The 12 traits of “flourishers”

This is one of the many gems from sociologist Corey Keyes‘s keynote at the 6th Conference on Emerging Adulthood. He was explaining the concept of flourishers: those individuals who report that “every day” or “almost every day” they experience happiness, but less so for emotional reasons (feeling happy) than from psychological and social ones (positive functioning). He listed out the twelve traits that are much more pronounced in flourishers than the rest of the population, and I’m eager to share them with you:

Flourishers…

  • don’t procrastinate
  • have a high degree of self-control 
  • feel highly capable
  • are deliberate (They know what they want out of life.)
  • have a high disposition to apologize (At this point I start raising my eyebrows because I’m five for five.)
  • have a malleable mindset about their own intelligence (They know that they don’t know everything and are open to being wrong.)
  • have higher levels of curiosity (They like to explore and expose themselves to new and challenging situations.)
  • they have an OCEAN personality
    • open (Again, they’re intellectually curious and open to novelty.)
    • conscientious (Again, they are disciplined and planful.)
    • extroverted (This is where I start docking points.) (Also, why do psychologists spell it with an ‘A’?)
    • agreeable (They’re compassionate and cooperative.)
    • not neurotic (Go ahead and dock some more points here.)
  • have an initiative for personal growth (They want to grow and they have a plan for how to go about it.)
  • learn from adversity
  • are motivated by mastery of the process rather than the outcome (They aren’t motivated by money; they’re all about the journey.)
  • feel loved and cared for

Keyes delineates these traits because he is committed to promoting a concept of mental health that is more solid and robust than our current understanding of it as the “absence of mental illness.” He suggests that we design our interventions with an eye to cultivating these traits in our young people. If we truly want to set them up for a life beyond subsistence or even “settling” (this is Keyes’s term for the complacency of the merely “happy”), then we must go above and beyond independent living and job skills and aim for the personal and professional fulfillment of our youth.

For this reason I especially like the last trait. One of the many things I admire about The Brotherhood/Sister Sol is the fact that they codify love in their theory of change and mission. We don’t talk about love with our young people nearly as much as we should.

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The importance of witnessing failure

There is so much I still have to process about the Conference on Emerging Adulthood, including how very different a social science conference is from all the literature conferences I’ve ever attended. Most striking of all was the lack of poor manners and bad behavior, and second to that was the fact that every grad student was accompanied by a research mentor.

I got into a conversation with one such pair following Corey Keyes‘s lovely keynote speech on happiness and mental health, during which he confessed to speaking openly with his students about his own struggle with depression. We were talking about how instructive it is for graduate students to hear their professors talk about struggling, making mistakes, and outright failing at things. The faculty supervisor was telling her student that during one internship she got to witness the top psychologists in the world hold therapy sessions. What was most illuminating for her were the instances when those big-name therapists failed to connect with their clients, missed things that she picked up on, or completely messed up in their responses. In my program, by contrast, our professors did little to dispel the myths that surrounded their ascension to academic stardom. I am not the only one who wondered how I would ever cross the bridge from project-less grad student to tenured professor.

Very late in the game, my advisor finally started to get it. We were sitting in his office, I was very close to tears over a chapter I was struggling to write, and he very gently observed, “I think that what you need from me isn’t academic direction, but a life coach.” By that time, however, I was already so dispirited and embittered, that no amount of comfort could change my mind about leaving academia after graduating. It’s amazing that I ever finished. The first of three times I seriously considered dropping out of my program, a professor I greatly admired met me for coffee and talked me off the ledge, saying that I was precisely the type of student NYU should work to retain and cultivate. For a period we enjoyed a certain kind of intellectual closeness, regularly trading emails with each other at four in the morning. But when she came up for tenure, it was as if that intimacy between us had never existed. Thus began my years- (years!) long search for another faculty mentor.

It’s a sweet little postscript that I now happen to be helping to strengthen the mentoring initiatives at NYU through its diversity and inclusion task force. As a casualty of grad school, I am committed to pushing for social and emotional supports for doctoral students. Research skills can be easily acquired. What isn’t readily learned are the skills necessary to cope with the long road to intellectual autonomy. More seasoned scholars would do their students a huge favor by being more transparent about the vicissitudes of their own professional journeys.