The before nine take on…flourishing
Flourishing. It’s another one of those words – like wellbeing, resilience and mindfulness – that tends to get thrown around a lot in corporate environments. It’s also increasingly used as an advertising technique, which, let’s face it can get quite annoying. It’s a shame, though, because, in my line of work, flourishing sets the conditions for enabling optimal human performance in the workplace.
So, I thought it would be helpful to explore a bit about why I believe this is such an important area and how you use it to help your people – and business - succeed.
Read on for before nine’s take on:
- The origins of flourishing
- The links with mental health and wellbeing
- Why a flourishing workforce is commercially important
- How you can start to apply some simple principles in your organisation
Why should I read this?
- understand what actually defines flourishing and its relationship with wellbeing
- learn about the role of the organisation in creating conditions for workplace flourishing
Directors of HR/Chief People Officers:
- learn more about the building blocks of flourishing, drawn from positive psychology
- understand how to create positive workplace environments that enable flourishing
- learn more about the ingredients that enable you to flourish
- understand your employer’s responsibilities in enabling you to fulfil your potential at work
What is flourishing?
In our rush to do something about people in trouble, in our rush to do something about repairing damage, it never occurred to us to develop interventions to make people happier—positive interventions - Martin Seligman
Flourishing is one of the major contributions of positive psychology, a strand of psychology founded in the early 2000s by Martin Seligman. The premise behind positive psychology is actually blindingly simple: instead of looking at the pathology of what’s wrong with people, we should instead look at what’s right with them and how we can harness those resources for their wellbeing, i.e. ‘feeling good and functioning well’.
You might recognise flourishing as a term associated with mental health. Corey Keyes uses ‘flourishing’ as a term that captures positive mental health i.e. positive feeling and functioning, versus ‘languishing’ which reflects the absence of mental health.
In positive psychology, flourishing represents a new theory of wellbeing; a state of being which results from living an authentic, fulfilled life rather than just being happy.
The goal of positive psychology practitioners – including the before nine team - is to enable people to operate within this optimal range of human functioning in their lives generally and – specifically – in the workplace.
Why does this matter to my business?
There’s a growing bank of research on the impact that flourishing staff have on profitability, productivity levels and staff turnover (spoiler: it’s good!). When we’re talking about this from an organisational perspective, though, one of the biggest challenges is that people use the words mental health, mental wellbeing, wellbeing, flourishing and wellness interchangeably.
As I mentioned right at the start, flourishing has, in itself, become a buzzword and buzzwords tend to get commoditised very quickly. This presents a bit of a risk – namely, of businesses using clumsy ‘sticking plaster’ interventions that generate lots of work and expenditure but no real, sustainable results. For example, you run a workshop on mental health or stress management and that’s your people all sorted, right? Think again…
I always recommend that you start by seeing the whole topic of wellbeing itself as part of a systemic whole. Whatever your organisation’s motivation – be it financial, goals or customer orientated – success relies on this symbiotic relationship between your people and their performance in the context of the environment that you create for them.
Where did this all start?
Big question! Ever since Aristotle, people have been thinking about how we experience ‘the good life’ in order to be happy as human beings. Yet, the most common thinking around wellbeing focused on the hedonic philosophy of a life that seeks pleasure and avoids pain. In psychology, this is known as subjective wellbeing. Someone who experiences more positive emotions than negatives ones and has high satisfaction with the various aspects of his or her life is considered high in happiness. In fact, this is how we measure global and national happiness levels. The trouble is that this is actually a fairly superficial interpretation. It ignores the extent to which happiness depends on realising our potential as humans. It also assumes that all negative emotions are bad for our happiness. Even if you’ve cried all day, it may have felt cathartic – even transformative. Who’s to say that negative emotion is not as good as positive emotion in the right context?
A re-balance came in the late 1980s with the emergence of Carol Ryff’s concept of psychological wellbeing, which placed a greater focus on how we realise this potential. She drew on the work of philosophers and psychologists from the eudaimonic school of thought, who believed that living a virtuous life full of meaning, purpose and realisation of potential set the conditions for feeling good and functioning well.
But it’s with the advent of positive psychology in the early 2000s that researchers started to fully explore mental health, happiness and wellbeing from a proactive rather than preventative perspective.
