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Thriving broadly refers to the optimal development of life (Bundick et al., 2010). Because people change over the course of their lives, what is meant by thriving may also change. Thus, a developmental framework is necessary for understanding this concept. As Positive psychology has gained popularity in recent years (e.g., Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000), so has thriving.

Many in the field of positive psychology point to Martin Seligman’s 1998 APA Presidential Address as the formal introduction of positive psychology as a field of research and practice, in which scientists rigorously focus on gathering empirical evidence to study how humans thrive and flourish. Through this focus on thriving, psychologists in this field hope to understand how to help their clients not only manage their mental health problems, but also to find ways to lead the happiest, healthiest lives possible (Seligman, Rashid, & Park, 2006). In this way, psychology can be useful to each individual, regardless of their level of mental distress.

"Thriving refers to a dynamic and purposeful process of individual ←→ context interactions over time, through which the person and his/her environment are mutually enhanced" (Bundick et al., 2010, p. 891)
History of topic
  • 1897 - The Diseases of Infancy and Childhood introduces the term "thriving" to health terminology with the diagnosis of "failure to thrive" (FTT). This is a vague categorization used to describe an infant who does not grow at the expected rate due to organic or environmental reasons. FTT in infancy can negatively impact the individual throughout the lifespan. Thriving in infancy generally refers to physical benchmarks (height, weight, rolling over, sitting up, etc.) but the field is beginning to study the psychological, emotional, and social aspects of thriving as well.
  • In the 1990's, the positive psychology movement begins to use the concept of "thriving" as a counter-balance to psychology's intense focus on pathology, asking "What contributes to individual thriving?"
  • Around the turn of the millennium, many psychologists (e.g., Marty Seligman) take a strength-based perspective, focusing on thriving, character strengths, virtues, positive emotion, positive cultural institutions, life satisfaction etc.
  • Empirical research (described in later sections) on the topic includes scale development for constructs listed above.

What does develop?

Thriving is an active process (verb) that implies actual, observable growth, marked by successful and mutually beneficial engagement with others and one’s multiple levels of ecologies, along with forward motion on an upward developmental trajectory aimed toward a hopeful and purposeful future. A thriving orientation, which provides a descriptive status (adjective), suggests a point-in-time assessment of the developmental direction in which one appears to be pointed (i.e., toward a hopeful, positive future), as well as capacities of the person that might suggest positive growth (see also Benson & Scales, 2009). This emphasis on the developmental nature of thriving suggests that the appearance of well-being (or its lack) at a given point in time may not provide the necessary information on which to judge whether a person is optimally developing. Thus, a thriving orientation does not merely constitute point-in-time mental health or happiness but must also consider one’s developmental trajectory - a thriving developmental trajectory would point one toward a hopeful and purposeful future. For example, someone who enjoys and feels good about committing heinous criminal acts may not fall under the umbrella of life thriving - they may experience positive emotion in the moment of crime, but they are not thriving because their developmental trajectory does not point toward a hopeful and purposeful future - it points to a life of crime and prison.

Five Core Principles of Thriving

1. Thriving is an essentially developmental construct, which entails a general orientation toward and, over time, the realization of relatively stable movement along an upward (though perhaps nonlinear) life trajectory.

2. Thriving focuses on aspects of development beyond merely the absence of the negative, and beyond mere competence or simple achievement of developmental tasks—in this way, we might think of thriving as a theory of optimal development (not just adequate development).

3. Thriving refers to the functioning of the integrated, whole person across all life domains; thus, the term
implies personal balance, such that one is not considered to be thriving if he or she is functioning and
developing positively in one aspect or area of his or her life but having serious developmental problems in

4. Thriving recognizes the multidirectional nature of relations between person and context, through which both the individual and his or her contexts are mutually enhanced. This notion of mutual enhancement implies a moral component of thriving—when thriving individuals act on (and thus help create) their environments, they seek to in some way contribute to others and/or the multiple ecologies in which they are embedded. While it is at times difficult for an individual to effect change on their environment (especially if that environment is very impoverished), the thriving person will be endeavoring to do what is within the scope of their abilities to positively affect people and situations around them.

