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Personality and self

How can we flourish?

For our latest Voices In Psychology competition, looking to identify and nurture new writing talent, we asked the question…

10 June 2021

Two years ago I went to see a therapist for the first time. I did so because I was spending approximately 20 per cent of my waking hours thinking about death, a preoccupation which, for all its diverting characteristics, had become a bit of a drag. After a few sessions, she stated with unexpected candour: ‘you’re not interested in death, but escaping life’.

It was hard to argue with. I had come to internalise a mindset which made life suffocating. At its core was the concept of flourishing.

The ‘positive psychology’ movement, epitomised in the work of its founding father Martin Seligman, centres the idea of flourishing, happiness and the good life. In the popular consciousness, flourishing is associated with growth, authentic self-expression, and realising your potential, as encapsulated by the common exhortation to ‘live your best life’.

What could be wrong with that? Let’s revisit that mindset my therapist identified: I call it ‘Always Be Flourishing’ (ABF). Some characteristic cognitive patterns include:

  • Tunnel vision: My true life path is getting from A to B.
  • Wasted time: Time spent not getting to B is wasted time.
  • Means-ends reasoning: How do I get from A to B most efficiently?
  • Social comparison: Are others reaching B faster?
  • All or nothing: Not reaching B makes me a failure.

Whilst many of these thoughts should be recognisable to anyone familiar with CBT, what distinguishes ABF is its preoccupation with flourishing itself. ABF reframes the desire to live well into an obligation: to ‘languish’ is to fail yourself. ‘B’ could be any subjective marker of a ‘good life’; but it can also manifest as an absence. During my peak devotion to ABF, I had no idea what I wanted from life. I was therefore living in ‘wasted time’, yet simultaneously unable to choose between competing futures for fear of choosing the wrong one. I suspect I was not alone. A 2018 Mental Health Foundation survey of young people found that 60 per cent felt unable to cope to due to pressure to succeed, and 57 per cent due to stress about making mistakes.

Could there be better ways to relate to flourishing? One approach comes from a surprising source: the philosopher Karl Marx. Marx was concerned with human flourishing and the ways our economic system suppresses it. He argued that because specialisation improved productivity, capitalism produced ever more specialised jobs. These repetitive and low-skilled jobs caused workers to feel machine-like and unable to express their human nature. However, Marx predicted that as technology improved, this requirement for specialisation would cease, such that people would be free, in his words, to fish in the morning, hunt in the afternoon, and criticise at night.

Whatever your opinion of Marx, his analysis surfaces two important insights. Firstly, our relationship to flourishing is structured by our economic system: not just in whether it meets our basic needs, but in the way it demands specific kinds of rationality from us. If I spend 10 years as a teacher and switch to nursing, I factually have to ‘re-start’ in an entry-level job, a move with concrete implications for my pay and conditions. Therefore, insofar as ‘career ladders’ do exist, they reinforce the ‘wasted time’ and ‘means-ends reasoning’ characteristic of ABF. Similarly, because our access to some opportunities really does hinge on our success in competition with others, ‘social comparison’ can be a reasonable response.

Secondly, in contrast to conventional discourse which conceptualises growth as an upwards trajectory on a handful of predetermined pathways, Marx’s alternative conception emphasises variety: growth outwards, not just upwards. Instead of a pre-given ‘true’ self which we must discover and pursue, the self which emerges from this conception is plastic, multifaceted and playful in its exploration of different activities. We are encouraged to enjoy each pursuit for itself, without an ‘ideal’ end in mind.

This emphasis on variety also weakens the link between each person’s core identity and any given project they engage in. Research on the ‘social cure’ – from Jolanda Jetten, Catherine and Alex Haslam and others – shows that the more social identities an individual possesses, the greater their resilience against adverse life events. The more I see myself as other things than a fisher, the less my failed catch impacts my self-worth. Equally, the weight of a negative social comparison in one area is lessened when people have other areas to draw on – just as siblings manage rivalry through differentiation (see Mark Feinberg’s research).

This conception has many implications for how we flourish. On a psychological level, we can reject a limiting ‘A to B’ view of life and self, instead valuing change, diversity and exploration. This is not simply an injunction to ‘add more variety’; instead, we should reorient judgements of ourselves and others away from ‘always more’ towards contentment (see the 2016 piece in the Annual Review of Psychology by Daniel Cordaro and colleagues). But to do so in isolation is to fight against the tide, because our economic system incentivises an opposing worldview. Flourishing therefore demands we restructure our economic life to endow people with greater real freedom (see Philippe Van Parijs’ 1997 book Real Freedom for All: What, if Anything, Can Justify Capitalism?). Policies such as a reduced working week, unconditional minimum income, and a National Education Service can provide people with the time, resources and security they need to live varied lives, explore their capacities and form new identities. These changes are tied up with a wider cultural project of shifting our idea of flourishing itself towards one which is solidaristic and inclusive.

