What is human flourishing?

October 3, 2022

I’d like to thank Katya de Kadt, Winton Higgins, Seth Zuihō Segall, Karsten Struhl, and Sharon Tobias for their helpful comments and suggestions regarding this article.


The notion of human flourishing is crucial for those of us who are attempting to develop a secular or naturalistic approach to the dharma. In part, we emphasize this notion as an alternative to what many Buddhists view as their highest goal: the attainment of nirvana. While there is a fairly wide range of views on what nirvana is and how it can be achieved, Buddhists in all traditional lineages understand nirvana as a state or experience of liberation from suffering (dukkha) based on the extinction of the ‘three poisons’ of greed, hatred, and delusion.  This complete and permanent release from suffering in this lifetime or some future lifetime is the ultimate goal of the Buddhist path.

Secular Buddhists are certainly skeptical of or reject the idea of nirvana as a realm separate from or beyond the natural world in which we live, as well as the belief that the attainment of nirvana in this form results in a permanent and complete liberation from all forms of suffering.  The goal for secular Buddhists is instead the lessening of the various forms of suffering that we experience and the actualization, to the maximum extent possible, of human capacities that are essential to living a full, satisfying, and meaningful life in this world. Human flourishing denotes a life in which suffering is reduced to the minimum and certain human capacities are fully expressed.  Our highest good, the summum bonum, is thus a world in which human beings have the opportunity and capacity to live a full, satisfying life even though we will inevitably experience pain and suffering as part of our human existence.

It's true that many secular Buddhists, including Stephen Batchelor, retain the notion of nirvana as the freedom from reactivity (the various form of clinging) for moments or periods in this life. For Batchelor, awareness of nirvana is the third of the four tasks:

…Here one becomes aware of nirvana whenever one understands reactivity for what it is and thereby gains freedom from its control. In this case the experience of nirvana becomes possible even while in the throes of reactivity….To behold and thus become aware of nirvana means to consciously affirm and valorize those moments when you see for yourself that you are free to think, speak, and act in ways that are not determined by reactivity….Nirvana is clearly visible the moment reactivity stops.

Batchelor, 2015, pp. 79-80.

Batchelor has developed this further in the notion of the ‘everyday sublime’ but others have also adopted this perspective and see ‘nirvanic moments’ as a crucial element of a flourishing life.

For my part, I would rather use other terms to describe our experiences of life when reactivity has been substantially lessened and we are fully mindful, such as: peak experiences (Maslow), states of flow, complete presence, the release from what Tara Brach calls the ‘trance of unworthiness’, etc. However, whether the term nirvana in this sense is retained or not, the key point is that human flourishing, not nirvana in the traditional sense, is the goal toward which our overall practice as secular Buddhists is directed.

Yet, despite the ubiquity of the term human flourishing in secular Buddhist discussions, we haven’t fleshed out this notion in any great detail. We talk about certain capacities of humans being essential to flourishing but what are they? What are the conditions for human flourishing?  How is flourishing at an individual level related to creating a society in which all human beings can flourish? Can an individual still flourish if they have been harmed in some way or are in a state of deprivation with respect to basic needs?

There are some valuable resources to guide us in answering these questions. Seth Segall’s effort to develop a theory of human flourishing – a eudaimonic model of enlightenment - which integrates Aristotle’s perspective on human virtues with core aspects of the Buddhist path represents an important first step in this direction and one can find in Stephen Batchelor and Winton Higgins’ writings important insights about human flourishing. An article that I co-wrote with Katya de Kadt and Karsten Struhl does not discuss human flourishing in detail but highlights the need to connect the reduction of suffering and human flourishing with the transformation of social, political, and economic structures, an issue I will explore further in this article.

As part of developing a more comprehensive account of what  it means to live a full, meaningful, and deeply satisfactory life, i.e., to flourish, I believe that we also need to incorporate Marx’s view of human nature, which emphasizes creative, productive labor as a central aspect of human flourishing and Martha Nussbaum’s capabilities approach, which identifies a set of conditions and capacities essential for a rich human life.  Bringing these perspectives into a dialogue with core Buddhist insights will help us develop a more adequate understanding of human flourishing.