5. Thriving entails the engagement of one’s unique talents, interests, and/or aspirations. In this lies the assumption of one’s self-awareness of his or her uniquenesses, and the opportunities to purposefully manifest them. Through such engagement, one might be thought of as actively working toward fulfilling his or her full potential.

These principles of thriving are intended to function as general rules of thumb. Under their umbrella, at the person level, one can expect to find more specific psychosocial and behavioral indicators of thriving, such as future orientation; optimthriving.jpgism; openness to experience; the ability to adapt to new situations and regulate one’s emotions, thoughts, and actions; resilience in the face of

adversity; and a sense of meaning and purpose in one’s actions and decisions. The quest for a comprehensive list of individual indicators and capacities of thriving is ongoing. Also notable is that these principles of thriving may apply not only to individuals, but to families, communities, and societies as well. An ecological setting can develop positively just as can an individual; a community may engage in mutually enhancing relationships with both individuals and other communities, and in turn facilitate their thriving (see Lerner & Benson, 2003).

It can be said that thriving develops as positive emotions and positive traits and within context and despite context. Positive emotions develop as an orientation toward happiness, life satisfaction, prosocial behavior, and subjective well-being. Positive traits encompass virtuous character strength that intrinsically shape the individual across the lifespan. Within context thriving refers to flourishing across one's roles in life. For example, a female who excels in different capacities as a mother, a lawyer, a daughter, a friend, and a coach can be said to be realizing a meaningful, progressive existence. This same female may feel inadequate as a partner and strive to achieve better balance between those roles in an attempt reach overall thriving. Despite context surpasses the concept of resilience in that an adverse event in life may progress an individual on a positive trajectory beyond their level of general well-being previous to the adverse event. This is termed post-traumatic growth (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1995)

What are the mechanisms of development?

In adult development of thriving, primary control is directed toward influencing and shaping the external world, to bring it in closer accordance with one’s desires; in this way, it is thought to be instrumental, or primary. If the primary control strategies fail to change the environment, secondary control kicks in; this control mechanism is instead focused internally, and involved changing one’s goals or individual standards, or perhaps drawing on self-protective strategies. According to Heckhausen and Schulz (1995), adaptive functioning and development occurs when primary control is operational; simply put, people are better off being able to change their environments to suit them than having to change themselves (e.g., their goals, priorities, attributions) to suit their environments. However, in late adulthood, for most people, primary control becomes more difficult as a function of normal age-related decline in functioning, so secondary control strategies become more salient and more important.

Common methodology

The ideas of virtue, thriving, and flourishing wasextrapolated across time and culture in order to scientifically define this construct for psychological study. The result was profound in successfully structuring virtue into a measureable framework of those behaviors that are indicative of living prosperously (Peterson & Seligman, 2004; Dahlsgaard et al, 2005). This three-tier framework (see below) makes the empirical analysis of virtue and character strengths possible (Peterson & Seligman, 2004; Fowers, 2005). Virtue, termed in singular form, is the over-arching, all-encompassing idea of praiseworthy and ideal behavior in humans. On the next rung are virtues, or those means to attaining the larger concept of virtue. Character strengths include those more specific human behaviors that, in conjunction with other positive traits, make up virtues. The classification introduced by Peterson and Seligman (2004) is comprised of six virtues and twenty-four corresponding character strengths based on the cultural review by Dahlsgaard and colleagues (2005).



