying the "functioning" of adults.

(Unfortunately, further details on his approach on defining his theory and its criteria are unclear or unavailable/inaccessible.)

Key contributions

Corey Keyes may have pioneered the idea that:

  • The word "flourishing" is the best term to accurately represent the concept of multi-dimensional human well-being.
  • "Social well-being" is as equally important as psychological well-being when evaluating people's positive functioning in life.
  • Psychologists should strive to develop a theory of flourishing that breaks down the interrelated dimensions of well-being.

References and resources

Ed Diener

Diener is attributed for coining the expression "subjective well-being" (or SWB), and due to his expansive work on the topic, he's even been given the nickname "Dr. Happiness". In 2010, Diener created a measure of subjective well-being to assess psychological flourishing. The Flourishing Scale is a brief 8-item summary measure of the respondent's self-perceived success in important areas of life. It was designed to measure social-psychological prosperity and to complement existing measures of subjective well-being.

The Flourishing Scale

  1. Meaning and purpose
  2. Positive, supportive, and rewarding social relationships
  3. Engagement and interest
  4. Contribution to the well-being of others
  5. Competency / mastery
  6. Self-esteem and self-acceptance
  7. Optimism
  8. Respect (being respected)

Measurement

Each of the eight items is measured with a self-assessment rating of a statement on a likert scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). Thus the brief scale assesses major aspects of social-psychological functioning from the respondent's own point of view. ("High scores signify that respondents view themselves in positive terms in important areas of functioning.")

  1. I lead a purposeful and meaningful life.
  2. My social relationships are supportive and rewarding.
  3. I am engaged and interested in my daily activities.
  4. I actively contribute to the happiness and well-being of others.
  5. I am competent and capable in the activities that are important to me.
  6. I am a good person and live a good life.
  7. I am optimistic about my future.
  8. People respect me.

Basis

Diener based his measurement "on recent theories of psychological and social well-being" as a means "to complement existing measures of subjective well-being."

"In recent years a number of psychological theories of human flourishing have been developed, and we devised a brief measure to capture major aspects of this."

(Unfortunately, beyond this general approach and collection of influences, there is little more documentation on his choices of criteria for his breakdown.)

Key contributions

Ed Diener may have pioneered the idea that

  • Briefer is better; a shorter and highly accessible system of measurement is easier to implement and incorporate — thus giving flourishing concepts more attraction and attention.
  • Psychologists should strive to develop a brief and accessible measuring scale for flourishing to further promote its awareness.
  • There are distinct, notable, and useful differentiations between the terms: well-being, psychological well-being, quality of life, positive affect, hedonic well-being, emotional well-being, subjective well-being, life satisfaction, eudaimonic well-being, and happiness.

References and resources

Felicia A. Huppert

In 2013 Huppert introduced her paper on "a New Conceptual Framework for Defining Well-Being" with a nod to Ryff and Keyes' work, saying:

"Flourishing refers to the experience of life going well. It is a combination of feeling good and functioning effectively. Flourishing is synonymous with a high level of mental well-being, and it epitomizes mental health."

She went further to claim that well-being is "at the opposite end of a spectrum to the common mental disorders". Thus she examined "internationally agreed criteria for depression and anxiety" to define "the opposite of each symptom" and thereby "identify ten features of positive well-being." Based on psychometric analysis of these indicators, she proposed an operational definition of flourishing by outlining a new multi-dimensional subjective well-being measure.

Ten features of flourishing: a multi-dimensional well-being measure

  1. Competence
  2. Emotional stability
  3. Engagement
  4. Meaning
  5. Optimism
  6. Positive emotion
  7. Positive relationships
  8. Resilience
  9. Self-esteem
  10. Vitality

Measurement

For each of the 10 features of flourishing, Huppert chose an item from the European Social Survey (ESS) for use as an indicator in their subjective well-being measure.

  1. Competence: Most days I feel a sense of accomplishment from what I do.
  2. Emotional stability: (In the past week) I felt calm and peaceful.
  3. Engagement: I love learning new things.
  4. Meaning: I generally feel that what I do in my life is valuable and worthwhile.
  5. Optimism: I am always optimistic about my future.
  6. Positive emotion: Taking all things together, how happy would you say you are?
  7. Positive relationships: There are people in my life who really care about me.
  8. Resilience: When things go wrong in my life it generally takes me a long time to get back to normal. (reverse score)
  9. Self-esteem: In general, I feel very positive about myself.
  10. Vitality: (In the past week) I had a lot of energy.