How can we live good lives? We cannot meaningfully do this until we critically appraise our understanding of a ‘good life’. No image of a good life is above contestation, because any image holds a latent set of beliefs, values and norms which regulate who can participate in that life. Must our vision of flourishing bear a constant threat of exclusion for those who do not win the select assortment of races enforced on us? Or can we create an alternative, one which is democratic, egalitarian and liberating?

Guan Mao
[email protected]
‘I recently completed a conversion course to Psychology, and currently work across two mental health services in London whilst serving as a research assistant for the Groups and Covid project at Sussex University. Before converting to Psychology I studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics and worked for the civil service for a couple of years before deciding to pursue a career as a clinical psychologist – a career track which provokes A to B thinking much more often than not!

I am interested in the relationship between economics, politics and mental health, in particular public mental health and approaches to psychological therapy which extend outside of the traditional one-to-one counselling format. More generally, I am interested in how our immediate subjective experiences of being in the world are shaped by the social structures we operate in, and how we in turn can shape those structures. In the future I hope to find ways to communicate ideas at the intersections of psychology and other fields to a wider audience, in a way that engages people and provokes them to consider alternative ways to relate to themselves and others.’

Masters of our own learning

Why do some of our children choose to misbehave?’ asked the headteacher during one of our weekly briefings. As a Master’s student searching for a suitable dissertation, this was an intriguing question. The immediate response of a colleague was even more so: they lack resilience when challenged.  

When pressed to explain further, feelings of frustration began to surface, towards learners who complained that the work was too hard, and who subsequently disengaged from the lesson. Low level disruption was believed to be one consequence of that disengagement. I decided to investigate the concept of resilience in an effort to develop practice in ways that could improve the learning environment and, I provide insight into the challenges we faced.

Resilience is a word I had often heard – and probably used – without being completely certain of its meaning. According to the dictionary, resilience is the ability to ‘withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions’. The definition seemed problematic in the context of what we’d been discussing; could challenges presented in the classroom be classed as difficult conditions, and who was I to judge? Experiences are subjective, after all. The adolescent brain, dealing with the onset of puberty, has a lot going on.

Searching for ‘resilience’ in the library catalogue only deepened my anxiety. Resilience was described in terms of far greater adversity. How could the disappointment of one low mark in a spelling test – as one of my participants later described it, the ‘head on the desk response’ – equate to the challenges faced by the children who sat their exams in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire? Or children diagnosed with cancer? It couldn’t.

I began to feel as though I had had my wings clipped: this was not my idea of flourishing at the start of a potential new career as a psychologist.

When individuals flourish, they grow and develop healthily because they have the right environment and conditions. When organisations flourish, they also develop rapidly and successfully. In psychology, flourishing refers to the experience of positive emotions and an optimal level of social and emotional functioning for most of the time. In my role as a special educational needs teaching assistant, I could relate to these different ways of describing what it means to flourish: learners and practitioners require their needs to be met in an environment which provides safety, security and appropriate challenges.

Gradually, a new angle emerged: I wanted a word to describe learners who were successful in regulating emotional responses when obstacles blocked the path to understanding. If there were an alternative way of articulating the problem, then perhaps colleagues would feel more able to identify strategies to overcome it. If resilience was not the right word, then what was?

What about flexibility, plasticity, durability, adaptability or buoyancy? Eureka. Academic buoyancy describes learners’ ‘ability to successfully deal with the academic setbacks and challenges that are typical of the ordinary course of school life’ (Martin & Marsh, 2008, p.54).  

I began to wonder about the potential relationship between academic buoyancy and learner behaviour. If, as Nash and colleagues (2016) posit, all behaviour is communication, and classroom disruption is a defensive mechanism against punitive measures, then perhaps some learners needed support to improve their academic buoyancy, leading to greater flourishing? I revealed a potential gap in the understanding of academic buoyancy. It has been quantitatively observed in relation to self-efficacy and academic engagement; I felt that a qualitative exploration of academic buoyancy was an opportunity to explore language use within the classroom, and broaden vocabulary around learner engagement.  

I wanted the voices of participants to be heard beyond a dissertation: for this research to be meaningful to colleagues who gave their time. In short, I hoped staff and learners would flourish as a result of my efforts. I selected interpretive phenomenological analysis (IPA), as it assumes individuals are self-interpretive and self-reflective.

Setting out with a Dictaphone and boundless enthusiasm, I discovered there is a knack to a good interview. I learned the importance of putting participants at their ease, to structure my schedule to enable answers that reveal nuances and subtleties, and that listening without interrupting is harder than it looks! Everyone had their own definition for academic buoyancy. ‘The whole package’; ‘well balanced’; ‘does not let difficulty or newness of a topic interfere with the desire to learn’. Indeed, academically buoyant children were considered masters of their own learning.

The crunch came when I asked: do children who cause low level disruption always lack academic buoyancy? No. Classroom disruption has many factors, of which level of academic buoyancy may or may not be one. Participants identified a far broader context: the importance of engaging with parents, carers and families, of building relationships and the impact of wider social issues.  

Ultimately, I’m not exactly sure how my dissertation concluded. The relationship between buoyancy and behaviour is complex and goes beyond mere cause and effect. But one thing is certain: a conversation has begun. People have been encouraged to speak, and to provide new insight into academic buoyancy. In this respect, we are flourishing. 

