Are You Flourishing?




“How are you?” Could any question be paler, more flaccid? Your answer must either be terse—“Fine,” a breezy dismissal of every way in which you are not fine—or rambling and digressive, because the question spans your entire existence. Humans are, in many ways, all the time, until the body’s clock stops and we are no more.

Aristotle suggests a better question: “Are you flourishing?” I would ask it of everyone, myself included, if I dared. Flourishing is a happy state, healthy and thriving. I picture a tropical plant covered with dark, glossy leaves and big, bright pinkish-red flowers. Flowers are here in order to bloom; they possess and fulfill their marching orders every spring. What are humans here to do? How do we gauge our own flourishing?

We chase, hot-breathed, our happiness. If we admitted only that, Aristotle would nod approvingly. He identifies happiness as the true goal of every project, even if we have to chase other goals first, like a better job because it pays more and the money means freedom and freedom means…there you go. Happiness. The one thing we want for its own sake, as an unquestionable good, and not just to get us something else.

But if Aristotle examined the in-between, instrumental goals most of us use to route ourselves to happiness, he would wince. To him, happiness equals virtue. Not a vacation in Bali or a Miata convertible or Super Bowl tickets. Not a fling or a poker win or a promotion. He sees no need to constantly monitor one’s happiness, as though dips in mood were as dangerous as skipped heartbeats. Satiety and ease are irrelevant. Happiness comes from “living well and doing well,” achieving your fullest potential. He might cringe at “live your best life,” but that is, after all, his point. Human beings are designed for a life of action and reason, lived well and nobly.

These modern English qualifications (“best,” “well,” “fullest,” “nobly”) are as vague as mist at dusk, making it easy to trip or get turned around. His word for what we should seek is eudaimonia, with eu meaning “good” and daimon meaning something like “guiding spirit.” Eudaimonia is usually translated as “flourishing.” And flourishing is a kind of happiness that, for Aristotle, exists in the presence of aretê: “virtue” or “excellence.”

The modern definition of “flourish” is “to grow or develop in a healthy or vigorous way, especially as the result of a particularly favorable environment.” In The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle plays just as fair, acknowledging the difference made by a silver-spoon birth and the finest tutors. “Happiness obviously needs the presence of external goods as well,” he writes, “since it is impossible, or at least no easy matter, to perform noble actions without resources. For in many actions, we employ, as if they were instruments at our disposal, friends, wealth, and political power.” He is cool with that, transactional as it sounds, as long as we are acting in the right way and for the right reason.

But is he? He sees the richness of a life with a strong network and plenty of resources and seems dazzled by it. “Being deprived of some things—such as high birth, noble children, beauty—spoils our blessedness,” he says, adding that “the person who is terribly ugly, of low birth, or solitary and childless is not really the sort to be happy.” Did you just shudder, as I did? Childless, ungorgeous, from a family without money or standing, I hardly feel glum. Abraham Lincoln, his face already as craggy as Mount Rushmore, was once accused of being two-faced in arguing some point. “If I had another face,” he retorted, “do you think I’d wear this one?” Jean-Paul Sartre looked a bit like a frog, but how many lives did he change? And has Aristotle forgotten Socrates?

Though I question the judgey priorities set by his environment, I find Aristotle’s blunt practicality refreshing. He wants (bless his heart) to presume that all of us—the selfish rageful drivers, the litterers and wasters, the boorish and even violent—have the potential for virtuous and ethical behavior. He admits there are impediments. Habit helps us, he points out. If we make small, daily choices with integrity, they compound over time, deepening and strengthening our character. But he knows that when we are squeezed dry and desperate by various crises and constraints, integrity can erode fast.

Imagine entering a neighborhood where crossfire regularly kills children and drugs are easier to find than fresh food. You would not dream of asking a resident, “Are you flourishing?” Nor would you ask in Gaza or Ukraine. Even for those of us living safe, fat, contented lives in the U.S., “flourishing” has a florid, slightly Victorian sound that makes it hard to slot into today’s reality. Understand it by its opposites: exhaustion, cynicism, and chronic stress, or inhibition, depression, and paralysis.

Are you flourishing? If so, you are not chasing happiness. You are pursuing virtue. If that sounds prim and preacherly, it is not. The Greek notion of virtue simply meant excellence—in anything. Playing ragtime, breeding rare goldfish, pumping iron. But Aristotle does not leave us, bemused, in the middle of the hobby shop. He urges us toward specific excellences.

Moral excellence, first. The phrase sounds pompous, but he grounds it in everyday habits: “We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.” Next comes excellence in judgment. This is the master virtue, the practical wisdom that guides all else. He defines it as “the ability to do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason.”

Excellence in health and fitness ought to be the only diet advice any of us needs. A fit body is pleasing to the eye, strong, and useful, and it wards off the ravages of age, Aristotle notes. I tape this reminder to the cookie jar. As for excellence in attractiveness, it requires no ridiculous surgeries or procedures, no massive expenditure, no designer labels. The ancient Greeks saw physical beauty as a virtue, treasuring its clarity and symmetry, but Aristotle emphasizes the social importance of good grooming and flattering clothes, calling such beauty “a greater recommendation than any letter of introduction.”

Excellence in wealth measures not the size of the portfolio but how it is used. Excellence in honor focuses on reputation—are you known for doing good? Excellence in organization seems trivial, but I have yet to live in a home in which every object has its proper, preordained place and waits there, ready to be used. A harmonious family life; good friends; the ability to communicate; a curiosity that keeps you learning until you slide beneath the blanket of your deathbed…. These are the excellences we should chase.

Asking someone if they are flourishing, then, is a big question, far tougher and more interesting than “How are you?” There is no point in rattling off accomplishments; the particulars barely matter. Satisfied cravings are irrelevant. Chasing titles, money, even fun, Aristotle finds laughable. The point of flourishing is not to amuse or burnish the self, but to figure out its true nature and live accordingly.

Philosophy has been mocked of late for its eager forays into the self-help genre. But a redefinition of happiness—this pursuit that shaped our Constitution and today dominates therapy, motivational talks, airport bestsellers, and the reinvention of the advice column—could indeed help. A child of my time, I am always urging my husband toward happiness, troubled by his pessimism, his doomscrolling, his grim sense of duty. I want him to have more serotonin! More lollipops! Yet by Aristotle’s definition, he is flourishing. And I am forgetting the point.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.