At the end of her paper, Huppert concludes her discussion by stating that "efforts to create multi-item, multi-dimensional measures of the features of flourishing are currently underway" (and she makes direct reference to her colleague: Seligman).

Basis

Huppert chose each of the ten dimensions in her measure based on defining the opposite of ten standard measures of depression and anxiety. She believed wellbeing is a spectrum between flourishing and depression (along with other states of being associated with mental disorders).

She also made conscious efforts to choose internationally agreed upon criteria to provide a solid platform for her theory and well-being measure.

Additional frameworks

(Note: When I originally wrote this, I drafted the first copy in early 2020. Since then, Felicia Huppert has continued her research and published new journal articles, including a paper on a new framework, discussed below.)

The Well-Being Profile (WB-Pro)

In 2020, Huppert and colleagues created a new "theoretically-based multidimensional measure of well-being to advance theory, research and policy-practice" called The Well-Being Profile (WB-Pro). This measure comes in 3 sizes: "Long" (48 items), "Medium" (15 items), and "Short" (5 items).

WB-Pro 15 (Medium)

  1. Autonomy
    • I feel free to make my own choices.
  2. Clear Thinking
    • I am easily able to concentrate when necessary.
  3. Competence
    • Most things I do, I do well.
  4. Emotional Stability
    • I do not get easily upset.
  5. Empathy
    • I easily get caught up in other people's feelings
  6. Engagement
    • Most of the time I am really interested in what I am doing.
  7. Meaning
    • My life has a clear sense of purpose.
  8. Optimism
    • I feel very optimistic about my future.
  9. Positive Emotions
    • All things considered, I would describe myself as a happy person.
  10. Positive Relationships
    • There are people in my life who really care about me.
  11. Prosocial Behavior
    • I willingly give of my time to others in need.
  12. Resilience
    • I quickly get over and recover from significant life difficulties.
  13. Self-Acceptance
    • I can admit my shortcomings without shame or embarrassment.
  14. Self-Esteem
    • I feel that I'm a person of worth.
  15. Vitality
    • I generally have a lot of energy.

WB-Pro 5 (Short)

  1. Emotional Stability: I do not get easily upset.
  2. Optimism: I am always optimistic about my future.
  3. Positive Relationships: There are people with whom I can discuss intimate and personal matters.
  4. Prosocial Behavior: If a person needs help, I would do almost anything I could to assist.
  5. Self-Esteem: I feel that I have a number of good qualities.

The Wellbeing Framework

Later, in 2021, Huppert co-authored a book entitled Creating The World We Want To Live In: How Positive Psychology Can Build a Brighter Future. This group of authors, called The Positive World Collective, developed their own model, called The Wellbeing Framework. This framework outlines 5 "principles for psychological wellbeing" underpinned by 3 "core capabilities" which promote "wise action". Altogether the authors claim, "The psychological principles for wellbeing and the core capabilities can help us as individuals and societies to flourish even in complex times."

Principles for psychological wellbeing (the absence of any is "actively detrimental")

  1. Feeling connected to others (close relationships and a sense of belonging)
  2. Having a sense of autonomy (perceived choice, agency, and control)
  3. Feeling competent (sense of ability, effective functioning, learning, growth, and progress)
  4. Identifying what's working, not only what's wrong (gratitude, joy, serenity, optimism)
  5. Having a sense of meaning (fulfilling and meaningful life and experiences)

Core capabilities ("characteristics and skills that can be learned")

  1. Mindful awareness - Open minds (awareness, mindfulness, focusing attention)
  2. Kindness and compassion - Open hearts (helping, caring, empathy, empowering)
  3. Clear thinking - informed appraisal (information evaluation and processing, judgment, critical thinking, rationality)

Wise action - "understanding the complexity of a situation and choosing to do what yields the greatest long-term benefit for us and others"

  • "to gain insight into complex situations"
  • "to make wise choices for ourselves and others"
  • "to feel good about doing good"
  • "to create wellbeing for all, now and for generations to come"

Unfortunately, this framework does not come with a corresponding measurement.

Key contributions

Felicia A. Huppert may have pioneered the idea that:

  • Psychologists should strive to develop a systematic approach to outlining the dimensions and measures of well-being into a definitive, operational framework for flourishing.
    • (Perhaps this systematic approach should use the opposites of the criteria and symptoms for depression and anxiety.)

