Human Flourishing and the Arts in Unprecedented Times: Part II

In this two-part series, we explore the burgeoning field of human flourishing (or simply “flourishing”), and its real-world arts- and aesthetics-based applications for bettering our physical and mental well-being. 

If someone asked if you were flourishing, what would you say? How about if someone asked if you could flourish? How might you respond?

In Part I of this series, we learned that the definition of the word flourishing is “to grow luxuriantly,” with its Latin roots in the blooming plants of nature. Matthew T. Lee, Research Associate and Director of the Human Flourishing Program’s Flourishing Network at Harvard University and Professor of Social Sciences and Humanities at Baylor University, further defined human flourishing for us as “a relative attainment of a state in which all aspects of a person’s life are good, including the contexts in which that person lives.”

This begs the question: Can we still flourish when we’re struggling? The Director of the Paul McHugh Program for Human Flourishing and Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Dr. Margaret S. Chisolm, certainly thinks so.

In her latest book, From Survive to Thrive: Living Your Best Life with Mental Illness, Chisolm mentions something researchers call the “flourishing index” – six key life domains of happiness and health identified as a way to approximate someone’s level of well-being. But she reminds us it’s not necessary to be completely satisfied in every life domain all of the time in order to flourish. “Few of us can achieve that,” she quips. Instead, she makes her views – and the thesis of her book – clear: “[Y]ou can still flourish even if you are struggling psychologically, have been diagnosed with a mental illness, or are experiencing adverse life events.”

How to Flourish

Knowing when to reach out is one of the first steps toward flourishing when we’re struggling. Chisolm explains that when we are suffering from severe addiction, acute mental illness, or are in some other form of crisis, it is imperative to seek help. “If you’re spending all your time thinking about how you’re going to get your next meal, or if you’re not able to get your next meal, you’re not really available to learn, or to have time to nourish these other aspects of your life.” But once that crisis is resolved – or at least in the process of getting resolved – it frees our minds to focus on one of the next steps toward better well-being: better knowing ourselves.

Creating art is an inherently expressive act, which often leads to self-discovery and self-knowledge – a kind of therapy through the arts. In fact, a 2019 review of 86 studies found that creative arts therapies (music therapy, in particular) are likely good for many aspects of our neurological well-being, from improving brain plasticity and encouraging white matter development to increasing myelination – the process by which nerves grow insulating sheaths (myelin) that help them transmit electrical signals faster and more efficiently.

Even reading can bring self-reflection and empathy. “Once you’re able to read, then you can learn on your own,” says Chisolm. “Things that are beyond your own world, things that are beyond your own experiences: you can expand – multiply – your experiences by reading about the experiences of others.” She emphasizes the importance of connection here. “You can connect to people in other times. You can connect to fictional characters that have universal truths that can be extracted about what it means to be human” – and what it means to be human means interrogating our lives from multiple perspectives.

As we learn more about ourselves from personal and family histories, the traits of our personalities, our behavioral patterns, and even how our biology and environment affect us, we can usually begin to see where changes are needed. If we learn that multiple family members were diagnosed with schizophrenia by their early thirties, for instance, we can look out for signs of the disease in the future or recognize current patterns in our behavior, seeking out diagnosis and medical treatment if necessary. Viewing our lives through different perspectives like this, “can help us understand what’s holding us back, which in turn can often enable us to move forward,” Chisolm writes. And the way forward, she has routinely found, is through pursuing goals, self-agency, and social connection.

Social Connection

Humans are social animals, after all. Both a cliché and a truism, this idea hearkens back to Aristotle’s Politics as well as our evolutionary past. One of the leading theories for why we have such large brains is that our ancestors had a penchant for complex social systems and deep pair bonding. In other words, our brains literally evolved to be social. It makes sense that when we are depressed and alone, suffering from rejection or are otherwise isolated, it can actually feel painful.

