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What Flourishing Is and Why It Matters

How the science of flourishing can address our silent suffering at work.

Key points

  • About 40% of employees report feeling burned out, but there is much leaders can do to support workers.
  • Positive organizational scholarship offers tangible solutions on how to build workplaces that support mental well-being.
  • Flourishing workplace interventions not only increase happiness at work, but also reduce stress and emotional exhaustion.

In the past few years, we’ve all made hard decisions. We thought things would turn out one way only to be told, for better or worse, things were headed in a different direction. From here we listened to leaders telling us “we’re living in uncertain times,” and we took on stressful responsibilities because our lives left us with little choice, or so we thought.

Without a plan, thousands of people quit their jobs. These employees were blazing their own path, now called the "Great Resignation,” soon to intersect with the thousands of employees who were on the path of “quiet quitting.” Left in the dust are the ones trying to manage their feelings of fatigue and anxiety, and sleepless nights. In other words, they’re burned out. Sound familiar? Perhaps it is even you.

According to Slack Future Forum, 40% of employees report feeling burned out in 2022, and leaders aren’t exempt from feeling the strain. They too are seeking ways to retain talent while at the same time trying to energize themselves and remind others what they care about. But exactly what do leaders care about?

What I’ve found is that those leaders who have found a way forward are focused on creating supportive workplaces that speak to our fundamental human needs: to have authentic connections, meaningful work, and moments of positive emotions such as awe, gratitude, and joy. And while these things may seem like lofty goals, they’re actually based on research from the field of positive psychology that has identified what enables us to flourish. Martin Seligman summarizes this body of research with the PERMA model, an acronym that stands for positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement.

What we have found is that the science of flourishing not only provides us with information on how to create a great life, but it also turns out it’s useful in managing stress and burnout.

Here’s what the PERMA model looks like in action:

Positive Emotions: We need to have moments throughout the day where we feel positive emotions, such as joy, awe, gratitude, hope, and amusement. These emotions provide an immediate energy boost. Frequency is more important than length, so you only need moments of positive emotions scattered throughout the day to be energized and rejuvenated.

Engagement: Being fully immersed or engaged in an activity is also an important ingredient for our well-being. Engagement is what happens when we are so focused on an activity that we lose track of time.

Relationships: As social beings, we have a fundamental need for human connection. Often it is possible to work alongside others and never really have a meaningful connection. Positive relationships require a sense of mutual positive regard where we feel able to be authentic and feel supported.

Meaning: It is important for human beings to feel our lives have purpose and at the end of the day that our activities made a difference. The key here is that the value of our work has meaning that extends beyond ourselves by impacting others directly or towards a larger shared purpose.

Achievement: Being able to take pride in something we’ve done or accomplished is also important. Achievement is about setting goals, committing ourselves to action, and persevering until our goal is accomplished.

What makes the science of flourishing different from traditional approaches is the focus on the optimal state of human functioning—when we are at our very best in terms of well-being, performance, or character. The field of positive organizational scholarship has taken what we know about the optimal state of human functioning to create better workplaces. Flourishing solutions range from small practices that take a few minutes to system-level strategies that involve redesigning the workplace so flourishing occurs as work tasks are accomplished.

And if you’re wondering whether this actually works? A 2019 review of flourishing workplace interventions showed that they not only increase job satisfaction and happiness at work, but they also reduce workplace stress and emotional exhaustion. The reason why flourishing is useful in addressing negative experiences is that the five ingredients (listed above) are known to renew, rejuvenate, and energize us emotionally and physically.

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