References and resources

Martin E.P. Seligman

Seligman is known as the "father" of positive psychology, as he made that the focus of his presidency of the American Psychological Association in 1998. He's also the Director of the Positive Psychology Center and a Professor of Psychology at UPenn, where he also established the Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program. He is also well-known as the co-author (with Christopher Peterson) of Character Strengths and Virtues (2004). Later in 2011, he published a book, Flourish, which established the PERMA Theory of Well-Being. The pneumonic PERMA stands for 5 different elements of flourishing.

Well-being Theory (PERMA)

  1. Positive emotion
  2. Engagement / flow
  3. Relationships
  4. Meaning / purpose
  5. Achievement / accomplishment

Measurement

Seligman's colleagues, Julie Butler and Margaret Kern, created a "PERMA Profiler" to help individuals measure each of these elements to get a multi-factored overview of their well-being. It is a subjective self-assessment questionnaire. Each of the questions attempt to evaluate the presence of "real things" in the person's life.

  1. Positive emotion: the presence of positive emotion, happiness, and/or life satisfaction
  2. Engagement: the presence of a flow state
  3. Relationships: the presence of friends, family, intimacy, and/or social connection
  4. Meaning: the presence of a feeling of belonging to and serving something bigger than one's self
  5. Achievement: the presence of accomplishments, competence, success, and/or mastery

Basis

According to Seligman's framework, each element must meet these three criteria:

  1. Impactful: It contributes to well-being.
  2. Intrinsic: Many people pursue it for its own sake, not merely to get any of the other elements.
  3. Independent: It is defined and measured independently of the other elements.

(The keywords beginning with the letter "i" are my own addition as a helpful mnemonic device and are not from Seligman.)

(Unfortunately, it seems there was not a systematic approach in selecting a mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive list, even given this criteria.)

Key contributions

Martin Seligman may have pioneered the idea that:

  • A framework for flourishing could be rooted in universally commonplace intrinsic values.
    • "Positive psychology is about what we choose for its own sake."
  • "The topic of positive psychology is well-being, the gold standard for measuring well-being is flourishing, and the goal of positive psychology is to increase flourishing."

References and resources

Tyler J. VanderWeele

VanderWeele was a Professor of Epidemiology, the Director of the Human Flourishing Program, and the Co-Director of the Initiative on Health, Religion and Spirituality at Harvard University. His definitions of flourishing were: "complete human well-being'' or "a state in which all aspects of a person's life are good". In his 2017 paper, On the Promotion of Human Flourishing, VanderWeele proposed a theoretical model of flourishing that consists of 5 domains, claiming that each of these dimensions "is nearly universally desired, and each constitutes an end in and of itself." (He included a separate, different 6th domain as well, which is described below.)

The "Flourish" measure

  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)*

* VanderWeele added that sixth factor as a separate category. He recognized that it's not an end in itself, yet he also saw that it is crucial to sustaining the other 5 domains in the long-term.

Measurement

The "Flourish" measure consists of two questions or items from each of the domains. Each of the questions is assessed on a scale of 0 - 10. The flourishing index score is obtained by summing the scores from each of the ten questions and results in a total score.

  1. Happiness and Life Satisfaction
    • Overall, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?
      • 0 = Not Satisfied at All
      • 10 = Completely Satisfied
    • In general, how happy or unhappy do you usually feel?
      • 0 = Extremely Unhappy
      • 10 = Extremely Happy
  2. Mental and Physical Health
    • In general, how would you rate your physical health?
      • 0 = Poor
      • 10 = Excellent
    • How would you rate your overall mental health?
      • 0 = Poor
      • 10 = Excellent
  3. Meaning and Purpose
    • Overall, to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?
      • 0 = Not at All Worthwhile
      • 10 = Completely Worthwhile
    • I understand my purpose in life.
      • 0 = Strongly Disagree
      • 10 = Strongly Agree
  4. Character and Virtue
    • I always act to promote good in all circumstances, even in difficult and challenging situations.
      • 0 = Not True
      • 10 = Completely True of Me
    • I am always able to give up some happiness now for greater happiness later.
      • 0 = Not True of Me
      • 10 = Completely True of Me
  5. Close Social Relationships
    • I am content with my friendships and relationships.
      • 0 = Strongly Disagree
      • 10 = Strongly Agree
    • My relationships are as satisfying as I would want them to be.
      • 0 = Strongly Disagree
      • 10 = Strongly Agree
  6. Financial and Material Stability
    • How often do you worry about being able to meet normal monthly living expenses?
      • 0 = Worry All of the Time
      • 10 = Do Not Ever Worry
    • How often do you worry about safety, food, or housing?
      • 0 = Worry All of the Time
      • 10 = Do Not Ever Worry

