The natural essence of (human) flourishing

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Evolution has much to teach us about what it means to be human and naturally flourish. In this article we explore how a new, globally emerging psychology is mirroring the way nature thrives to unleash whole person and whole planet potential.

Life on earth has been evolving and flourishing for an estimated 3.8 billion years. To get your head around this time scale – imagine that we compressed the whole history of evolution into a 24-hour day. The story begins at 4am when the first signs of life emerge in the form of single cells. It’s not until 1pm that these cells cohered to create the first cells with internal organelles. At 6:30pm, these life forms created communities and multicellular life is born. At 8:30pm, sea plants begin to thrive and 20 mins later sea life flourishes and incredible diversification takes place. The first signs of above ground plant life appear just before 10pm, follow by an explosion in land populations. At 10:24pm the first insects appear. Reptiles dominate with less than an hour left. Then come the dinosaurs, until 11:41pm when they suddenly disappear. It’s not until 11:58pm, that humans first evolved from our mammal ancestors, and from there all of recorded human history takes place in the last few seconds before midnight. What this implies is quite profound: If we are willing to look and listen, the story of evolution has great wisdom to share about what it means to be human and naturally flourish.  

Natural patterns

“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” – Albert Einstein

It is now understood that evolution was not so much the result of a competitive struggle, but – as a cooperative expression of creativity. Life has constantly reached out into novelty to adapt, innovate and regenerate.

When we look deeply into nature, it’s clear to see that wellbeing and flourishing cannot be understood in isolation. Nature doesn’t thrive because everything tries to grow and reach its potential independently of each other. That would end in disaster and ecological collapse. Rather, flourishing it’s an interrelated systemic property, the result of a complex web of contributive relationships. Plants, roots, soil systems, water flows, nutrient cycles, insects, mammals and seasonal variations all co-contributing to the healthy and resilient functioning of the whole ecosystem. This is the natural story of what it means to be well and thrive.

Interwoven contribution is the natural rule—the natural pattern—that makes the entire web of life thrive.

Contribution unites and elevates everything within an ecosystem. Flourishing occurs when there is rich diversity self-organising and performing in concert – where each element is able to play a unique and valuable role in the healthy functioning and continued unfolding of another. To really bring this point home, think about your body. We are the most complex expression of life on this planet. Inside you, you have an estimated 37 trillion cells that all self-organise in contributive relationships to keep you alive, all day, every day. Every one of these cells only exist because they evolved from a great many contributive relationships that occurred over the past 3.8 billion years. That’s a humbling amount of contribution, coming together to make you, uniquely you.  

Towards a new psychology of (human) flourishing

Last year I got really excited by this evolutionary story – because it mirrored what I was seeing while researching the emergence of a new mindset. A new psychology of human flourishing – the Benefit Mindset. Building on Carol Dweck’s Fixed and Growth Mindset, the Benefit Mindset describes society’s everyday leaders who promote wellbeing on both an individual and a collective level.   

While it’s extremely important that every person learns how to grow and uniquely differentiate themselves, everyday leaders recognise this is best done by contributing to society and global ecosystems. They acknowledge that humans can’t thrive in isolation, but rather, thriving is something we must do together. As a result, everyday leaders recognise that to genuinely contribute, they need to cultivate a mindful awareness of how our inner lives – our values, beliefs and higher purpose – and the world out there can become partners in each other’s flourishing. Quality contribution is only possible when there is a rich interplay between who we are being as people and the healthy functioning of the systems we are apart. What’s really exciting to see is that the Benefit Mindset is showing up around the world as part of new movements in the fields of sustainability, business and education. Specifically, in sustainability, this includes the Net Positive, Living Building and Regenerative Development movements that stand to reinvent the way we inhabit the earth.  

There is no such thing as human flourishing without ecological flourishing.  

For some, being an everyday leader has fundamentally changed the way they see their place in the world. It’s leading to some profound evolutionary insights and awakenings, namely the realisation that we as humans, are nature – and that we are agents of evolution. If we want the gifts of life to continue to flow, we must continue to make unique and novel contributions to the ever changing web of live. We are interconnected and inseparable partners in each other’s flourishing. Therefore, flourishing in a human context doesn’t mean the pursuit of success, happiness or growth – as it is often referred to as meaning in psychology and the wellbeing sciences. It means creating cultures of high-quality, mutually-beneficial contribution. How each of us can uniquely be of value, and the quality of our contributions is the natural essence of human flourishing.  

Humans flourishing in concert with evolution

 “To regain our full humanity, we have to regain our connectedness with the entire web of life.” – Fritjof Capra  

Let’s go back to the story of evolution. What does being human and flourishing mean to you in this context? Can you see a meaningful role for yourself in its ongoing unfolding towards greater unity and wholeness? Just imagine what would be possible if your whole community or organisation wholeheartedly embraced a Benefit Mindset. Imagine living in a society that believed in supporting the evolution of life on earth. Imagine everybody flourishing in concert with each other and nature. That’s a world I’d like to live in. If you’d like to share, please leave a comment below, send me an email, or find me on Twitter.

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