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The Complete Guide to Thriving, Compiled By Scientists

Thriving is a special kind of success with its own unique elements. Find out how it's done.

If you’re reading this, you’re doing alright and can apparently survive. But do you know what it takes to thrive?

Some people seem to blossom in all conditions. They perform well, rise to challenges, and overcome obstacles. Instead of getting totally stressed out, they appear to enjoy the challenges and even personally evolve. Now you too can be one of those people by using a new, comprehensive definition of human thriving published in the journal European Psychologist.

The first 21st century edition of American Psychologist was dedicated to the burgeoning field of “positive psychology” and predicted that psychology would gravitate away from the study of malaise and toward wellness, figuring out how to thrive rather than just survive. Since then, countless studies on wellness have been published in scientific journals. Yet scientists haven’t reached a consensus on what it actually means to thrive.

To come closer to a unified understanding of this elusive state, researchers from the universities of Bath and Portsmouth in the UK reviewed 13 influential studies on the topic published between 1995 and 2014 to find commonalities in all their definitions of “thriving.” They also attempted to isolate the essential elements of the state of thriving that could apply across all ages and whatever the domain, whether work, school, sports, the military, or the arts. In the end, the team broadly defined thriving as “the joint experience of development and success.”

The word “thrive” is derived from the Old Norse word thrifta, meaning “to grasp.” In Middle English, “thrive” meant “to increase or grow.” The English definition of “thrive” today is basically the same; the word is used synonymously with positive terms like “prosper,” “flourish,” “blossom,” and “succeed.”

Yet thriving is also quite specific; it may involve resilience, for example, but doesn’t just refer to overcoming obstacles or arise out of hardships. And it’s distinguished from prospering, say, because thriving involves evolution whereas prospering only denotes success, especially financial.

In other words, if you’re just coasting, doing the unchallenging thing that you do well, you’re not thriving because you’re not developing. Similarly, if you’re performing well and trying tough stuff but you’re perpetually stressed and not enjoying yourself, that’s success of a kind but doesn’t count as thriving.

To attain the optimal state of thriving, says lead researcher Daniel Brown, a psychology lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, a person must possess some (but not necessarily all) of the following characteristics:

  • optimism
  • motivation
  • proactivity
  • enjoyment of learning
  • flexibility
  • adaptability
  • spirituality or religiosity
  • social competency
  • self-esteem

It’s not a precise recipe; a lot of motivation and flexibility might work as well for one person as more diverse mix of, say optimism, proactivity, adaptability, and spirituality does for another.

“[Thriving] appears to come down to an individual experiencing a sense of development, of getting better at something, and succeeding at mastering something,” Brown said in a statement. “In the simplest terms, what underpins it is feeling good about life and yourself and being good at something.”

But even that’s not enough. To thrive requires certain external elements to line up in the right way. Even if you cultivate the right mental state, you’ll still need some help in the form of the following:

  • opportunity
  • bonds with people and support
  • manageable challenges
  • a stable environment
  • a high degree of autonomy

That said, you can thrive in one area—work, artistic or leisure pursuits, relationships, sports, personal goals—while still struggling in others. And you can have times where the right attitudes and conditions align and you totally thrive, even for a brief period.