According to one important study published in Nature Neuroscience, when we experience episodes of social isolation, our brains may think we are being threatened and set off our “neural alarm system.” This system activates certain regions in our brains related to harm or danger, like the amygdala, which responds to threats, and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), the anterior insula, and the periaqueductal gray (PAG), each of which processes threat and pain. When we are socially connected, however, our brains activate their neural rewards system. This system releases pleasant neuropeptides like oxytocin and other natural opioids that simultaneously increases social bonding and caregiving as well as weakens that neural threat response. In other words, as we become more isolated, we are more likely to feel threatened and feel the sting of rejection or loneliness when it comes.

But when we connect and care for others in times of hardship – especially through the arts – we can mitigate those feelings and reaffirm a sense of social connectedness. Through movement and dance, we can build neural synchrony with each other. Listening and performing music with a group can lead to better social cohesion and bonding, while painting a mural or creating public art together can improve individual and community well-being. Even reading poetry together or taking part in a spoken word performance yields mental health benefits.

Rebuilding Agency Through Reappraisal and Goal Pursuit 

While social connection is essential to maintaining our health, managing our individual well-being is also key. One of the biggest factors for encouraging individual growth during times of hardship, says Chisolm, seems to be about restoring a sense of agency in people, or the feeling that we have at least partial control over the direction of our lives. “Some people are so beaten down, they feel like there’s almost nothing they can do to make a difference in their own life,” she says. “Sometimes by showing people in little ways how they can be successful in making some changes in their own sense of agency, those little successes can build on one another so that they feel more empowered to advocate for themselves in certain situations.” And even establishing a sense of agency in using the arts – whether as simple as doodling or engaging in therapeutic journaling – can even help us recalibrate and build momentum within.

But before many of us can begin building momentum from those little successes, we may have to battle through thoughts and feelings of failure. This is a common issue. Chisolm says it can be hard to do at first, but teaching yourself to reframe these negative thoughts can be helpful. “There might be opportunity for learning,” she says, and references substance abuse as an example. If you have repeatedly tried to quit drinking, for instance, reframe it in your mind as grit or persistence instead of failure. “You’re able to get back up – that’s telling you something about yourself and your character.”

In psychology, this method of reinterpreting thoughts to elicit different emotions from the ones we initially experience is known as cognitive reappraisal. It is a central tenet of emotional regulation in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Over the last two decades, many studies have shown its efficacy in treating all sorts of ailments, from phobias and addictions to anxiety and depression. This, of course, increases feelings of self-agency, which then encourages us to set more ambitious goals toward growth.

Tying It All Together

In her book, Chisolm writes extensively about the different pathways we can pursue to flourish when we struggle: family, work, education, and community. Each path offers its own unique reward for following it, but they’re all underscored by the psychological importance of social connection, agency, and goal pursuit. And they all lead to better well-being – to flourishing. The arts and aesthetic practices also serve as a key pathway to flourishing in unprecedented times; whether singing the radio or with others, tapping into curiosity, or simply spending time in nature, taking small steps in implementing these practices and activating these pathways sets us up to flourish. “It’s gonna be a long distance for some people, but you know, one foot in front of the other,” says Chisolm. “I have seen people do remarkable things.”

If you or a loved one are in crisis, call 988 or consult the following resources that may be of service:

Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: 

Call or text 988 or visit online at 

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Hotline: 

Call 800-662-HELP (4357) or use their online treatment locator service at 

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 

Call 800-799-SAFE (7233) or visit online at 

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 

Call 800-656-HOPE (4673) or chat online at 

Veterans Crisis Line: 

Call 988 and press 1, text 838255, or chat online at 

National Health and Human Services:

State Social Services:

Lead image: Image by nappy / Pexels 

This is Part II in a series focused on human flourishing. 

Written and reported by Rachel Lense. Rachel is a freelance science writer who enjoys exploring how science, nature, and technology intersect with culture, now and throughout history.

Art Therapy Creativity Flourishing Mental Health Nature Psychology Visual Arts Wellbeing