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Simple Activities to Enhance Flourishing

Orienting oneself towards the good.

To see our newest research update, Hope for the Next Year, and Beyond, click on this link:

The current research update from the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard describes our recent evidence-based survey of various activities that can enhance flourishing, our efforts at developing a “flourishing app," and our engagement with the Lancet COVID-19 Commission Taskforce on Mental Health and Well-being.

Our last research update described how Americans’ flourishing has declined during the COVID-19 pandemic, not least because of the burdens placed this year on our collective physical and financial health. But flourishing is a matter of internal perspective as well as external circumstance: Even those who haven’t gotten sick or lost a job have been confronted with an extraordinary array of temptations to slip into regretful or anxious rumination about milestones missed or dangers looming on the horizon.

Because the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard is focused not only on assessing and measuring human well-being, but also on promoting individual and communal well-being in practice, we have recently published a summary of easy-to-complete do-it-yourself activities that can enhance flourishing. The review focuses on activities with well-documented positive effects on multiple aspects of human flourishing. While most prior literature reviews of flourishing activities have been oriented principally toward academics, this recent summary is meant to be accessible to those without a research background, while still relying on the strongest evidence.

Adobe Spark/Fotorech/Pixabay
Flourishing
Source: Adobe Spark/Fotorech/Pixabay

Flourishing Activities and Seeking the Good

The paper is organized around four different approaches to enhancing one’s flourishing. These include learning to attend to the good in one’s own life, actively seeking and promoting the good, finding and experiencing the good in community, and addressing psychological distress that hinders one from experiencing what is good.

For each of these broad approaches, we discuss three activities that have been shown to promote them: three cognitive activities, three behavioral activities, three forms of community engagement, and three tools to address psychological distress. The various activities are also summarized on our website, and we have provided an implementation in the app described below.

For example, one of the most widely studied well-being activities involves gratitude exercises. One might, for instance, try writing down three things one is grateful for three times a week over the course of a month or two, or even longer. Evidence from numerous randomized trials (thoroughly analyzed in this meta-analysis) suggests that this simple activity of focusing the mind on what is good in one’s past or present can help increase happiness, relieve symptoms of depression, and perhaps even improve sleep.

I personally try to practice these gratitude exercises regularly, both on my own and with my family, and have noticed a marked improvement in our life together when we do so. I have also described these gratitude exercises at student events and have had students return months later saying that they were very helpful in getting through difficult times. These exercises are certainly not going to solve all of one’s problems, but it can be very helpful to remember what one is grateful for, perhaps especially when every new headline seems to offer further reasons for discouragement or anger. Even amid great challenges, there are important goods in our lives, which we sometimes take for granted; we need to pause, and see them, and rest in them.

You can enhance your flourishing not only by changing how you think, but also by changing how you act. One example discussed in the review is carrying out regular acts of kindness, which a number of studies have shown to have significant effects on well-being. The idea here is to pick, say, one day each week and, on that day, try to perform five acts of kindness towards others that one would not otherwise ordinarily do. It can take considerable planning in advance to carry out five in a single day. But the planning itself and the deliberate intention to do good for others can also have important effects on one’s own well-being, improving happiness and positive emotions.

By carrying out such acts of kindness, we can, over time, develop a disposition towards seeking the good of others, which is one of the central components of love. Moreover, there is now also evidence that such acts of kindness often encourage others to carry out similar altruistic acts, inspiring further acts of kindness in turn. This is a simple activity, but if practiced by an individual, or by a community, or by our world, the consequences could be profound.

These are just a couple of the activities described in the paper. Others include imagining and reflecting on one’s best possible self, savoring positive experiences, making use of one’s character strengths, and volunteering (as described in one of our previous research updates). Many of these activities for flourishing have been studied in the positive psychology literature and have been found (again, in randomized trials) to have important effects on happiness and life satisfaction, and also on mental, and perhaps even physical, health. The paper also discusses cognitive-behavioral resources in the form of self-help guides that can be useful in addressing more mild forms of depression or anxiety and forgiveness workbooks that can be helpful in addressing persistent anger and resentment that can sometimes be difficult to deal with.

However, to enhance flourishing in other domains, such as increasing one’s sense of meaning and purpose, improving one’s character, or deepening one’s relationships, more will often be needed than simple individual activities. For full flourishing, we need engagement in communities, whether at home, at work, at church, or elsewhere. Given that, the paper also describes activities shown to enhance engagement and well-being in each of these contexts. These activities are, of course, in no way exhaustive, but they are representative of what individuals and communities can easily do to help enhance flourishing, and how we can orient our minds and actions and communities and relationships towards what is good.

Flourishing App

In order to promote these activities for flourishing, we have been working with partners to develop “flourishing apps,” both free versions, and also more targeted commercial versions for workplace settings and beyond.First, we have been working with Program affiliate (and our inaugural post-doctoral fellow), Donald Frederick, on the development of a web app that is both desktop and mobile friendly to facilitate engagement in these flourishing activities and to more easily allow for the tracking of flourishing scores over time. Each of the activities described in the paper is implemented in the app, which also incorporates a number of other well-being measures. To use the app, please visit https://flourishing.app. Although these resources are still being refined, we thought that they were far enough along in development that they were ready to be shared. For purposes of bug reports and questions e-mail: flourishingapp@gmail.com. We will also be releasing a downloadable mobile app in the next few months. You can follow updates to the apps at https://flourishing.app/updates. We will continue to update and expand the features of these freely available resources.

HFHarvard
Flourishing App
Source: HFHarvard

We have also been working with a new company called Flerish to promote flourishing assessments and well-being enhancement in the workplace and elsewhere using their newly developed YOU app. The app makes use of our flourishing measure, but also connects this with wellness coaching, curated content, and an accountability network. It can be used individually or throughout a team or company, and more information about these possibilities can be found by contacting Flerish.

We hope that these various digital resources will likewise promote further flourishing self-assessment and reflection and activities conducive to flourishing.

Promoting Flourishing During COVID-19

Some of the activities described above might be helpful in addressing the declines in wellbeing and also the altered opportunities for flourishing amidst the pandemic. But more is needed. Reform and improvement of mental health systems are required. Economic conditions that lead to opportunities for all to flourish are needed. And we need national and worldwide cooperation in battling this pandemic, and in being better prepared for the future. To that end, we, along with a number of our affiliates and friends, have been working with The Lancet’s recently-formed COVID-19 Commission Taskforce on Mental Health and Well-being to try to address some of these challenges and to promote flourishing amidst the pandemic, and a better future thereafter. We will of course continue to keep you updated as our various research and well-being promotion activities develop.

Tyler J. VanderWeele, Director of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University

The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science aims to study and promote human flourishing, and to develop systematic approaches to the synthesis of knowledge across disciplines.

References

VanderWeele, T.J. (2020). Activities for flourishing: an evidence-based guide. Journal of Positive Psychology and Wellbeing, 4:79-91.

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