In a book I’ve just started reading – First Bite – Bee Wilson discusses the reason for the current crisis in nutrition-related health and the underlying causes. She writes “we seem to have lost the old-fashioned concept of ‘nourishing’ ourselves.”
My first thought was how quaint the word ‘nourish’ sounds. Then I thought of it’s rhyme, ‘flourish’. A term used widely in ancient and moral philosophy and one to which we have little connection these days. Both these words and their underlying concepts feel old-fashioned, and maybe this is the root of our troubles – not only our nutrition problems, but wider health problems, mental health included. Perhaps we have mislaid a centuries old idea that the principal endeavour of life is to flourish.
Because in the darkest crannies of my soul I am still a philosophy student (despite fronting as a scientist these days), let’s start with a definition:
Merriam-Webster offers two relevant definitions:
- Thrive: To grow luxuriantly;
- Prosper: a) To achieve success;
b) to be in a state of activity or productions;
c) to reach a height of development or influence.
Collins offers the following three:
- to thrive; prosper;
- to be at the peak of condition;
- to be healthy;
To flourish is to thrive. And both terms connote growth and development and health and vigour. Although Merriam-Webster offers achieving success as part of the definition, I think flourishing has less to do with achieving specific goals and accomplishments and more to do with reaching ones very best. Not the very best job, or salary, or car or holiday. But achieving ones very best, right at the core. To flourish is to succeed at all the non-tangible parts of life: relationships, understanding, development. To progress. To improve. That easiest of all things, to be happy. Deep, persistent, authentic happiness.
We are currently living through – or merely scrabbling through? – a competition pandemic: everything from the moment of our births (arguably even from when our parents first know of our existence) has become a competition. I don’t mean this in the sense of evolutionary competition for scarce resources and efficient mates, I mean at a societal, cultural level we are in a bizarre and meaningless competition with all those around us. The competition of how much we weighed at birth, how early we laughed, slept, ate, spoke. Intense competition throughout our entire education system. Competition for jobs which we don’t even want. For quantities of money we cannot hope to spend within 10 lifetimes, let alone our paltry one. For status, even though we’re not quite sure what that status actually means; for the biggest twitter following (or blog readership…); for the greatest height difference in a married couple; for the ‘cleanest’ [read: most dissatisfying] lunch; for the highest score on a computer game. Competition for the most successful offspring, which we measure by how early they laugh, sleep, eat, speak. Whether they read before or after their class mates. Whether they can derive Snell’s law using Fermat’s theorem by the age of 41. Whether they can cope with the stress of intense, high-stakes, standardised tests from the age of 7 [spoiler alert: they can’t]. And it looks like somewhere along the line we started to believe that success on all of these arbitrary measures would mean we had succeeded at life.
But we’re not. We’re not succeeding at life. We’re not happy, not healthy and we definitely aren’t flourishing. In the UK 1 in 10 children have a diagnosable mental health problem and overall, 1 in 4 people will experience mental ill-health each year. Health-wise, 62% of adults and 30% of children are overweight or obese. The UK’s ranking on the OECD PISA assessments hasn’t changed in the last ten years, despite a concerted, bipartisan focus on improving school performance and the emphasis of class time and school spending on test preparation.
We attach such importance to meaningless competitions because we have forgotten how else to measure our worth. We worry obsessively about appearance and money and “intelligence” because these are our only reference points for a good life. We’ve forgotten the word flourish and we’ve forgotten what it means to flourish. A flourishing child is not the one who can read before they start school, it is the child who understands how to play. A flourishing adult is not the one with the best paid job, but the one who can cultivate a balanced life with meaningful pursuits and fulfilling relationships. I work for a startup and I hope and expect that in 10, 15 years time we are a flourishing business. And honestly, I hope I’m earning more money than I currently am, I hope I’ve helped advance the understanding of the learning brain, I hope a few people beyond my personal sphere know who I am, simply because of my work. I hope I live in a big house and can buy expensive things. I won’t pretend that I don’t set any store by those measures and achievements and belongings. I want money and status and “nice things”. But I don’t expect to be happy because I have them. I wouldn’t consider myself flourishing if that was all I had in 10 or 15 years time. More than those things, I hope I’m happily married. I hope to have children by then. But if I have neither of those things, I hope I am at peace with it. I hope to live close to my parents, to my siblings and their families. I hope by then to have visited Japan and understand more about a country and a culture that fascinates me. I hope I have learnt a new skill or taken up a new hobby. I hope I am as busy outside of work as I am inside work. I hope that the company I work for has transformed peoples lives for the better, in the ways that really count. I hope my children don’t cry over tests, aged 4 – not because they excel at the tests, but because testing children has become obsolete. I hope Donald Trump didn’t become the President of the US.
In short, I hope to be flourishing because I have meaningful relationships, because I have progressed and grown in my understanding of the world and of myself. I hope I am thriving. That I am happy through to my core. I hope that I still love food because it is delicious, and look forward to meals because they are fun. I hope I still occasionally eat a tube of prawn cocktail pringles and a bag of haribo instead of dinner, because if I don’t it will only be because I’ve become caught up with ‘clean eating’, on being “healthy”, on whatever the latest name for making you feel guilty about consuming food. I hope I focus on nourishing myself, not judging myself. I hope my children like vegetables and cake and go through hating mushrooms and then it’s pepper and next week maybe peas. Because these things – random and transient likes and dislikes as a child – are indicative of a healthy attitude to food. I hope my emotions and self-worth are fully separated from food, and I hope theirs never become intertwined in the first place. I hope they like the mountains and the beach, I hope they like watching tv and hearing stories and playing outside. I hope they are kind, to themselves, to each other, to strangers. I hope they empathise, even when that’s hard. I will consider them successful if they are excited by learning and want to go to school. I will consider them to be flourishing if they achieve the things that they are proud of, no matter what those are. I will consider them to be thriving if they feel connected to the world they are a part of.
To flourish is so much more than to have a big salary and an important job, in the same way that nourishing oneself is so much more than ensuring a diet of 40% carbs, 30% protein and 30% fat (or whatever it is we ought to be aiming for). Flourishing may include these elements for some, but that cannot be all it is.
Flourishing is not about being top of the class or the first to achieve something. It is so much more and so much less.
It is growing luxuriantly in to the best version of oneself.
1 For those interested:
Fermat’s Principle: Light follows the path of least time.
Snell’s Law can be derived from this by setting the derivative of the time = 0 and making use of the index of refraction, defined as n = c/v.
No, I don’t understand these words I’ve just written…