Psychologists find the key to a thriving life

Recent research published in the journal European Psychologist reviews the literature available on the concept of human thriving and outlines key elements that may lead to a thriving life.

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In certain situations, some individuals flourish and thrive, whereas others merely survive, sometimes giving up in the face of adversity.

For centuries, the question of why human individuals react so differently to similar circumstances has preoccupied philosophers and psychologists alike.

However, these scholars do not seem to have been able to reach a consensus on the matter. This prompted Dr. Daniel Brown, a sport and exercise scientist at the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom, to review the existing literature on the topic in an attempt to achieve three aims.

Firstly, Dr. Brown and colleagues wanted to come up with an all-encompassing concept of thriving that covers various population groups, from babies to adult professionals.

Secondly, they wanted to put forth a set of key principles that we can all apply if we wish to thrive in our daily lives. And finally, the third goal of the review was to identify gaps in the existing research and outline directions for future research.

Dr. Brown explains the motivation for his study, saying, “Part of the reason for a lack of consensus is [that] the research so far has been narrowly focused.”

“Some have studied what makes babies thrive,” he adds, “others have examined what makes some employees thrive and others not, and so on. By setting out a clear definition, I hope this helps set a course for future research.”

Dr. Brown carried out this research as part of his doctoral studies at the University of Bath in the U.K. alongside study co-author Dr. Rachel Arnold, an expert in the psychology of performance excellence.

What does it mean to ‘thrive’?

“Thriving is a word most people would be glad to hear themselves described as, but which science hasn’t really managed to consistently classify and describe until now,” says Dr. Brown.

He and his colleagues examined the existing definitions of thriving, searching for common aspects. Success and development reappear throughout these definitions, as do a range of psychological, physical, and social enhancements (learning to swim, for example, or adding new friends to one’s social circle).

Thriving is also recognized as a “multifaceted” concept. The studies that the authors have reviewed range from child development to military studies. Across these, “thriving” has been alternatively defined as vitality, learning, task focus, “mental toughness,” or a combination of all of these concepts.

Dr. Brown offers a simpler explanation.

[Thriving] appears to come down to an individual experiencing a sense of development, of getting better at something, and succeeding at mastering something. In the simplest terms, what underpins it is feeling good about life and yourself and being good at something.”

But underpinning this simple definition is a list of so-called enablers, or factors that increase our likelihood of thriving. The researchers note that, in order to thrive, not all of these factors are required, but a combination of some elements from both lists could lead to a thriving life.

“Personal enablers” listed by the authors include having a positive outlook on life, being religious or spiritual, having a proactive personality, being motivated, being committed to learning and expanding one’s knowledge, being psychologically resilient, and being socially competent – that is, surrounded by family, friends, and colleagues.

“Contextual enablers” include being in a situation wherein the challenges are at an adequate level compared with one’s capabilities, and having interpersonal relationships based on attachment and trust.

Receiving support from one’s family, colleagues, and employers is also important, and being given a high degree of autonomy and being trusted as competent are key elements.

Areas for future research

At the end of the study, Dr. Brown and team make several recommendations for future research. For one thing, they write, researchers should develop measurement tools for assessing whether someone is thriving.

The authors also recommend that future research examines the lasting effect of thriving in adults. For instance, little is known about how a thriving response to a situation in adulthood (such as “a salesperson closing a deal”) affects how that individual will respond in the future to similar situations (such as to future sales pitches).

Additionally, they write, there are insufficient data on whether the effects of thriving in a certain area of one’s life overflow in other areas. For instance, whether someone who flourishes in sports carries that feeling over into their academic performance.