Aristotle, eudaimonia, and a ‘near enemy’

The notion of human flourishing is closely related to the concept of eudaimonia, a key term in ancient Greek moral philosophy, particularly as developed by Aristotle. Eudaimonia denotes a state of human flourishing or well-being in which we achieve a state of ‘true’ or ‘real’ happiness, the sort of happiness worth seeking or having. It is the kind of happiness one has when one expresses one’s unique human capacities and lives life in an ethical and meaningful way.

Aristotle believed that all things that exist, including human beings and other forms of life, have a telos or final purpose based on their unique nature. A knife’s telos is fulfilled if the knife can cut certain materials easily. The telos of a tree is to develop into its mature, structural form and produce fruit, nuts, or flowers, as well as reproduce. Under the right conditions, a plant, non-human animal, or a human being can progress toward their unique telos and achieve the best form of life possible for them.

What is the telos of human beings? What makes human beings unique and distinct from other life forms? While we share with other animals many capacities, according to Aristotle, what distinguishes human beings is our capacity for reason, rationality, and using that capacity to guide our life. If we use reason well, then we are living fully as a human being. But to use reason well requires the cultivation of certain virtues. Real happiness consists in taking part in virtuous activities caused and guided by reason.  Here is how Aristotle identified the distinctive nature and telos of human beings’ life activity:

So whatever, then, would this work be? For living appears to be something common even to plants, but what is peculiar [to human beings] is [1098a] being sought. One must set aside, then, the life characterized by nutrition as well as growth. A certain life characterized by sense perception would be next, but it too appears to be common to a horse and cow and in fact to every animal. So there remains a certain active life of that which possesses reason; and ….one must posit the life [of that which possesses reason] in accord with an activity, for this seems to be its more authoritative meaning. And if the work of a human being is an activity of soul in accord with reason, or not without reason….and we posit the work of a human being as a certain life, and this is an activity of soul and actions accompanied by reason, the work of a serious man being to do these things well and nobly, and each thing is brought to completion well in accord with the virtue proper to it—if this is so, then the human good becomes an activity of soul in accord with virtue, and if there are several virtues, then in accord with the best and most complete one.

Aristotle, 2011, pp. 12-13.

Aristotle viewed a flourishing life as one in which, based on our capacity for rationality, we develop certain moral and intellectual virtues, contemplate the truth, and participate as citizens in a political community to further the social good. Aristotle identified a long list of important moral virtues, among which are courage, temperance, magnanimity, and justice.  The intellectual virtues span a range of human cognitive capacities: knowledge of craft, scientific understanding, phronesis or practical wisdom, and philosophical wisdom. Cultivating these virtues is in accordance with our telos and thus enables us to progress toward a state of eudaimonia or flourishing.

Aristotle’s account of human flourishing is based on what he believed to be an objective understanding of the unique qualities of human beings. We have the capacity to flourish because of who we essentially are. This is very different from popular ideas of happiness which tend to be based on our subjective experiences of pleasure and pain. For many people, happiness is about getting what we want, enjoying the maximum amount of pleasure, and having a lot of things that we own that we can pleasurably use. It’s having the experience of feeling pleasure and enjoyment most of the time; and those who can accumulate the maximum amount of such experiences in a lifetime have led the happiest life. Or, as a bumper sticker in the 1980s, offered: ‘He who dies with the most toys wins!’ The notion that the goal of life is to accumulate pleasurable experiences and objects reflects an amoral, selfish individualism which is pervasive in our capitalist society.  This view of a happy life is completely opposed to Aristotle notion of flourishing as a form of happiness which is deeply ethical and meaningful.

While the selfish drive for individual pleasure and success is clearly the opposite of Aristotle’s eudaimonia, human flourishing is sometimes confused with a ‘near enemy’ of eudaimonia, the notion that happiness is constituted by the full expression of all human capacities. During the 1960s, particularly in countercultural circles and as developed in some forms of psychotherapy, our problems and suffering in life were seen as the consequence of restrictive social and cultural norms which repressed our natural capacities. The key to happiness, then, is getting free of those norms and fully expressing ourselves, not being inhibited or uptight – in short, actualizing all our capacities by ‘letting it all hang out’.

