Flourishing, the Greek philosopher Aristotle said, is the innate potential of each individual to live a life of enduring happiness, penetrating wisdom, optimal well-being, and authentic love and compassion. How’s that for a 2,500-year-old street definition of flourishing? Let’s look at those four ingredients.
When you think of happiness, what comes to mind?
Our western culture views happiness through a different lens than the ancient Greeks did. Where you and I might equate happiness with an emotion brought on by worldly pleasures, the Greeks defined happiness as a life well lived, a life focused on serving others and a life contributing to the well-being of others. Happiness, to Aristotle and his band of brainiacs, was the goal of life. It was not something you attained via wealth, power, or status for one’s own consumption.
You and I must deal with the contemporary lie that claims that in order to be happy we must do what we can to serve ourselves, to collect material possessions, to be successful in our chosen fields and to gain wealth. Happiness is not these things. It is much more. It is something that can only be found when we look beyond ourselves to the needs and welfare of our fellow human beings.
Some years back I read a Harvard Business review article titled How Will You Measure Your Life by Clayton Christensen . He thoughtfully outlines the case for creating a strategy for life and folds his own life on top of the ‘model’ for application. He ends the article by saying.
“This past year I was diagnosed with cancer and faced the possibility that my life would end sooner than I’d planned. Thankfully, it now looks as if I will be spared. But the experience has given me important insight into my life. I have a pretty clear idea of how my ideas have generated enormous revenue for companies that have used my research: I know I’ve had a substantial impact. But as I’ve confronted this disease, it’s been interesting to see how unimportant that impact is to me now. I’ve concluded that the metric by which God will assess my life isn’t dollars but individual people whose lives I have touched.”
Don’t wait for an illness or blow out to set the rule on the correct things to measure in life.
Another glaring difference between the ancients’ view of flourishing and our view relates to time—specifically, immediacy versus longevity. While our focus tends to be immediate, theirs tended to be lasting. We think happiness can be grabbed now, as if we could pick it up on special at Macy’s. But Aristotle attached the concept of enduring to happiness. He took the long view.
We can attain enduring happiness only when we extend our horizon. There we will survey our lives and either say we did what we could to help others, to live well and contribute to the good of all society or we will come face to face with the truth that selfish pursuits led us to a hollow ending, concluding regretfully, “If I only knew then what I know now.”
It is impossible to flourish with a skewed view of happiness. Happiness is not just about us but also about others. It’s now just about the now but also the then. Thought provoking, isn’t it?
But that’s just the beginning of Aristotle’s life-altering perspective on flourishing.
After happiness as a goal, in Aristotle’s view, a life that flourishes must have wisdom as a guide. In our world of exponentially increasing information, we sometimes forget about the value of wisdom. But there’s no flourishing without wise discernment and wise judgment. The ancients understood this better than we do.
In the Hebrew Old Testament we find a book of pithy one-liners full of general truth and advice. The book is called Proverbs and was written by one of the wisest men to ever live: King Solomon.
Although Solomon also contributed to other “wisdom” books in the Old Testament, such as the enigmatic book called Ecclesiastes, he’s best known for Proverbs. Solomon’s reputation, wealth and wisdom made him one of the most recognizable kings in the ancient Near East. When he spoke, it was worth listening to. His book of proverbs begins like this:
These are the wise sayings of Solomon,
David’s son, Israel’s king—
Written down so we’ll know how to live well and right,
to understand what life means and where it’s going;
A manual for living,
for learning what’s right and just and fair;
To teach the inexperienced the ropes
and give our young people a grasp on reality.
There’s something here also for seasoned men and women,
still a thing or two for the experienced to learn—
Fresh wisdom to probe and penetrate,
the rhymes and reasons of wise men and women.
For Solomon, penetrating wisdom and well-being shimmered as the precious jewels of life. In the passage above, he reminds his reader how important wisdom is for the simple, the young and the wise. But if you want to become wise, he cautions, you must pursue it. You must also be disciplined. Elsewhere in Proverbs, Solomon says, “Get wisdom!” It’s a command.
How many of us have heard people say that wisdom comes from life experience and failing? Although there’s some insight in that perspective, I disagree with its implied passivity. As a modern-day proverb states, “What the fool does in the end, the wise man does in the beginning.” Instead of just waiting to learn from the School of Hard Knocks, why not actively seek wisdom, and seek it as fast as we can?
Wisdom comes from hearing and heeding the wisdom that others speak or demonstrate. For example, we gain wisdom from a father, mother, friend or co-worker who shares a recent failure. When they tell us what they learned, we have a choice. We can either regard their advice and thus procure wisdom, which saves us from the same failure, or we can ignore their counsel and follow the same path of misfortune.
