Humanities & Human Flourishing

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Well-being is one of the most central concerns of human experience. In an uncertain world of opportunities and dangers, knowing what makes life go well is of crucial importance. Not something to be taken for granted, well-being often comes only by means of significant efforts to modify subjective experience and objective conditions to suit human needs and interests. On some occasions well-being is easily attained, but at other times it seems to require more than the available resources and skills. Even when everything has apparently been done right, well-being sometimes proves elusive, and it is not apparent what further effort is required to achieve this highly prized outcome. As a result of such frustrations and puzzlements, it is possible to lose clarity about what well-being itself might actually signify.

In spite of these difficulties with well-being, there are certainly times when it seems a fairly straightforward matter. Emotions such as gratitude, serenity, and contentment frequently carry with them a strong sense of well-being, as do more active experiences, such as achieving a long-sought goal, understanding oneself or the world in a deep new way, or becoming inspired by a significant possibility. Well-being also goes beyond subjective feelings and emotions. Objective aspects of life such as physical health, control over one’s environment, relationships with others, membership in a supportive community, and meaningful work are also constitutive of well-being.

In Aristotle’s day, there was considerable disagreement among those who thought of eudaimonia as pleasure, wealth, honor, or virtue. Those debates did not go away but instead formed the basis of a rich conversation that has endured throughout the ensuing millennia and continues to inform academic work in a variety of disciplines today.

An analysis of this conversation in the twenty-first century reveals something striking: a meaningful turn is taking place in the discussion. Scholars across a large number of disciplines are increasingly focusing their attention on the immediate constituents of well-being, attempting to identify and investigate those aspects of the human condition widely accepted to be at the center of human flourishing. Such scholars are less concerned with the study of what can go wrong with human experience and more concerned with the study of what causes individuals to flourish and communities to thrive. These eudaimonic scholars are less interested in ideological pronouncements and entrenched positions and more interested in innovative approaches, interdisciplinary collaborations, and empirical investigations. We call this recent development in the conversation about well-being, with its focus on the interdisciplinary investigation of the best things in life, the “eudaimonic turn.” Led in part by new scientific approaches to the study of human flourishing, scholars involved in this turn are asking questions about well-being in novel ways and in a variety of domains. Psychologists are developing advanced methods for measuring well-being, economists are rethinking what it means for a nation to flourish, philosophers are creating new theories of well-being, intellectual historians are reexamining historical debates from the standpoint of current perspectives, and literary theorists are taking up new themes and fresh approaches to interpretation.