Positive psychologists classified virtues into six broad, intrinsic qualities encompassing corresponding character strengths. The cross-cultural and interdisciplinary review of literature (Dahlsgaard et al., 2005) twenty-four strengths of character for the six virtues. The strengths for each related virtue were determined through identifying behaviors consistent with virtuous conduct. The CSV consists of six virtues and twenty-four corresponding character strengths, outlined by Peterson and Seligman (2004) as follows:


The number of character strengths corresponding with each virtue is unparallel. An individual does not necessarily need to possess all character strengths included in a particular virtue to be considered transcendent, courageous, or humane, etc. (Seligman et al., 2005). One might achieve the virtue of transcendence by demonstrating religiosity, appreciating the beauty of the world, and/or being gracious through their actions in life.

Peterson and Seligman (2004) developed this classification with empiricism in mind. The Values-in-Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS; Peterson and Seligman 2004) is the most widely studied measurement of character strengths. This measure was created in direct proportion with the constructs of virtue and thriving outlined by the CSV in their classification. The measure has been used in many studies in an attempt to identify and assess the virtues and character strengths in individuals across cultures and development.

Issues of diversity external image thrive1.jpg

Studies have been undertaken to study character strengths in various populations in relation to well-being and thriving. Researchers did a large study on a sample of over 17,000 individuals from the United Kingdom via the Internet using the VIA Inventory of Strengths (Linley, Maltby, Wood, Joseph, Harrington et. al., 2007). The top character strengths for this cultural population were open-mindedness, fairness, curiosity, love of learning, and creativity. They found that women in their sample typically scored higher than men overall, especially on the strengths of kindness and love. Men tended to score higher on creativity, though on the rest of the top five character strengths, there was no difference between genders. The researchers did point out that there were more similarities between genders than differences, and the effect sizes on the differences were small, so the differences should not be overstated. These results were similar to the gender differences found in a study using a Japanese sample of young adults suggesting that men and women scored differently on the strengths of kindness, love, bravery, and creativity (Shimai et. al., 2006). A study on the validity of character strengths across cultures found many similarities but also several differences between cultural groups (Biswas-Diener, 2006). Over 120 Kenyan Masai, over 70 Inughuit in Northern Greenland, and over 500 University of Illinois students were surveyed using the VIA Inventory of Strengths. Respondents in each culture acknowledged the importance of all 24 character strengths, despite how vastly different each culture is from the other. However, the groups varied in which character strengths they considered most important in their cultures. In a study focusing on combat veterans, researchers studied the relationship of social anxiety and PTSD to well-being and character strengths (Kashdan et. al., 2006). They found that veterans with social anxiety tended to report low levels of well-being and scored low on character strength assessments. Steen, Kachorek, and Peterson (2003) held group discussions with over 450 students from various high schools in Michigan to explore this age group’s ideas about character strengths and their importance.

Since the field of positive psychology is still in its relative infancy, many issues of diversity in relation to thriving still need to be studied, particularly for minority populations in the US.

Current issues in the topic area

Researchers in the field are currently studying ways in which environments, cultures, and developmental processes influence individual thriving. Given the great diversity of the human experience, researchers are also pressed to find universal themes common to human thriving across cultures, sub-cultures, and groups. Along those lines, researchers strive to develop measures that will bring scientific rigor to the field and create an empirical base of knowledge about thriving.

Relevant Developmental Outcomes and Implications

Keyes (2007) outlines different dimensions on which to consider the context of flourishing throughout the lifespan. As we explore the different developmental time periods, think about how each dimension might look different in childhood and adolescence or young and old adulthood.


external image S11.jpgThriving in Infancy
Thriving in infancy has mostly been understood, as previously mentioned, as a failure to thrive (FTT). While there is no agreement on the exact definition of FTT, it generally refers to when an infant fails to develop (physically or mentally) at a normal rate because of organic or environmental reasons. While evidence suggests that FTT has implications for physical development across the lifespan, its implications for cognitive development remain less clear (Boddy, Skuse, & Andrews, 2000). Research on attachment, however, may prove more promising regarding thriving research and more specifically, thriving as it relates to relationships. For example, positive parent-child interactions may set the stage for the development of certain character strengths later in life (Park, 2004).

