How do we know if people are flourishing?

As Margarita Mooney so ably put forth in a previous post, Sociology is in need of an attitude adjustment (my words, not hers). Namely, the focus of so much sociology is on the problems of society (in fact, many sociological courses are taught as a variation of the theme social problems), but this shunts aside an equally interesting and important question: What makes people, groups, and society prosper? We shouldn’t just assume that the solutions in society are simply the reverse of the causes of its problems, for causation isn’t always symmetrical.

This inquiry into a “positive” sociology (which is unrelated to positivism) is challenging in sociology because like to think at so many levels of analysis–including the individual, small group, organization, culture, and society. So, what one definition of positive sociology will span all levels? Beats me.

Starting at the micro-level, sociologist Cory Keyes, of Emory, has identified 13 dimensions along with individual-level well-being varies. He terms this flourishing. (He actually coined the term in this context, so he did flourishing before flourishing was cool).

  1. Regular positive affect–cheerful, happy, good spirits, etc… over the last 30 days
  2. Avowed happiness–feels happy
  3. Self-acceptance–Holds positive attitude toward onself
  4. Social acceptance–positive attitudes toward others
  5. Personal growth-shows insight into own potential, development
  6. Social actualization-believes groups can evolve positively
  7. Purpose in life–holds goals and believes that affirm a sense of direction and meaning in life
  8. Social contribution–feels that one’s life is useful to society
  9. Environmental mastery–can manage complex environments
  10. Social coherence–Interested in society or social life, feels they are intelligible and meaningful
  11. Autonomy–Exhibits self-direction, resists unsavory social pressures
  12. Positive relations with others—Warm, satisfying, trusting personal relationships
  13. Social integration–Sense of belonging in a community, comfort and support from others

What strikes me as I read this is how inherently social well-being is. About half of these are explicitly social, and the remaining are certainly affected by social factors. Linking these dimensions to larger social processes seems a promising approach to advancing a positive sociology.

If nothing else, these 13 dimensions give us a powerful tool to assess how we and others are doing in life.

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  • mike88

    Interesting idea. It’s very reasonable to assert that(1) our social context impacts on our happiness, (2) some social arrangements are more likely to promote happiness than others, and (3) just what those are, and how they might be achieved, is worth investigating.

    Note sure about the specifics of the thirteen, though – some are potentially in conflict. Harmony with your community (13), for instance, might mean you are less insistent about your own unpopular opinions (11)

  • I have been curious about the possibilities of a “positive sociology” as well. Psychology has had a recent trend in this direction, so why not sociology? Especially, since we all know that sociology does a much better job of explaining human behavior than psychology :). It would be an interesting field.
    D. Matthew Ray

  • Great thoughts! It’s interesting to me that one of the earliest Western books on human flourishing is about the City (polis): The Republic. I think it’s a testament to how badly we’ve ignored community in the Western World that this question must truly be asked anew.

    In my own work, I’m struggling to find a framework to try to build experiments around, and all that seems available are arbitrary and conflicting guesses. My strategy is to try to find some solid, old frameworks. Partly because I’m philosophically conservative (being swayed by premises like: “Old stuff is awesome”) and also because I believe in a Dawkins-esque concept of idea survival of the fittest (good ideas/memes get transmitted; bad ones go extinct). So if I had to come up with “positive sociology” I’d read Plato or Aristotle. Heck; maybe even Homer or Isaiah. What is Justice (dike) in a city and flourishing (eudiamonia) in a man? What goes into the Excellence (arete) of Hector or Achilles?