In certain circles, there’s been lots of talk about languishing and flourishing during the pandemic. Positive psychologists advise people to do things like practicing gratitude, performing random acts of kindness and savoring the little things to help you feel like you’re living your best life – flourishing, in other words.

There’s nothing wrong with taking these kinds of concrete steps, according to researchers Sarah Willen, Abigail Fisher Williamson and Colleen Walsh. “But tips like these are probably most helpful to people whose lives and livelihoods are already secure,” they write. Based on in-depth interviews with 170 Clevelanders from all walks of life, they suggest that “without the conditions that enable flourishing, psychological exercises will inevitably fall short.”

How much control does any one person have over their own well-being, after all? Willen, Williamson and Walsh write that for those facing systemic problems like structural racism and lack of access to things like healthy food, good education and a safe place to live, psychological tactics promoting flourishing can only go so far – and they let society off the hook.

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  • Maggie Villiger

    Senior Science + Technology Editor

    Who gets to flourish and who doesn’t? Tony Anderson/DigitalVision via Getty Images

    Psychological tips aren’t enough – policies need to address structural inequities so everyone can flourish

    Sarah S. Willen, University of Connecticut; Abigail Fisher Williamson, Trinity College; Colleen Walsh, Cleveland State University

    For people who struggle to meet their basic needs, it will take a lot more than simple psychological exercises to flourish. It will take systemic change.

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