Thriving in Childhood
Progression through cognitive and psychosocial development (think Piaget and Erickson), achievement of age-relevant tasks, and the development of competencies are most commonly related to thriving in childhood. While Piaget, Erikson, and other developmental theorists have examined how children optimally develop in a limited way (e.g., just cognitive development, just psychosocial development), none specifically address children's orientation and optimism about the future, self-exploration, engagement in interests and aspirations, and capacity to positively benefit others and to benefit from their surroundings. Competency has often been studied alongside resiliency and refers to good adaptation in the absence of adversity. Resilience, on the other hand, refers to good adaptation in the face of adversity. According to thriving theorists, children may thrive either in the absence or presence of adversity.

A TED Talk about how youth thrive. Ignore this guy's hairstyle.

Thriving in Adolescence
Much of the thriving-related research in adolescence has been studied from the positive youth development (PYD) approach. PYD researchers have examined developmental assets (e.g., support, empowerment) and their relationship to later negative problems such as engaging in risky external image 6a00e553c01b4b88330120a92cf1c0970b-800wisexual activity, gambling, substance. These assets have also been examined in relationship to later positive behaviors such as academic achievement. As expected, the presence of developmental assets are negatively correlated with negative behaviors and positively correlated with positive behaviors (Leffert et al., 1998; Scales et al., 2000).

Thriving in Adulthood
Park and Peterson (2006b) uncovered some possible developmental differences in their cross-sectional study comparing adolescents’ and adults’ scores on the Values in Action survey measure of character strengths. They showed that the character strengths of hope, teamwork, and zest are relatively more common in adolescence, and appreciation of beauty, authenticity, leadership, and open-mindedness are relatively more common in adulthood. They noted that these latter strengths may require more advanced maturation. The authors also explored some
differences in the relation between character strengths and life satisfaction in the adolescent versus the adult years. Results showed that whereas life satisfaction is highly correlated with the strengths of zest, hope, love, wisdom, social intelligence, self-regulation, and perseverance across all ages, teamwork and prudence are more powerful predictors of life satisfaction in young people than in adults, and curiosity and spirituality are better predictors of life satisfaction for adults than for young people. Following from these findings, Park (2004) suggested that positive youth development programs should strategically target those strengths that have demonstrated associations with life satisfaction.

Thriving in Late Adulthood

Paul Baltes and his colleagues (Baltes, 1987, 1997; Baltes & Baltes, 1980) are often credited with laying the groundwork for much of the theory and research on positive development in the late mature years. Previously, the psychosocial and medical literature on late adult and life-span development had largely grouped the late mature years into two groups: “normal,” which represented the typical late adult development where losses are expected; and “diseased,” an unfortunate but functional categorization of those who suffered from subnormal development. Baltes (1987), Rowe and Kahn (1987), and others observed the signifi cant variability of functioning among those in the “normal” category, and challenged the idea that the two categories captured all of the meaningful differences in development during the late adult years. From this, normal late adult development was bifurcated into “usual” and “successful” late adult development. “Usual” might be thought of as akin to the notion of “adequate” development or “competence” in the youth development literature; it represents what is expected, no worse and no better. However, “successful” late development described those who developed along trajectories “above the curve”—they were more vibrant, in better physical health, demonstrated above-average cognitive skills, and felt in more control of their lives. “Successful” late adult developers were also found to have stronger systems of social support. According to Rowe and Kahn (1998), there are three main characteristics of successful late adult developers: (1) low risk for disease and disability, (2) high cognitive and physical functioning, and (3) active engagement with life.
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Strengths and weaknesses of current knowledge and methodology

  • shift in focus away from psychopathology of human form
  • solid research supporting benefits of proactive positive youth development
  • research provides framework for which to study the concept of thriving and flourishing

  • subjectivity of the construct; can be construed under many contextual, cultural, interpersonal, and intrapersonal ways
  • different cultural definitions what it means to thrive (i.e., the tallest blade of grass is sure to be cut)
  • establishing well-defined and consensual definition of behavioral and psychosocial indicators of thriving