Matt Bloom’s profile from the University of Notre Dame lists him as the “Principle Investigator of the Wellbeing at Work Program.” Dr Bloom’s area of investigation has to do with those in caring professions, and how they might flourish in their lives. He says that flourishing is when what we do is a life-enriching experience rather than a life-depleting one. It seems that what he’s found may apply particularly to those in helping professions, but really it extends beyond—to everyone who wants more out of life than just getting by. People in helping professions—counselors, doctors, or ministers for example—-may have particular challenges, but I suspect anyone who faithfully wants to be who God wants them to be should consider what it means to flourish. In many ways, our witness suffers when we are burdened by life.
Over the next few weeks, I’d like to use this space to share with you some of the insights that Dr Bloom has gathered regarding living a flourishing life. When Jesus tells us that he has come so we can have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10), I believe that He wants more for us than just adequacy. This is not some self-help positive thinking sort of idea; Bloom wanted to get at the core of what it means to be healthy, balanced, and fulfilled in our life, what he refers to as a sense of wellbeing. He has identified four primary components of wellbeing: having a good, everyday baseline of happiness, being resilient in the face of the dynamic changes in life, having a well-developed sense of self-integrity, and finally living a life marked by thriving. While each of these elements has a sociological label, they are not really concepts locked in by the social sciences. These are good, basic theological principles, ways of living that Christians can embrace fully.
For this week, I just want to leave you with this idea: when it comes to flourishing, we may have a lot more control over the situation than we think we do. Bloom notes: “Researchers prefer the term subjective wellbeing over happiness because it draws attention to the fact that happiness is based on our personal, subjective experiences and evaluations of our lives.” This first element—happiness—is deeply subjective, based on our perceptions of situations or experiences. Is it raining? Does that make you happy or depressed? The direction you go is your choice, it’s got nothing to do with precipitation. Sometimes we’re tempted to play the victim, we often think that situations or experiences make us happy or unhappy. But we can take responsibility for the evaluation of that experience. As Bloom puts it: “Happiness = experience + evaluation.”
Christians can struggle with the idea of flourishing. But God has not created us for a dour half-lived life. God wants us to live in abundance, and to flourish. So let’s look together at how we might live a more flourishing life.
See you Sunday! John
I find it interesting the way roads develop. A couple of weeks ago when I was in Richmond, VA, it was easy to imagine that some of the roadways were around before there were cars—the pathways between towns usually traveled in a more or less straight line, except for when they followed the contours around hills or by creeks. Unlike here in this part of Idaho, or in other regions where the land allows it, roads don’t follow the compass points. If you were walking from one town to another, there was a sensible way to get there—the path of least resistance.
Lay a couple centuries of development over the top of these footpaths, and you can get a pretty confusing muddle. So the Program Director that was leading our training, and giving us a ride back to the airport, needed to use a GPS unit in her car to find the optimal route. That’s what a GPS unit will do, find you the optimal route. These days, we’re all about optimization, of taking the most direct route with the least impediments. There’s an ideal way to the airport, or the restaurant, or the hospital. We don’t want to get caught in construction, or in traffic, or go too far out of our way. Efficiency is the name of the game, and in an unfamiliar city, a GPS can help.
But there’s a down-side to this optimization. We’ve prioritized efficiency and expediency, we want the very best option presented to us so we can take it. But what if there is no “best option,” only a lot of “good options?” We value optimization so much, we’ve even projected into our history. When the immigrants traveled west on the Oregon Trail, we have this image of the trail being like a modern roadway, just not paved. We have a picture in our minds, and in the media, of a long string of wagons, one after the other, with a scout in the lead, and a herd of cattle or sheep bringing up the rear. As a kid, I aways wondered about the need for a scout, a wagon-master, because wouldn’t it eventually be possible to just follow the path of the wagons that came before you?
The reality was that you needed a scout because there was no “trail” for much of the Trail. The Oregon Trail was more of a direction than a pathway. There were certain spots where the immigrants needed to be together—river crossings could only be done at specific spots, mountain ranges could only be crossed at certain passes, and there were a handful of posts along the way that you really wanted to stop at to resupply. So in those places the wagon-ruts would be dug deep. But for a lot of the way, the wagons would spread out, each making their own path. One track over the rough, sagebrush plains was as good as any other, and there were some advantages to spreading out—you didn’t need to choke on the dust of the wagons in front of you, and the oxen and livestock that traveled with you could find more to graze on if they were not bunched together. A scout would know all the places where the train needed to be clustered together, and would keep everyone in reasonable contact as they spread out.
As Christians in an age of optimization, we get the sense that the path Jesus calls us to follow is a singular route. We hear his words in Matthew 7:14 about a narrow way, and we come away with the impression that there is an optimal route, and we long for some sort of spiritual GPS to give us the very best path to follow. When the route is less that clear, we worry that we might be going astray. There is certainly a danger there—Jesus’ words are true about that narrow path. But there may also be times in the Christian journey that we can spread out a little, where Jesus gives us a chance to find one among multiple paths. The Christian journey has points where we do need to hold to the straight and narrow, but there are also pastures we can lie down in. If we allow the optimization impulse to overtake us, we may miss out on the broadness of God’s provision, and call. We use our uncertainty of the “very best path” as an excuse to avoid responsibility and obedience.
At times, it may not be clear what the optimal path is. There may not be a blue line on our GPS we can follow, or a set of wagon ruts heading off into the distance. At times it’s just open prairie in front of us. In those times, it might be better for us to just take the next faithful step—we don’t have to know the whole path, just the part in front of us. And we shouldn’t worry so much about whether it’s optimal that we end up paralyzed. God can bless most any direction we take, as long as we’re faithful.
See you Sunday! John