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Are we all ok?

25 March 2022 - Dr Jan Orman

Flourishing is not the same thing as being happy. Happiness comes and goes. As a life goal it is elusive and unpredictable and I don’t have such grand expectations. For most people happiness is one of those goals that seems to move further into the distance as you approach it and it depends a little too much on what’s going on around us to be reliable.

On the other hand, flourishing is in our hands. It’s possible to flourish even under adverse circumstances.

What does human flourishing mean?

My garden flourishes in warm weather when there are nutrients in the soil and there has been enough rain. (It’s doing well right now!) In some ways human flourishing is like that – we need our basic needs met but when our needs are being met we are not necessarily flourishing.

UNESCO defines human flourishing as both the optimal continuing development of human beings' potentials and living well as a human being. The Ancient Greeks called it eudaimonia and Aristotle believed it was the only goal worth striving for.

For us humans flourishing includes:

  • mental and physical health
  • happiness and life satisfaction
  • meaning and purpose
  • character and virtue
  • and close relationships.

Happiness is only a part of the whole and the absence of any of these things can be the root of our problems. Particularly important in the concept of flourishing is the idea that what each of us needs to flourish is different. Some plants flourish in the desert, some in the rainforest. Just as we all have different beliefs, values, natures, talents and skills, so the characteristics of each of our flourishing are different.

Flourishing starts with accepting who we are

I remember speaking to an acquaintance once who complained that she was having difficulty with her feelings towards her son. Unlike her daughter, who was a great student of the sciences, as she had been herself, her son was not interested in school – only in art. She was planning to send him to a school famous for its focus on achievement in STEM subjects to try to encourage him in that direction. I remember my heart sinking during this conversation and I also remember how unhappy he was a few years later as he tried to fit the expectations she had of him.

We have all heard stories like that and some of us have lived them. But it’s not always others who fail to recognise a person’s individuality - sometimes it’s the person themselves.

Step one to flourishing is to learn who you are as an individual human, what you believe in and what gives you pleasure and satisfaction.

What can we do to help ourselves flourish?

Just as we all know people who are miserable, I’m sure we all know one or two who are flourishing despite their situation. Those who’ve bounced back from injury and loss. The ones who can leave their trauma behind or use their adverse experiences to learn how to live.

Here are some of their secrets:

  • They can ask for and accept help from others
  • They can acknowledge what things there are to be grateful for
  • They can celebrate and savour small everyday successes
  • They do kind things for the people around them

Each of these simple practices is easily overlooked as we busy ourselves with more sophisticated things. Maybe as we struggle with our lives, focusing on some of these simple things might be helpful. It would be good to be more than just OK.

Dr Jan Orman
Dr Jan Orman

Jan is Sydney GP, private psychological medicine practitioner in Sydney’s inner west and a GP educator for Black Dog Institute.

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