What one word would you use to describe the state of human flourishing today?

In advance of the 2023 Organization Development Network (ODN) Summit, my colleagues Judy Oyedele, Sasha Farley and I asked a small group of Organization Development leaders and practitioners this question and their response was telling of the era we are living in.

From depleted to hopeful

From tenuous to collaborative responsibility

From stalled to moving

From struggling to a light in the darkness

Each of these polarities are illustrative of our times and as much as we must illuminate the realities of the challenges and complexities of these times, it is also time to uplift the reality and possibility of human flourishing.

So what is Human Flourishing?

The Health Equity and policy lab at University of Pennsylvania defines human flourishing as the ability to live a good life which applies universally to all human lives, placing intrinsic value on health and serving the collective interests. Human flourishing applies at both the individual and collective/community levels. At the organizational level, Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS) which is the study of positive outcomes, processes and attributes of organizations and its members focusing on the dynamics of phenomena such as excellence, thriving, flourishing, abundance, resilience, or virtuousness. Scholars Jane E. Dutton and Barbara L. Fredrickson in a course on positive organizing and human flourishing describe it as a life rich in purpose, relationships, and enjoyment that “will not result simply by curing pathology and eliminating behavioral and emotional problems. Rather, flourishing requires building and capitalizing on human strengths and capacities.” Thus, human flourishing is the proactive search for the most positive outcomes for humanity.

According to the Harvard Human Flourishing Program there are 6 domains of human flourishing: 

  1. Happiness and Life Satisfaction
  2. Mental and Physical Health
  3. Meaning and Purpose
  4. Character and Virtue
  5. Close Social Relationships
  6. Financial and Material Stability 

Further, research has shown that leaders and organizations that are able to transcend the stress, burnout and difficulties of our times are those that cultivate positive cultures grounded in positive interactions and experiences such as gratitude and joy. The science of flourishing which has been summarized by Martin Seligman into the PERMA model, supports the fact that the following enables human flourishing in organizations/workplaces:

  1. Positive emotions—positive moments throughout your day
  2. Engagement—Immersion in meaningful  tasks/work
  3. Relationships—social connections characterized by mutual positive regard
  4. Meaning—doing purpose-driven work that has a positive impact
  5. Achievement – positive goal achievement

The domains of human flourishing and the factors found to create flourishing in workplaces taken together paint a familiar picture, synonymous with the hierarchy of human needs. These are our basic motivations to have our physiological (mental and physical health and wellbeing), safety (financial and material stability/happiness and life satisfaction), love/belonging (social connections/positive emotions) and esteem (character/virtue) needs; and our growth need of self-actualization (meaning, purpose, achievement) met.

It is no wonder that in our pandemic/post-pandemic era, we have become more acutely aware of these needs, as we emerge slowly from a season where all of them have been contested. We have also become more acutely aware that these needs have been relatively and more often than not, deleteriously lacking for those from equity communities because of the inequitable structure of our societies. For example, in a participatory action research project led by the Aspen Institute on wellbeing, racialized youth identified all the themes of wellbeing and flourishing as necessary in part, for healing from racism and trauma and for their wellbeing.

It is time to recenter ourselves on human flourishing.

I advocate this not in the one-sided sense of burying our heads in the sand and ignoring the challenges of our time (see Positive Organizational Scholarship: What is Wrong with this Picture? A Critical-Post Colonial View), but in the clear-eyed integrative sense of understanding the world as it is and taking up the challenges of imaging a flourishing world and a positive future for all. It is a radical and transformative act and one that I am committed to as part of my response to the struggles, traumas and overwhelm of the seemingly intractable challenges we face. As current US Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy notes in a recent podcast episode (To Be a Healer, from On Being with Krista Tippett), it is time to improve our overall wellbeing by rebuilding our social infrastructure and a radical commitment to inspiring small acts of kindness and love around us.

“And every time you act out of love, whether that’s to a member of your own family or a moment of kindness you express to a stranger, you are telling people around you that it’s okay to give and receive love as well. You are inspiring people to be a new way and to be a new person in the world that constantly seems dark. And in a world that is full of despair, small acts of kindness are radical acts of defiance, and they’re the force that we need to ultimately build the world that we all need.”

It is no surprise then that the Surgeon General’s framework for workplace mental health and wellbeing is in fact a template for fostering human flourishing through attention to our post-pandemic basic and self-actualization needs.

The challenge of our times therefore is this:

  • How might we co-create a better world for human flourishing (for individuals, organizations, communities and society as a whole)?

This is the challenge we will take on with Organization Development scholars, practitioners and organization leaders at the 2023 ODN Summit. We will work together on real world cases and/or shared human Flourishing topics of interest to envision and co-design options for creating the futures we want. I look forward to working with our community, to explore, among other possibilities, questions such as:

  1. How does technology impact human flourishing?
  2. How can we use organization development skills to make societal impact?
  3. What does thriving in an age of complexity and exhaustion look like?
  4. How are workplace trends impacting human flourishing personally and professionally?
  5. How do leaders support human flourishing?
  6. How do we bring hope in the areas that are hard?
  7. What is required of us to create a better world for human flourishing?
  8. How might we move beyond basic and survival needs to human thriving and flourishing?

I hope you answer the call to explore these questions, in whatever context you find yourself. Because:

“[Y]ou may live in the world as it is, but you can still work to create the world as it should be.”

Michelle Obama, Becoming