While human flourishing as eudaimonia does entail the expression or actualization of certain capacities, such a perspective distinguishes between capacities which contribute to flourishing and those that don’t. We are complex beings who have a whole range of capacities, both ‘good’ and ‘bad’. (In Buddhism the same distinction is made between ‘skillful’ and ‘unskillful’ thoughts, emotions, words, and actions.) For example, we have the biologically evolved capacity for rage and destructive competition but we also have the natural tendency to love, cooperate and help each other out.  As I argued in a previous piece:

The capacities essential to human flourishing emerged as part of our evolutionary development as a unique form of sentient being. They coexist with other human capacities, also biologically evolved, which cause suffering and unhappiness. All these capacities constitute our complex make-up. While a secular and socially engaged Buddhist places a positive value on the capacities essential to human fulfillment and happiness, they don’t constitute our ‘true nature’ or ‘basic goodness’ in comparison to capacities which cause suffering and unskillful actions. Human beings are complex creatures who are capable of a wide range of actions and beliefs based on a variety of capacities.

Slott, 2018

Any theory of human flourishing thus must include 1) an account of human beings which recognizes the full range of our capacities and behaviors and 2) a set of criteria for determining which of those capacities contribute to living a meaningful, truly happy life. But those criteria must inevitably include an ethical or moral component based on our view of what counts as a ‘good’ or ‘skillful’  life. And, of course, there is and will always be a wide range of views on this topic. Flourishing is not a value-neutral concept.

Marx on human flourishing

Aristotle’s vision of a flourishing life, based on our capacity for rationality, was shaped in part by the kind of society he lived in and his own social status. The intellectual and moral virtues that he identified as essential to having a flourishing life were those considered important for an aristocratic class that collectively governed society. In this context, the virtues of philosophical contemplation, practical wisdom (the ability to find the correct course of action in each specific situation), and civic engagement constituted the crucial dimensions of a good life for those who did not need to perform manual labor and had the leisure time to contemplate and formulate public policies.

As valuable as Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia is, we need to include additional perspectives that provide us with an account of human flourishing which includes other capacities that contribute to a meaningful and happy life. Aristotle ‘s vision of a good life lacks a crucial dimension, one on which Marx centered in his view of the good life.

Like Aristotle, Marx’s theory of human nature and flourishing has its basic premise the notion that human beings have a unique quality which separates us from other animals and makes possible a flourishing life. For Aristotle, it is rationality; for Marx, writing at the dawn of industrial capitalism and the beginning of a vast expansion of economic production, it is our capacity for creative, productive labor or praxis. Based on this capacity, when we interact with our environment to meet our needs (food, shelter, clothing, etc.), we don't merely satisfy those needs; we change ourselves and our environment in the process. Although the capacity for self-conscious, goal-directed activity (praxis) is inherent in each individual, that capacity can only be actualized in a social context. And the basic, primary context for praxis is social labor, the process in which human beings interact with each other and with nature to meet our material needs. Discussing the unique transformative and self-transformative character of human labor, Marx notes that:

Labour is, in the first place a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature's productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway.

Marx, 1976, p. 283.

David Leopold has emphasized the central role that Marx’s notion of human flourishing, based on praxis, plays in his radical, emancipatory theory. Marx’s criticisms of capitalism are not just rooted in his analyses of the internal contradiction of this economic system and the exploitation of workers. He views capitalism as a system which frustrates human flourishing. A capitalist society prevents human beings from actualizing their unique human capacity:

This model of human flourishing….provides a normative framework for both the critique of existing class-divided societies, and the construction of a rational and humane alternative. There is little doubt about the strength and extent of Marx’s anger at the ways in which the existing world frustrates human flourishing; the contemporary organization of work, for instance, is said to produce ‘stunted monsters’ rather than fully human beings. In contrast, in the humane and rational (communist) future, he suggests that individuals will finally become ‘species beings’ – that is, they will actualize their essential human powers in their ‘empirical life’.

Leopold, 2020, p. 44.

In a non-exploitative, democratic, and cooperative society, human beings will be able express their essential powers in work and other spheres of life. Under communism, new technologies will enable us to reduce the workday and give us more time for other activities. Freed from alienated labor and with more time to develop our potential talents, human life can truly flourish: 

….in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic. (p.124)

Marx, 1072, p. 124.