Basis

In his paper, VanderWeele began by drawing upon the progress of his peers in positive psychology as the foundation for one of the four semantic categories he outlined for his 6 domains: psychological well-being. He proposed adding the category of virtue on a somewhat philosophical basis ("in the philosophical literature, arguments have been put forward that virtue is a central component of flourishing"), the category of health as "arguably central to a person's sense of wholeness and well-being", and the category of stability as being a predictor of sustaining flourishing over time into the future.

"If some notion of flourishing is ultimately of interest, then health itself, along with psychological well-being, and virtue, would all seem to be central components.

Flourishing itself might be understood as a state in which all aspects of a person's life are good. We might also refer to such a state as complete human well-being, which is again arguably a broader concept than psychological well-being."

As for his criteria for the theory overall, he summarized the purpose of his outline in saying:

"This is arguably what we are after as individuals and should be after as a society."

"Each of these domains arguably also satisfies the following two criteria: (i) Each domain is generally viewed as an end in itself, and (ii) each domain is nearly universally desired. I would suggest that these two criteria—of being ends and being universally desired—may be useful guides in decisions concerning the domains that should be included in national surveys and polls to assess flourishing."

(Thus, I believe he was trying to state that each domain individually and all the domains collectively represent something akin to "universal intrinsic values".)

(Unfortunately, as with Seligman's theory, it seems there was not a systematic approach used in selecting a mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive list, even given this criteria.)

Key contributions

Tyler J. VanderWeele may have pioneered the idea that:

  • "Character and Virtue" ought to be considered key components of flourishing worth measuring and studying.
    • Psychologists should strive to build a bridge between the philosophical concepts of ethical/moral good and the psychological concepts of multi-dimensional well-being.
    • Virtue can be and should be studied by the science of psychology in order to better understand its relationship and impact on mental health and flourishing.
  • To ensure the stability and maintainability of well-being, people require crucial external resources. This consideration should be taken into account to evaluate flourishing holistically, even if it isn't an intrinsic value or "end-in-itself".

References and resources


Recap of progress

Thus far, what does this progression of contributions amount to?

General conclusions

  • Flourishing (well-being) is … [perhaps there isn't a consensus on a conclusive definition].
  • Flourishing (wellbeing) is related to both physical and mental health and thus both physiological and psychological needs.
  • Beyond health/needs, many of these theories propose that flourishing is also related to intrinsic values.
  • There is a bridge between positive psychology and philosophy that many of these researchers sought to discuss. As a general claim, these people believed that: The better we understand flourishing (well-being), the better we understand "the good life". (They often aimed to address the philosophical notion of "the good life" or "eudaimonia" within their scientific field of study.)
  • We (humanity) should develop a universal framework for flourishing that defines, outlines, models, maps, operationalizes, and measures wellbeing in order to cultivate it.
    • The framework should break down the concept of flourishing into its interrelated dimensions (domains, elements, factors).
    • The framework should be developed with a systematic and scientific approach.
    • The framework should be rooted in universal needs and universal intrinsic values.
    • The framework can be measured using a subjective psychometric inventory / likert scale self-assessment questionnaire.

The contributions of these psychologists have also had a significant collective impact on the direction of their scientific field itself, shaping ideas on what scientists in the field of psychology should focus on.