What are the building blocks of flourishing?
Having initially focused in on ‘the pleasant life, the engaged life and the meaningful life’ as the route to authentic happiness, Martin Seligman developed the PERMA model in 2011, establishing five building blocks of flourishing:
P – positive emotions: how can we help people to experience more positive emotions?
E – engagement: how can we be engaged in the ‘flow’ of what we are doing and the world around us?
R – relationships: how can we establish authentic and productive relationships with others?
M – meaning: do we have a purpose to our existence and the actions we take?
A – achievement: how can we accomplish meaningful goals?
Given that positive psychology has often been accused of being a “neck up” discipline, the model has been upgraded to the PERMA-V model, the V standing for vitality.
Here are some of the aspects of PERMA-V running through our ‘Flourishing’ workshops.
That’s all very well, but…
I get why people sometimes feel cynical about this stuff. There’s a risk this could just feel like naval gazing and perhaps even a feeling of nannying your people.
But I’ve spent most of my career swimming in this soup and I can only stress that the body of evidence shows that it is the organisations who invest in their people’s wellbeing experience who experience lower absence rates, higher morale, better staff retention, better customer service and improved productivity.
It’s about more than being better. It’s about equipping your people to be the best they can possibly be – not just to survive work but truly thrive in it. That’s where thinking around flourishing comes in.
Organisations typically fall down not because they fail to recognise the importance of wellbeing, but – rather - their method of addressing it. Like I said, a one-off training workshop, token working benefit or HR initiative simply won’t cut it. It is not a set of activities that you ‘do’. It’s not about offering staff a free wheatgrass smoothie, or a lunchtime gym pass, or dress down Fridays. Not that any of these are not good strategies in themselves! Well, maybe the jury’s out on the wheatgrass smoothie…
Rather, this is about shaping an environment where people can regularly and consistently experience positive emotions (whilst learning from the negative ones), positive relationships, a sense of purpose and engagement, and the opportunity to accomplish something. When leaders and managers create that culture, the outcome is not just a flourishing workforce – it’s an engaged workforce, characterised by people who want to be there working for you, who want to stay working for you, and who will go above and beyond because they’re internally engaged with, and motivated by, the work that they’re doing.
Flicking the switch
The good news is that positive organisational psychology provides a whole array of scientifically evidenced tools and methods that can help to create an environment in which people flourish – i) exploring people’s ‘fit’ with their role, ii) encouraging a strengths-based approach to performance management, iii) ensuring that dynamics enable positive working relationships, and iv) formulating goals that are achievable, to name a few. This complements any traditional wellbeing activities you offer in the physical health and mental health space. It’s the delivery of these as a whole, as a systemic change, that will render them effective and sustainable. The approach can lead to genuine lightbulb moments, as people suddenly realise that the workplace can be an active contributor to their positive mental health and to living eight hours a day as their best selves.
Above all, workplace flourishing is an outcome of organisational life. Let’s create Positive Organisations that deliver the environment both as a means and an end.
What flourishing is:
- An optimal state enjoyed by people irrespective of whether they have mental illness
- Multi-dimensional - constructed of several equally important parts
- Dynamic – it can change over time
What flourishing isn’t:
- Merely the absence of mental illness
- A trait or characteristic
- A condition imposed on someone by external circumstances
Try this today…
Would you like to find out if you’re flourishing in life generally or – specifically - at work right now? Why not try out the empirically validated PERMA-Profiler? You can choose whether to take the standard PERMA-Profiler or the Workplace Wellbeing Survey.
One last thought…
If you had to capture the essence of what we’ve discussed in one sentence, it would be ‘Flourishing is Wellbeing+’.
 Keyes, C. L. (2002). The mental health continuum: From languishing to flourishing in life. Journal of health and social behavior, 207-222.
 Kleine, A. K., Rudolph, C. W., & Zacher, H. (2019). Thriving at work: A meta‐analysis. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 40(9-10), 973-999; Redelinghuys, K., Rothmann, S., & Botha, E. (2019). Workplace flourishing: Measurement, antecedents and outcomes. SA Journal of Industrial Psychology, 45, e1–e11.
 Ryff, C. D. (1989). Happiness is everything, or is it? Explorations on the meaning of psychological well-being. Journal of personality and social psychology, 57(6), 1069.