Note that, for Marx, human flourishing is seen either as unalienated, productive labor or intellectual activity. While, as Leopold notes, Marx recognized a broader set of arenas in which our essential human powers can be expressed, his focus is clearly praxis in the form of social labor. This leaves out some crucial areas of human experience and activity, including those dimensions of human life more associated with women due to our patriarchal culture: emotions, caretaking, social relationships, etc.

Nussbaum and the ‘capabilities approach’

As part of her effort to provide a normative standard for evaluating whether societies and countries are socially just and provide opportunities for a good life, the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum has, in dialogue with Amartya Sen, developed the ‘capabilities approach’.  This perspective provides us with another important resource for developing a theory of human flourishing.

Nussbaum argues that the ability to have a dignified or flourishing life is not just a matter of protecting people from exploitation or oppression by the government or private organizations. To flourish, human beings need to be capable of exercising their human potential in a range of life activities; and such capabilities require a broad range of social structures and public policies to support individuals’ right to flourish.

The basic idea of my version of the capabilities approach....is that we begin with a conception of the dignity of the human being, and of a life that is worthy of that dignity – a life that has available in it ‘truly human functioning,’ in the sense described by Marx in his 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. With this basic idea as a starting point, I then attempt to justify a list of ten capabilities as central requirements of a life with dignity. These ten capabilities...are part of a minimum account of social justice: a society that does not guarantee these to all its citizens, at some appropriate threshold level, falls short of being a fully just society, whatever its level of opulence. Moreover, the capabilities are held to be important for each and every person: each person is treated as an end, and none as a mere adjunct or means to the ends of others.

Nussbaum, 2003, p. 40.

Nussbaum’s list of the central human capabilities as elements of a flourishing life spans the whole range of human experience, from the physical and affective dimensions of our existence to our cognitive and creative faculties to our social engagement on interpersonal, work, and society-wide levels. The list is composed of:

1.   Life. Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length; not dying prematurely, or before one’s life is so reduced as to be not worth living.

2.   Bodily Health. Being able to have good health, including reproductive health; to be adequately nourished; to have adequate shelter.

3.   Bodily Integrity. Being able to move freely from place to place; to be secure against violent assault, including sexual assault and domestic violence; having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction.

4.   Senses, Imagination, and Thought. Being able to use the senses, to imagine, think, and reason – and to do these things in a ‘truly human’ way, a way informed and cultivated by an adequate education, including, but by no means limited to, literacy and basic mathematical and scientific training….

5.   Emotions. Being able to have attachments to things and people outside ourselves; to love those who love and care for us, to grieve at their absence; in general, to love, to grieve, to experience longing, gratitude, and justified anger….

6.   Practical Reason. Being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s life.

7.   Affiliation.

A.   Being able to live with and toward others, to recognize and show concern for other human beings, to engage in various forms of social interaction; to be able to imagine the situation of another….

B.   Having the social bases of self-respect and nonhumiliation; being able to be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others……

8.   Other Species. Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature.

9.   Play. Being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities.

10. Control Over One’s Environment.

A.   Political. Being able to participate effectively in political choices that govern one’s life; having the right of political participation, protections of free speech and association.

B.   Material. Being able to hold property (both land and movable goods), and having property rights on an equal basis with others; having the right to seek employment on an equal basis with others; having the freedom from unwarranted search and seizure. In work, being able to work as a human being, exercising practical reason, and entering into meaningful relationships of mutual recognition with other workers.

Nussbaum, 2003, pp. 41-42.

For each of these capabilities, there is a corresponding set of social norms, economic resources, and public policies which allow an individual to actualize that aspect of human flourishing. For example, with respect to 7B above, having the social bases of self-respect and nonhumiliation, there must be strong cultural, social, legal and political supports for nondiscrimination with respect to race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc. In her effort to develop a normative standard for social justice, Nussbaum is rightly emphasizing the social, political, and economic conditions for human flourishing.

The conditions for human flourishing are ‘internal’ and ‘external’

Nussbaum and Marx – each in their own way - recognize that human flourishing is crucially dependent on social arrangements which enable each human being to actualize those capacities which contribute to real happiness. We might call these social arrangements the  ‘external’ conditions for flourishing.