What did you and I gain from disregarding the advice and insight of those who have gone before us? Certainly not wisdom! Maybe a headache, possibly a heartache or even worse.
Wisdom allows us to flourish because it keeps us on the path. But be forewarned: it’s not always an easy path. Wisdom does not promise ease. It promises fullness. It requires discipline and offers freedom.
And if we learn to value and to grow in wisdom, then we are ready to embrace the next element of flourishing.
Aristotle calls his third aspect of flourishing optimal well-being. This takes a little explanation, but when you understand his point, you realize he was dead right. This Greek philosopher says we don’t need astounding success in one or two areas of life, with abysmal performance in other areas. That is, at best, unbalanced well-being. Instead, we need sustainable health and productivity across the whole terrain of what really matters in our lives. Optimal well-being, in other words.
Can you see how that’s different from the way so many people live today?
After over thirty years of executive coaching and the experience of my own victories and failures, I can tell you something with gritty confidence: one reason we fail to flourish is because we allow the true meaning of the word to be hijacked by a shallow substitute. We equate flourishing with selfish material acquisition—buying junk and thinking it will make us happy. We trade true wisdom for lax short-term thinking. And we allow immediate pleasures to rob us of deep, enduring love.
Aristotle’s perspective forces us to rethink some assumptions and priorities. How can we flourish in a culture that never rests? That says success equals the things you fill your house with or how much money you keep stashed in your bank account or what’s parked in your garage? How can we flourish in a culture that says you must forsake the life-giving institution of family if you want a place at the corporate table? How can we flourish when we are running at breakneck speed from activity to activity and never tending to our soul?
Is it possible to thrive in our culture and not succumb to its interpretation of well-being? I say yes. But we have to make some pivots. Well-being is a soulish thing. It begins from the deep spaces within us and intermingles with the precious institutions of life: our relationships and personal worth, how we view others and ourselves and how we relate to our Maker. We will tackle this idea more completely in Chapter Four.
This brings us to the final and most relational aspect of Aristotle’s definition of flourishing. And as usual, love sums it all up.
Authentic Love and Compassion
The love that Aristotle talks about is not a mere emotion. It’s a way of life. Love as a word sounds nice and reads well in a letter or a greeting card, but it means nothing unless followed by definitive action. If your girlfriend or husband says, “I love you,” but then treats you with disdain, will you remember their words of devotion and love? No.
If, however, I say that I love my wife and I build my schedule in a way that honors her and honors the time needed for us to continue in a thriving relationship, then my words match my action. And it’s not just any action; love and compassion are defined by sacrifice. Like the wise sage Olaf the Snowman said in Frozen, “Love is putting someone else’s needs before yours.… Some people are worth melting for.”
On a more serious note, Jesus of Nazareth said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” How deeply we love will be reflected in how much we sacrifice for the well-being of someone else. As one of the apostles states, “Let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”
The Importance of Thoughts
What it means to flourish, I’m convinced, needs a reset. Aristotle is just one help in doing this. The greatest thinkers agree that flourishing means to live life to the fullest in an authentic and sustainable way. This requires that we strip away the veneer of culture and get a bit dirty with honesty. A reset demands that we challenge our current way of thinking. My friend and best-selling author John C. Maxwell says that “stinking thinking” can ruin us. How we think affects how we act.
If we continue to gauge flourishing in terms of the quantity of things we accumulate rather than by the quality of relationships we establish—the depth at which we love and allow ourselves to be loved—and the amount of good we initiate, then we’ll never experience the beauty of what it feels like to fully blossom. On the other hand, if we can work for enduring happiness, seek optimal well-being, discipline ourselves to get wisdom and walk in love, we will truly flourish.
Life is meant to be more than just enduring our way to the end. It’s not about surviving; it’s about thriving. It’s not about settling; it’s about surpassing. We’re not supposed to be a spindly sapling that never grows and blossoms; we’re supposed to be like a majestic maple, digging in our roots, spreading our branches, and being a blessing to anyone who comes near. We’re supposed to flourish.
But we can miss it. Can’t we?
That’s why, over the next several chapters, I’m going to be describing some of the practices, disciplines, and mental shifts that you can take to go from merely existing to flourishing. They may be surprising to you. They may seem countercultural and counterintuitive. But given that most people lead lives of merely existing, don’t you think flourishing takes an approach to life that is out of the ordinary?
I invite you to give these practices a chance. See if they don’t give you a life that’s different from what you’ve grown accustomed to—but feels much more like what you were meant for all along.
Flourishing is what God always intended.
“I came so they can have real and eternal life,
more and better life than they ever dreamed of.”
John 10:10 (The Messag