What positive psychology ought to study

  • Flourishing (wellbeing)
  • The key elements, factors, and dimensions of flourishing
  • The definition, model, and operationalization of flourishing
  • The measurements, scales, and assessment of flourishing
  • A systematic approach to develop a framework of flourishing
  • The relationship between motivation, needs, well-being, and self-actualization / self-transcendence
  • Universal intrinsic values (what we choose for its own sake; each an end in and of itself)
  • How to increase and foster flourishing
  • The bridge between the philosophical concepts of ethical/moral "good" and the psychological concepts of "flourishing"
    • Including the relationship between virtue and flourishing
  • The crucial external resources necessary to ensure the stability and maintainability of flourishing

Recap of theories

  • Six-factor Model of Psychological Well-being by Carol Ryff
    • Relationships
    • Meaning / Purpose
    • Self-acceptance / Self-esteem
    • Growth
    • Mastery / Competency
    • Autonomy
  • Theory of flourishing by Corey Keyes
    • High psychological well-being (Ryff's Six-factor Model)
    • High emotional well-being
    • High social well-being
  • The Flourishing Scale by Ed Diener
    • Meaning / Purpose
    • Relationships
    • Engagement / Flow
    • Contribution to the wellbeing of others
    • Mastery / Competency
    • Self-esteem / Self-acceptance
    • Optimism
    • Respect
  • Multi-dimensional well-being measure by Felicia Huppert
    • Competency / Mastery
    • Emotional stability
    • Engagement / Flow
    • Meaning / Purpose
    • Optimism
    • Positive emotion
    • Relationships
    • Resilience
    • Self-esteem / Self-acceptance
    • Vitality
  • Well-Being Theory (PERMA) by Martin EP Seligman
    • Positive emotion
    • Engagement / Flow
    • Relationships
    • Meaning / Purpose
    • Achievement / Accomplishment
  • The "Flourish" measure by Tyler VanderWeele
    • Happiness / life satisfaction
    • Mental and physical health
    • Meaning / Purpose
    • Character / Virtue
    • Relationships
    • (Financial and material stability)

Comparisons

When examining the elements, factors, and dimensions of flourishing according to each theory, there are some notable overlaps and some distinctly unique items.

Shared by all

  • Relationships
  • Meaning / Purpose

Shared by some

  • Self-esteem / Self-acceptance (CR, CK, ED, FH)
  • Achievement / Accomplishment / Competency / Mastery ([CR, CK,] ED, FH, MS)
  • Engagement / Flow (ED, FH, MS)
  • Positive emotion / Emotional stability (CK, FH, MS)
  • Optimism (ED, FH)
  • Contribution to the wellbeing of others (CK, ED)

Unique

  • Growth (CR)
  • Autonomy (CR)
  • Respect (ED)
  • Resilience (FH)
  • Vitality (FH)
  • Character / Virtue (TV)
  • Happiness / life satisfaction (TV)

Discussion

What might we predict the future of this branch of science to look like? Where is positive psychology headed? What's next in the developments of theories of well-being and flourishing?

Is there a "standardization" problem, where we have many competing standards but no clear consensus? (See the xkcd comic on standards)

Can we actually create a model of multidimensional well-being wherein all the domains are mutually exclusive and the holistic framework is collectively exhaustive?

Can we establish a scientific, systematic foundational basis for an operationalization/theory of flourishing that is designed to avoid human error, noise, and bias?

What can we learn about the comparisons of these theories?

Would it seem safe to say that our only observable consensus thus far in the research of flourishing is that "the good life" requires good relationships and meaning?

  1. "The good life is made of good people/relationships." (TED Talk by Robert Waldinger)
  2. "The good life is a meaningful life."

Can we go further into the details of both relationships and meaning?

Could we further define what comprises a "good" relationship?

Could we arrive at a consensus on a definition of what "meaning" actually is?

What do you think about these past 100 years of developing theories of flourishing/well-being?

What might progress look like in the next 100 years?


Feedback

Personal acknowledgement: The inclusion and exclusion of theories, principles, frameworks, and ideas will invariably be influenced by my own biases. What I chose to highlight is certainly biased in some ways. I cannot deny the fact that I have opinions about each of these theories and measurements. I'm personally invested in the topic, because I have chosen it to be central to my life's major aspirations.

While I tried to remain as detached from the information provided here as possible, I recognize that that is impossible to avoid, considering my motivations. That is why I need your help to review my review.

Please provide feedback, critiques, and criticisms. My goal is for this to be a reliable educational resource and reference. Thus, the more I am personally removed from it, the better.

Here are three ways I'm hoping you could help:

  1. Do you believe there are any omissions or something missed that ought to be covered?
  2. Do you believe these are accurate and fair summaries and paraphrases of these ideas (and the people involved)?
  3. Do you believe that this could be improved in any way?

Extra Notes

Shout out to Jarred, Debbie, Sam, Jen, Holly, and Johnson for helping me and reviewing the drafts!