On the other hand, in Buddhist circles, the emphasis tends to be on the need for each individual to cultivate certain ‘internal’ conditions for a flourishing life or, in the case of traditional Buddhists, as elements of a path that leads to nirvana. These internal conditions are based on the cultivation of the three elements or main categories of the Eightfold Path: meditative practices such as mindfulness and concentration, an ethical life centered on the values of care and compassion, and a correct understanding of reality (i.e., wisdom).  According to traditional Buddhism, if we are able to fully develop these capacities, then we can experience a good and happy life irrespective of the external conditions that we face. In fact, the goal of Buddhist practice is often framed as the experience of peace, freedom, and happiness in an unconditioned way.

There is surely a kernel of truth in this. Life is often difficult in so many ways and we cannot avoid that. A racist, xenophobic, and lying demagogue is elected president; our child suffers from a severe illness; we are mistreated and disrespected on the basis of our race or gender; we are forced to work in a job that pays inadequate wages and offer little room for autonomy; a lab test indicates a serious problem in our health, etc.  The four painful aspects of the ‘Eight Worldly Winds’, as listed in the Lokavipatti Sutta (AN 8.6) – pain, loss, disrepute, and blame – are an inevitable part of our life. Mindfulness, compassion, and wisdom cannot erase these realities, but they allow us to meet them with some measure of equanimity.

These three pillars of the Buddhist path are important for other reasons. If human flourishing is the actualization of certain human capacities, it’s essential that we have the ability to harmonize their expression and to avoid getting overly attached to a particular dimension of human experience. Mindfulness, compassion, and wisdom provide us with the internal resources to do so. In our finite life, it’s impossible to fully actualize ourselves in every dimension of human flourishing. We need to make choices all the time about which aspects of life are important to us and require more time, attention, and energy. We need to prioritize our activities, recognizing that we are limited, vulnerable beings who cannot attain some supernatural perfection in our lifetime.

At the same time, mindfulness, compassion, and wisdom can help us avoid getting too attached to a particular kind of experience. For example, the capacity to experience fully the sensuousness of life is an aspect of human flourishing. Yet, we have the tendency to cling to (either attach to or reject) such experiences depending on whether we react to them as pleasant or unpleasant. The right set of internal conditions allows us to relate to these experiences in a more skillful way; to appreciate and enjoy pleasant experiences without attaching to them while recognizing unpleasant experiences as an inevitable part of life and impermanence.

Similarly, political activism aimed at changing social structures which comprise key external conditions in our lives is an important mode of human flourishing. An approach to politics which is mindful, wise, and compassionate enables us to be passionately involved in efforts to transform external conditions and achieve social justice without being consumed by ego-driven anger at our perceived enemies or requiring that our results always be successful. With the right internal conditions, our political activity becomes more productive and consistent with the ends that we seek. We are also able to avoid burn-out and sustain our activism in the long-term.

And yet, as important as internal conditions are to flourishing, to ignore or diminish the impact of external conditions on our ability to live a good life is deeply mistaken. My good dharma buddy and comrade, Katya de Kadt, recently posed the question: Can a mother in Sudan who has a four-year-old starving child flourish as a human being? Although this seems like an extreme situation, a significant percentage of human beings experiences conditions of privation, harm, and mistreatment; this is not a hypothetical matter for several billion people on this planet. The short answer is that, while every human being has the capacity to flourish and can, under the worst conditions, flourish to some extent, it’s virtually impossible for someone facing desperate material and political conditions to flourish in any meaningful sense. To believe otherwise, we have to ignore the deep impact that so-called external conditions have on our life experience.

In truth, internal and external conditions are not separate spheres of existence but an important conceptual distinction we make to understand the ‘causes and conditions’ that affect us.  In that respect, we need to see them as interconnected, mutually conditioned aspects of our lives. External conditions profoundly affect internal conditions and vice versa. Thus, to flourish in this world, we need to develop simultaneously certain internal and external conditions which support and sustain each other in a synergistic way as part of creating a good, meaningful life. Karsten Struhl, Katya de Kadt, and I put the matter in this way:

The reduction of suffering and the promotion of human flourishing requires the simultaneous and mutually interactive processes of individual transformation and collective action to achieve an egalitarian, cooperative, and compassionate society that is in harmony with the rest of nature. In short, it requires the construction of an ecosocialist, anti-racist, and anti-patriarchal society. To achieve this, we need to make transformative changes at both the individual and societal levels. The ‘personal’ and the ‘political’ spheres of life are mutually related and equally important to the process of transformation.

