Time for an unscientific poll: What percentage of the people you know are really thriving — living lives that are happy, healthy, purposeful and fulfilling? If it’s more than one in five, you’re fortunate to be surrounded by an unusually well-adjusted crowd.
According to celebrated psychologist and researcher Barbara Fredrickson, “only about 20 percent of Americans are flourishing.” The rest are either “languishing or just getting by,” she says — or worse, “living lives of quiet despair.” Yikes.
When I stumbled across this information in an interview The Sun magazine did with Fredrickson recently (“The Science of Happiness,” May 2009), my first thought was “Ack! What a waste!” Fredrickson suggests that “Upwards of 60 percent of the adult population feel like they’re going through the motions.” If that’s true, can you imagine how many human days, years and lives are just seeping away?
My second thought was: “We’ve got some serious work to do here.” The mission of Experience Life magazine is all about helping people lead healthier, happier, more satisfying lives. And one of the underlying assumptions we make is that health, happiness and satisfaction are interdependent.
What we know (and what science demonstrates) is that it’s really tough to get and stay healthy if you aren’t happy, and it’s tough to stay happy if you’re not pursuing a life of meaning. Moreover, while it’s possible to be happy and satisfied while in ill health, it is certainly much easier to pursue both happiness and a life of purpose if your health and energy are good. It’s also more likely that you’ll go after the things that make you happy if you’re in a body that’s fit, rested and well nourished.
Fredrickson notes that “flourishing encompasses both feeling satisfied with your life and also functioning well in it. The way psychologists measure that second part is to assess whether people feel as if they are learning, growing, and making contributions to society.”
This, too, is one of the bedrock assumptions of our magazine. Which is why we chose to focus this month on skills, insights and resources that can help unleash the unique potential inside each of us.
The idea for this theme originally struck me last year when I met John St. Augustine, radio host and senior producer of The Dr. Oz Show on Oprah Radio. John has an amazing personal story, one he tells (along with many others) in his book, Living an Uncommon Life: Essential Lessons From 21 Extraordinary People(Hampton Roads, 2006).
John describes both the twists of fate and twinges of instinct that took him through two serious accidents, a period of deep anxiety, a time of joblessness and living in a motel room with his family, followed by a thousand-mile walk and period of reflection that ultimately delivered him to the purpose-centered radio work he was so clearly meant to do.
What struck me about John’s story was that it could so easily have been otherwise. If at any point prior to his big breakthrough he had decided instead to just “go through the motions,” he almost certainly wouldn’t have wound up doing what he’s doing now. And that would have been a loss not just for him, but for the millions of people who’ve been touched by his work, which daily brings hope, wisdom and inspiration to a broad audience.
I believe that each of us has this sort of innate potential inside of us, and that not just our personal happiness, but the real value of our lives hinges on our finding and giving the very best gifts we have to offer.
Becoming clear about what those gifts are, and summoning both the vision and vitality required to pursue the dreams that call us, is perhaps the most profound responsibility we have. Which is why we owe it to ourselves and our world not simply to get by, but to join the ranks of the flourishing — and then swell those ranks by helping others flourish, too.
One other fascinating point Fredrickson made in her interview (and that she covers at length in her book, Positivity [Crown, 2009]) is that there’s a sort of mathematically predictable tipping-point of positivity that occurs in our personal experiences and interactions. Basically, if we can manage to have three or more positive experiences for every equivalent negative one, we stand a good chance of thriving. Any less, and we’re headed downhill.
Some of the most effective ways to increase positivity, Fredrickson notes, include becoming more aware of human kindness, paying attention to the present moment, and rearranging your life around your strengths. We’ve packed lots of other potential-provoking ideas into this issue. So read on, and then share some of your own inspiration with us here at experiencelife.com.