This is a cross-post from the same article on my site. (Feel free to read it delicious dark mode there.)

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7 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:42 AM
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Thanks for compiling this! The structure feels very approachable. The bar for engagement is also greatly lowered by your inclusion of the recap, the comparison of theories, and the pointers for discussion and feedback.

Regarding the linked sections, the strongest consensus about the definition of flourishing indeed seems to involve an emphasis on relationships, purpose, and meaning. To me, this emphasis seems to be in tension with the tendency of standard (welfarist) population ethics to only count welfare as a kind of isolated "score" that applies to each life under the (radical) assumption of "all else being equal".

Specifically, perhaps none of the popular notions of flourishing is even possible to actualize in an "all else equal" life. After all, those notions seem to depend (at least partly, if not fully) on our life making a positive difference for others. For me, the centrality of such a causal link back to others casts doubt on the concept of 'flourishing lives' as something that could be mass-produced to independently improve the overall value of the world (contra arguments such as astronomical waste / Bostrom, 2003).

In other words, I think a perfectly valid rejection of the experience machine is to say that entering the machine would sever the essential causal connections of what positive roles we play for how others feel, which seems central to many if not all definitions of flourishing (i.e. the kind of life that we want ours to become).

So I'm curious what you, or the reviewed theorists, might say about:

1. Is flourishing even possible "all else being equal", such as in an experience machine?

2. Relatedly: To what degree does flourishing refer to positive intrinsic vs. extrinsic value?

(For my own take, there's e.g. the brief section on "self-contained versus relational flourishing". Worth noting is also that a relational i.e. extrinsic notion of flourishing is perfectly compatible with minimalist theories of welfare, such as the Buddhism-inspired views of antifrustrationism by Fehige, 1998 and tranquilism by Gloor, 2017, which work without needing the assumption of intrinsic positive value at all.

They essentially say that, "all else equal", we are just as well off by satisfying a desire or an unmet need as we would be by letting go of it. Yet a minimalist notion of flourishing would highlight the importance of seeking to satisfy [rather than letting go of] our desires whenever doing so is aligned with making an overall positive difference for others. This we cannot do in an experience machine — nor in population ethics — where such flourishing is impossible, but can do all the time in daily life where other things are never completely unaffected by our actions.)

Thanks Teo!

Thank you for these thoughtful reflections! This is exactly the kind of discussions I was hoping this might generate.

  1. Is flourishing even possible "all else being equal", such as in an experience machine?

Hmmm, depends on how magical your machine is 😅 and not to be that guy again, but it depends on your definition of flourishing. (I'm choosing to not impose any of my own ideas in this post and even in the comments for now.)

Let's take the PERMA theory of well-being from Seligman as an example though. He'd probably say:

"If the machine completely stimulates a reality in which I can pursue some or all of these lifestyles of PERMA, then I could flourish in it. So if I could experience and cultivate positive emotions and engagement, and if I could have other simulated beings with me to relate to and build meaning with, then you've probably got an experience machine that allows for flourishing."

To be fair though, I'm not sure Seligman is clear on intricate details within this, such the questions of "what about relationships in particular do humans truly value?" or "what might the machine need to offer to help people forge meaning?" or "what might one do in the machine to experience engagement?"

I feel bad leaving this question largely unanswered for you, but I'll let you and others discuss!

  1. Relatedly: To what degree does flourishing refer to positive intrinsic vs. extrinsic value?

It seems as though so many of these theories are hinting at intrinsic values, yet it's strange to not see the term widely used in the literature.

For example, the last 2 theories listed in this document make a claim to say that each element in the model is "universally desired", "an end in and of itself", and "pursued by many people for its own sake, not merely to get any of the other elements."

That kind of phrasing really insinuates "universal intrinsic values". So I think these psychologists would pretty much all say, "yeah, flourishing directly relates to intrinsic values."

Ok, I'll "give in" (AKA step outside my choice to not impose my own thoughts) just for a moment here to give you 2 hot takes:

#1.) Those two theorists, Seligman and VanderWeele, did not use any data when compiling their list of domains. To be frank, it feels like armchair philosophy. They claim their elements of their models to essentially be these exhaustive lists of the most universal intrinsic values, but they didn't test this at all. They didn't even run a worldwide survey. (To be fair Harvard did run some surveys years later.) They didn't have a systematic method to arrive at their models of multidimensional well-being. I'll write more about this in another post sometime, but I wanted to leave a fair warning here that: while these theories do refer to intrinsic values, their approach is unfortunately lacking a scientific process.