For example, to the extent that we can transform ourselves through meditative practices, we can be more effective in our political practice and can further develop our sensitivity and motivation to engage in activities whose goal is to alleviate human suffering and the suffering of other species. At the same time, our political practice should aim not just at social transformation but at individual transformation. With this understanding, mindfulness practice is itself a component of political praxis and political praxis becomes a component of mindfulness.

Slott, de Kadt, and Struhl, 2022

Creating a flourishing life requires us to cultivate internal conditions for real happiness while transforming external conditions so that they both reinforce such conditions and provide the material, cultural, and political supports for a dignified, meaningful, and happy life.

Dimensions of human flourishing: a tentative outline

Recognizing that the internal and external conditions for flourishing can never be established in some complete or perfect form and that we will always need to be working toward their realization, I’d like to offer an outline of the key dimensions of human flourishing. In what follows, I bring together the insights from several perspectives to identify a broad range of human capacities which contribute to a flourishing life.  

Physical/sensual – Actualizing our body’s potential for a robust engagement in the world; making the body as strong, potent, and healthy as it can be under the circumstances, both internal and external; the ability to experience sensations fully and mindfully in the present (e.g., to enjoy what is pleasant but not get attached to it)

Intellectual/mental  - Actualizing our cognitive capacities to the fullest extent possible to understand ourselves, others, and the world;  developing the ability for creative thought to solve problems and discover new ways of understanding the world; using our mental capacities (and emotions) to imagine and create works of art and culture.

Imagination/play – Actualizing our capacity for spontaneous, voluntary, pleasurable and flexible activity done for its own sake.

Productive, social labor – Actualizing our mental, physical, and emotional capacities to work together with others to create goods and services which meet human needs; developing our capacity for autonomy and creativity in workplace settings; and participating in self-governing, workplace structures to determine production processes, materials, and goals.

Emotional intimacy/interconnection – Actualizing our natural tendencies toward sociality, cooperation, and love to relate to others in a kind way; developing deep relationships of love and support with family members and close friends while recognizing the inevitable pains of loss and disappointment in all human relationships.

Participation in social groups – Actualizing our capacity and need to belong to social groups; recognizing others and being recognized in turn as valuable human beings entitled to respect and dignity; and finding support and protection through participation in social groups.

Political involvement and activism – Actualizing our capacity to take part in democratic decision-making processes to determine public policies and goals as a citizen; engaging with others in democratic movements to solve social, economic, and political problems, ranging from reforms to the radical transformation of oppressive and exploitative structures.

Meaning/spiritual – Actualizing our human capacity to consider what are our most important goals and commitments in this finite life, to challenge ourselves to identify our  ultimate values. (In his book This Life, Martin Hagglund calls this our ‘spiritual freedom’, our ability to see the purposes  of our life as a subject of normative inquiry, rather than as the product of natural instincts.)

Experience of ‘oneness’ or the non-dual – Actualizing at certain moments our capacity to experience our life less dualistically (as a me and the ‘outside’ of me); being present in the world in a full way with less ego involvement; and experiencing the wonder and mystery of life, what Stephen Batchelor calls the everyday sublime.

Relationship to nature – Actualizing our capacity to recognize our interconnectedness with nature; appreciating the value of the biosphere and all beings that we live with; and understanding that the flourishing of human beings cannot occur unless we treat non-human nature with care and respect.

Final Comments

In offering these remarks on human flourishing, I am not trying to create another ultimate goal as a secular alternative to the notion of nirvana as the complete and permanent release from suffering. Nor do I want the list above to be seen as a ‘checklist’ of life tasks which we must accomplish if we want to be truly happy.

