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Monthly Spotlight / ロム・ソロクチャン エルヴィラ

What Does Human Flourishing Mean in Japanese Higher Education? ― an Attempt to Develop a Context-specific Approach

Field of Positive Psychology

My area of expertise is psychology. Psychology largely has its roots in philosophy, and you can define this discipline as the scientific study of people’s behaviors and mental processes. Especially, my research is based in the field of positive psychology.

Positive psychology emerged in the United States in the late 1990s in order to complement the pathological focus of the mainstream psychology at that time. I explain this field as the psychological or scientific study of best things in life or things that make life worthwhile. The name of “positive psychology” I think comes from the idea that in this field you are studying positive things. The topics studied include happiness, optimism, hope, resilience, love, gratitude, humility, forgiveness, courage, flourishing, and so on. Above all, I have been working on the topic of flourishing.

Although it has only been 15 to 20 years since the field of positive psychology appeared, this branch has been growing rather quickly in terms of the amount and the variety of research. However, positive psychology has spread mostly to Western countries and is not well-known or wide-spread in Japan. Here at WIAS, I am planning to research human flourishing in Japanese higher education.

What is Human Flourishing?

The reason why I have been interested in the topic of flourishing more than any other topic is that it is not a simple idea and there is a lot of variety in the way people understand this concept. I am going to briefly introduce the idea of flourishing.

Firstly, beginning with the dictionary definition, Concise Oxford Dictionary describes the verb “flourish” as ‘grow vigorously, thrive, prosper, be successful, and be in one’s prime’. This definition is closely related to the linguistic roots of this word. The word “flourish” comes from the Latin flor (flower), which comes from the Proto-Indo-European bhlo (to bloom). So, when you think of the term flourishing conceptually, it is linked to the idea of flowers and their blooming. As for its colloquial usage, we usually use the word “flourishing” as the meaning of realizing someone’s potential, growing, succeeding, and changing positively.

Next, when you consider the concept of flourishing theoretically, there are some of the major theoretical perspectives in philosophy (e.g. Aristotle), psychology (e.g. the positive psychology movement), and other social sciences (e.g. Marx, Durkheim). There is an aspect that the perspectives on flourishing in psychology and other social sciences respectively draw a lot from or are closely related to the perspectives in philosophy. At the same time, it is necessary to recognize the major difference between psychology and other social sciences. Psychological research tends to study flourishing as an abstract concept. Flourishing is considered that it happens inside individuals and is consequently quite vague and hard to understand. On the other hand, other social sciences study it in the context of society as a social phenomenon.

The Role of Context

When current positive psychologists study human flourishing, they tend to detach it from the context in which it occurs. They often use large-scale experiments which give people some kind of simple tests. Such a test provides you a general understanding of human flourishing, but it does not give you rich data like people’s own stories.

It can be said that the nature of human flourishing depends on the context in which it is considered. This idea is called ‘context-specificity’. You can think of a variety of contexts: flourishing at school, flourishing in old age, a flourishing economy and so on, and flourishing occurs in different ways depending on their contexts.

The theoretical foundation of this standpoint and also of my research is called relational ontology. It argues that things are most real and best understood when viewed in context rather than when abstracted from it. This theory can be explained easily with the picture below (figure 1). On the left side of the picture, you can see a slice of pizza which is on a plate on a dining table, with a nice glass of wine, and in front of a fire. It looks tasty. On the right side, you can see exactly the same slice of pizza which is on a drain on a road. It looks dirty and nobody wants to eat it. The picture tries to illustrate that the same thing could be viewed differently, could have different meanings depending on the context you find it in.


Figure1: Illustration symbolizing relational ontology

In order to explore human flourishing in concrete contexts, I argue that, contrary to most positive psychology’s work to date, positive psychology needs to be more open to embracing alternative methods like interviews, observations, and fieldworks, which are more commonly used in other social sciences. This attempt to context-specific approaches is one of the major challenges for positive psychology. I would like to contribute to this movement as one of the few researchers who are pursuing the methodological integration of individualistic psychology and other collectivistic social sciences approaches.

Exploring Flourishing in the Context of Japanese Higher Education

My project here aims to explore the social construction and practice of human flourishing within the context of Japanese higher education. To put it concretely, I am interested in the way students and faculty understand and practice flourishing in Japanese university classrooms, in the context of, for example, curriculum, teaching methods, educational philosophies, and ways in which students learn in their classrooms.

In terms of the methods of this research, I am not going to use quantitative methodology because now I am not interested in measuring flourishing numerically. Instead, I will use qualitative methods like classroom observations and interviews in order to develop a narrative of flourishing from the perspective of students and faculty. I will keep the range of research participants to a minimum and try to work with them over a period of time. By doing this, I would like to deeply understand how a certain concrete context embodies flourishing in a certain way. Although such findings will be less generalizable, they will give more detailed and richer understanding of what flourishing means to those people.

My project is unique in largely two ways. Firstly, there is not much research in the topic of flourishing in universities. Of course there are positive psychologists who study wellbeing in education, but the majority of that sort of research addresses lower level of education, namely, education in schools and kindergartens. So, this makes my research original and interesting.

Secondly, my project has potential to reflect originality of Japanese people, Japanese education and Japanese culture regarding human flourishing and also positive psychology. There are some researches of positive psychology in non-Western countries, but they often follow the Western model. I expect that people in non-Western countries may well have their own way of understanding and practicing flourishing, and researchers there should have their own approach toward positive psychology. Therefore, I am looking forward to addressing these aspects through my project.

取材・構成:Mariko Oshio
協力:M.A Program in Journalism, Graduate school of Political Science, Waseda University