#2.) I believe any theory of flourishing should begin from a theory of intrinsic values (both in a philosophical sense and even in a "data-driven" sense). So by this I mean to say that any theory that suggests a mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive list of the domains of well-being would need to first clarify and define the intrinsic values that are presumed in the theory. As a basic example, these theories all presume humans, human life, "psychological functioning", and other concepts are all intrinsically valuable. I would say this principle is doubly applicable to any theory of "needs" as well (and often there's overlaps where a theory of well-being models a theory of needs). To say that there is any "need" at all in this universe is to assume premises of intrinsic values. To say that a human "needs" to eat nutrients, assumes that we care about that human's biological systems functioning well (and that we care about that human's health and life and that human in general). (Haha pardon the ramble, but my personal answer to your question is: "to what degree? In the first degree!" 😅)

I'm wondering why so few of the theories involve physiological needs

If you listen to Marty Seligman's early talks, when positive psychology starts to become a more well defined field, his view of wellbeing is going beyond 'the basics' of everyday life. He's even used numbers to say, ok if the aim of therapy is to bring a depressed person from -5 to -3 or 0, the goal of positive psychology is to take you from +3 to +5. Some wellbeing theories inherit this general thinking, and many of the basic physiological needs like having food or shelter or being safe are things seen for a requirement to be at a normal baseline. With the exception of social relations and some of the emotions work, you're more likely to see most physiological needs  in the clinical literature and some with folks who work on resilience.

Haha one reason might be that there's probably bias towards psychological needs when you get a bunch of psychologists to come up with the theories 😅🤷

(Might look very different if there were 6 prominent theories of well-being coming out of a humanistic field of biology!)

Really great and clear write-up. 

For feedback: I wouldn't say this isn't a meta-analysis in the technical sense and it doesn't seem like a systematic synthesis either. I think it's a great intro to some prominent ideas with a more descriptive slant overall, though the places where you do evaluate evidence (e.g. Maslow re: lack of empirical evidence) are where the highest value would come for a reader who doesn't know the literature. I think if you were to frame this differently and draw out a little more why we should care about wellbeing, you'd get more punch. 

In the EA space, you may want to reach out to Happier Lives: https://www.happierlivesinstitute.org/key-ideas/

For flourishing, I think you're missing some of the context with Barbara Fredrickson's work, particularly broaden and build theory, which many people view as a major early contributor to this field .

Other important theories that come to mind withing positive psych or wellbeing:

Flow - notably the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi  

Grit - Angela Duckworth (although some folks think grit is basicaly conscientiousness repackaged)

Beyond PERMA, there are now a lot more mini-theories dealing with disposition, attitudes, character, gratitude. Sonja Lyubomirsky comes to mind with her theories on happiness. I guess it depends what you want to capture.

And more broadly for anyone wanting to read more into this literature, I think there are  good recommendations for reading in these syllabi:

https://ppc.sas.upenn.edu/resources/course-syllabi-teachers

Thanks hornbill!

I think you're right, this isn't necessarily a "meta-analysis" or "systematic review" by academic standards. (I'll update the description.)

"I think if you were to frame this differently and draw out a little more why we should care about wellbeing, you'd get more punch."

What kind of framing might you have preferred?

While I was sitting on this document for over 2 years now, I went back and forth on what I wanted to accomplish with it. I've decided that I don't necessarily want it to "pack a punch" in the sense of being persuasive about anything at all. I just wanted it to be an unbiased historical overview/outline of these theories, as a reference/resource. It doesn't really read like an article, and I decided to be ok with that. It's much more like a Wikipedia outline, and that's what I was going for.

If the reader doesn't care about well-being, then I'm very surprised they chose to open this link 😅

I'm not here to convince anyone of anything. (I do plan to do that kind of stuff in another post that can make references to this resource though!)


Also thanks for bringing up the other major concepts in positive psychology. While I think you're right that those ideas are valuable context and were important to the field, I chose to exclude them in favor of only focusing on theories of well-being that established a multidimensional framework and an accompanying measurement. (Flow, grit, broaden and build,... These ideas fell outside the scope. Plus this document is too huge already 😅 eh?)

But seriously, thank you for this comment 🙂