Elizabeth Otterburn
[email protected]
‘I graduated from Coventry University in 2020 with a Master’s in Psychology with Merit having undertaken the conversion course. I’m working as a teaching assistant and my aim is to become an Educational Psychologist. This is a short reflection on my dissertation and how practitioners have hopefully begun to flourish as a result of the research.’

Key sources
Martin, A.J. & Marsh, H.W. (2008). Academic Buoyancy: Towards an understanding of students’ everyday academic resilience. Journal of School Psychology, 46, 53-83.
Nash, P., Schlosser A. & Scarr T. (2016) Teachers’ Perceptions of disruptive behaviour in schools. Emotional & Behavioural Difficulties, 21(2), 167-180.

‘Well, what gives you energy?’

Two years ago, on a rainy November morning, I was slumped in a chair in a therapist’s office, having been referred for mental health treatment following a very difficult break-up. As the professional on the other side of the desk tried to build up a picture of my situation, after some standard initial inquiries (he asked what I liked to do for fun – which I couldn’t answer), he instead posed that question: ‘What gives you energy?’

I remember the moment so well, even now. I was almost insulted by him asking. I felt like a deflated balloon. Nothing gave me energy. That’s why I was here, for him to tell me what to do! I was annoyed that he couldn’t magically sense that from spending 10 minutes with me; couldn’t he tell that I’d been suffering?

I didn’t enjoy baking (too much washing up), I didn’t go out with friends (I was too focused on trying to salvage my relationship), I used to like writing (but felt too overwhelmed to risk writing a bad first draft of anything at the time).

I didn’t do any of the recreational hobbies other people did – long bike rides, being part of an am-dram group – and nor did I want to. At the time I was so deeply exhausted, having carried around a lot of stress for such a long time. The realisation that I hadn’t done anything fun for months knocked me further into a melancholic state.

But I had to say something.
‘Reading?’ (I hadn’t read anything longer than a tweet for some time.)
‘Great!’ he replied. ‘Anything else?’
I stared at the door and, in the unfortunate case that someone wasn’t about to rush in declaring an emergency, I instead wished my chair might swallow me up. ‘Um. Playing the piano?’ I had endured piano lessons as a child, but it offered an answer I thought he might like.
‘OK,’ he said, maybe not convinced. ‘Anything else?’

I was annoyed at his persistence, desperate for my time to be up. But that question, that idea of dedicating your life – outside of the obligatory duties such as work and food shopping and tax returns – to activities that energise you. That is an idea that stayed with me as I spent the next several months recovering from the break-up (or breakdown). It’s something I continue to think about as I follow a new career path in psychology as a first-year undergraduate student.

Author Alain de Botton wrote in An Emotional Education: ‘A breakdown is not merely a random piece of madness or malfunction, it is a very real – albeit very inarticulate – bid for health and self-knowledge. It is an attempt by one part of our mind to force the other into a process of growth, self-understanding and self-development which it has hitherto refused to undertake.’

So, a shift had begun. But how could I discover those things that would help me thrive, when all I really wanted to do was sleep for three weeks?

For a broken individual, for a broken society, healing has to come before flourishing. So, in exploring how we might flourish during these incredibly testing times, first we must heal: fill in the cracks, fix what is broken. In order to thrive, we must first be able to survive, to be able to cope with life’s difficulties and obstacles.

In the past year, the global pandemic has presented more unfamiliar difficulties than we were used to. There has been individual and collective loss, on such a huge scale; widespread fear of an invisible virus and the strangers who may carry it; a longing for closeness after such a long stretch of time where touch has been scarce.

And yet the very definition of flourishing implies that to really thrive, growth needs to happen in a ‘congenial environment’, in other words, an enjoyable, gratifying environment that many of us don’t have access to right now. Numerous lockdowns have meant that for many of us, the only environments we have had any control over have been our inner ones, our minds.

Making this environment a pleasurable place to be has to start from a place of self-compassion – that’s psychotherapy 101. The relentless lug of a global pandemic has made that increasingly evident. Compassion is where true flourishing must begin, from a place of self-acceptance, of gentleness; a healthy foundation from which things can grow.

And how can we flourish from there? Well, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. I assume the role of the therapist before me, and implore you to ask yourself, ‘What gives me energy?’ It took me many months to figure this out, and I couldn’t begin cultivating those desires until the conditions were right: until I was well-rested, until I’d learned how to talk to myself kindly, until I thought of compassion not as a hippie buzzword but as a vital component of wellbeing.

If self-improvement feels like too much of a stretch right now, self-sustaining is good enough. In these conditions, overnight success stories are out of the window – perhaps flourishing is more gradual than we might want it to be; maybe it’s as simple as rediscovering what you enjoy about life and slowly, steadily,

Tara Lepore
[email protected]
‘I’m 24 (so am considered a mature student) and worked as a journalist from the age of 18 up until last September. I’ve now decided to take a different career path in psychology, with a long-term goal of training as a psychotherapist.’