Why Flourishing?

Photo: Elle Neill, Parc LaFontaine, Montreal, 2018.

He is happy who lives in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external goods, not for some chance period but throughout a complete life.” ―Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics

So what is the economy for? How will we know if the economy is delivering what we want? The rules we set – how we construct the economy – depends on what we are trying to accomplish.

Increasingly over several decades but still more pressingly after both the 2008 financial crisis and now the 2020 financial and public health catastrophe, flourishing as the key objective of the economy. Flourishing is defined as living within an optimal range of human functioning, one that connotes goodness, generativity, growth, and resilience.

Specifically, flourishing includes all the key elements of well-being used in other measures: material well-being, health, security, and social connectedness. It recognizes that because people live through time, any useful metric needs to capture success through the prism of a life that grows and changes in all its multi-dimensional complexity. Flourishing withstands the fact that life has challenges and setbacks and incorporates these into the measure of well-being; indeed, challenges and setbacks often help to define life as worthwhile, so any metric that doesn’t take account of this fact of human existence simply can’t lead to functional policies. Flourishing explicitly considers the concept of resiliency – the ability of an individual (and a society) to absorb life’s uncertainties and to cope with them.

Overall, compared to well-being, happiness, and GPI, we believe that flourishing comes closer to capturing the the complexity and drive of human life. Using flourishing as the objective allows us to explore issues that are critically important to people, but that are not easily addressed using traditional economic concepts. These issues include:

  1. Health: Poor health makes it more difficult to flourish. So with flourishing as an objective, we need to explore how the economy supports health including not only our currently too-reactive medical system but also the quality of our food supply, our commitment to addressing obesity, reducing alcohol use, and eliminating tobacco use, among other issues.
  2. Employment: It’s not easy to flourish when you’re involuntarily unemployed, so employment, and being able to find work when you want to work is critical to flourishing.
  3. Flexibility: Humans need to change and grow; a flourishing person is on a life path that includes being able to change their employment, particularly given our gig economy. Moreover, it’s not enough for someone to have a job they don’t like, often because they needed work at a young age and got what they could (even out of degree programs). For people to be able to change and adjust what they do, structures (such as adult retraining programs, mechanisms to smooth/defer income) must be in place that permit these transitions, especially at middle and old age, when interests and capabilities are changing.
  4. Resiliency: In an uncertain world, only those with resiliency can flourish over the long term. Inherent, personal resiliency can be challenged at any level from nature to nurture (including broader cultural contexts of nurturing) such that strengthening resiliency cannot fall to the individual alone. Building social and economic structures (such as greater connectedness and income smoothing) that support resiliency is a critical obligation of a flourishing nation. In the real world, people don’t bounce back without trampolines.

Overall, the metric of flourishing grounded in dignity allows us to assess how the economy supports individual development paths. That is, people don’t flourish unless they are growing, so if flourishing is the objective, we can’t avoid the question of how and whether our economic structures allow people to follow their own development paths. Many of us understand this at a visceral level. We all point to life-defining experiences coming from stressful times. We know that our children benefit from their teachers’ demands, but not if those demands are excessive. We learn a new language incrementally. Careers (for those who have them) take shape over time. The concept of flourishing will make us think explicitly about and broaden the development paths available in our economic structures.

As an economic concept, flourishing is at its infancy, and is not well-defined empirically. And measuring flourishing will face similar issues as measuring GPI and Happiness – what is the role of subjective perspectives in the development of this metric?

So while it won’t be easy to develop excellent empirical measures, the concept of flourishing, grounded in the acceptance of inherent human worth through dignity, can drive policy reform and illuminate the actual performance of both our current economy and the economy that will emerge from this re-focused lens of assessment.

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