Human flourishing is not some final, perfect end. It’s a process in which each individual can develop their human capacities for a good life in ways that are most valuable to them while contributing to the flourishing of all human beings and the wellbeing of non-human beings. By integrating the Buddhist emphasis on cultivating the internal conditions for flourishing with Nussbaum and Marx’s insights about the essential external conditions, we can begin to construct a practical theory of human flourishing that recognizes a comprehensive set of human capacities, as well as the integral connection between individual flourishing and a socially just society. 


Aristotle, Robert C. Bartlett, and Susan D. Collins (2011), Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Chicago ; London: University of Chicago Press.

Batchelor, Stephen (2015), After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Leopold, David (2020), Karl Marx and the Capabilities Approach. In E. Chiappero-Martinetti, S. Osmani, & M. Qizilbash (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of the Capability Approach.

Marx, Karl (1972), ‘The German Ideology: Part I’, In Robert Tucker (ed), The Marx-Engels Reader, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.  

Marx, Karl (1976), Capital, v.1, New York: Penguin Books.

Nussbaum. Martha (2003), ‘Capabilities as Fundamental Entitlements: Sen and Social Justice,’ Feminist Economics 9 (2-3), pp. 33-59.

Slott, Mike (2018),  Core elements of a secular and socially-engaged Buddhism - https://secularbuddhistnetwork.org/core-elements-of-a-secular-and-socially-engaged-buddhism/

Slott, Mike, de Kadt, Katya, and Struhl, Karsten (2022), The core life tasks and beliefs for a radically engaged Buddhist - https://secularbuddhistnetwork.org/the-core-beliefs-and-life-tasks-for-a-radically-engaged-buddhist/



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4 Replies to “What is human flourishing?”

Thanks so much for this comprehensive survey of the philosophical principles underlying the concept of human flourishing, Mike. Your proposed outline of the dimensions of flourishing is such a useful, accessible synthesis of the thinking of Aristotle, Marx, and Nussbaum – one that will no doubt be of great service to all who continue exploring this concept in the future.

I would like to invite a further discussion of one particular theme you raised toward the end of your essay. In addressing Katya de Kadt’s excellent question as to whether a mother in Sudan with a starving four-year-old child can flourish as a human being, you note that “a significant percentage of human beings experiences conditions of privation, harm, and mistreatment; this is not a hypothetical matter for several billion people on this planet.” I think that we cannot properly answer the question for this one individual Sudanese mother without placing her within the context of those several billion people you rightly refer to. With the world already awash in so much human misery as it is right now, and with the increasing number of people being newly plunged into such unimaginable suffering by the latest catastrophic climate event, or by the latest atrocity of war, or by whatever unspeakable hardship either their government or their geography inflicts upon them, I wonder if this can possibly be the appropriate time for Secular Buddhism to be focusing on the promotion of human flourishing.

Mike Slott


I appreciate your comment. Unless the notion of human flourishing is strongly linked with the essential need to create the social and material supports for human flourishing, as well as the injunction to reduce suffering, it has the connotation of being a process of self-development for the privileged few. As you know, that is far from what I intended in my attempt to lay out a broader framework for human flourishing. For me, human flourishing entails both individual transformation and the collective effort to create the social, economic, and political conditions in which all people can flourish.


Many thanks for this excellent summary, overview and orientation … i think we’ve both just completed the 4 week course / workshop run by Stephen Bachelor on his emerging approach to ‘mindfulness based (human) flourishing’ and i wish i’d read your article ahead of that as it would have primed my capacity to creatively and critically engage with that exploratory project. I like the way you come to a tentative conclusion by observing the Buddhist teachings on flourishing sit well as a particular contribution to a bigger wisdom with other contributors seeing the issue from different, more social or political viewpoints but without feeling the need to refract one set of observations through the other … at this point in history we can look at the collective wisdom from confluent streams of human thought and insight … what i like to call ‘universal dharma’ … thank you.


Great article. The eightfold path interpreted through a modern day western lens.

Flourishing as a normative, ideational end state presents more opportunities for institutional and inter & intra-personal conflict and dukkha, whereas a view of flourishing as a culturally non-proprietary set of interdependent universal processes enables it to organically express and discover itself as internal and external values are realized. The map is not the destination. The triple gem becomes crucial.

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