Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Theory: How virtue and systems thinking can enable a more flourishing world (part 2/2)

Leveraging a Wave of Global Flourishing Through Social Systems

The previous post discussed the cultivation of virtue as a path to not only individual flourishing, but to more wide-spread systemic well-being. This post is about seeing what the systems approach can offer in our search for a more positive human future.

Well-being and flourishing derive from the conscious effort of adhering to morally correct choices (moral virtue). “By creating ethical actions, we begin to enjoy being altruistic, honest and loving as much as (or more than) being selfish and self-centered” (Shawn Achor, personal communication, November 27, 2012). When a society begins to enjoy acting in a virtuous way, we are onto something big, and can dream of a cultural shift. Cultivating virtuous qualities such as honesty, compassion and fairness, as well as self-control and prudence is inherently conducive to individual well-being (Chris Peterson & Martin Seligman, 2004). As a result of their altruistic nature, they also shift our perspective from subjective well-being to collective flourishing. Therefore, the ultimate outcome variable of positive psychology could perhaps be increased virtue, not necessarily increased well-being. Virtuous behavior has implications for how we relate to our surrounding environment, and therefore has the potential to create ripple effects of positive change around us.

In order to attain global flourishing, we cannot view people as disparate agents each striving for their own good. In fact, we know that positive emotions spread through social networks impacting people within up to three degrees of separation (James Fowler & Nicholas Christakis, 2009). Unfortunately, negative emotional states and phenomena, such as loneliness, obesity, and even the prevalence of divorce, have also been shown to spread in networks through the mechanism of social contamination (Christakis & Fowler, 2007; Nicholas Christakis, personal communication, October 20th, 2012). A common theme throughout systems intelligence theory is that all of our actions create some level of change within the structure of the multilayered dynamic system we are part of (Raimo Hämäläinen & Esa Saarinen, 2010). We belong to a larger collective entity, and our actions and even emotions affect others around us – whether we choose to acknowledge them or not.

  • There is a dire need to explicitly acknowledge the significant role we each play in the context of our living environment. This means taking responsibility for our actions (as they impact others), as well recognizing the enormous power we have to change the world for the better. I believe no one needs to look far for a purpose in life. I argue that in its most simple, fundamental form, one´s purpose can be embodied in striving toward excellence in being human, through the cultivation of virtue. This is not an easy task, and is definitely a way to ´spend one´s life in a way that will outlast it´, as William James would say.

Intelligent systems are more than the sum of their constituents (Raimo Hämäläinen & Esa Saarinen, 2010), and by impacting smaller parts of the network in a constructive manner we might propel change on a scale much broader than we could possibly anticipate. Even if it may not be pleasant to discuss notions of responsibility or duty within the context of well-being and flourishing, it is imperative to create social awareness of the significance each person has on the possible future of society. The broader dynamic system is highly sensitive to each of our individual actions.

In short

Instead of pursuing subjective well-being, the passion for leading a virtuous life (striving to cultivate good moral judgment and character for its own sake) could well be something that enables a systemic change for the better. In order to make the world flourish, we should reach for excellence in our human experience, and acknowledge our role as part of larger system. By cultivating virtuous and ethical actions, we begin to enjoy making ethical evaluations, and perhaps be more inclined to place emphasis on those things which enable a more flourishing future – for the whole of humanity. Additionally, there needs to be social awareness of the real significance each person has in their dynamic social network, and of how sensitive the broader dynamic system is to each of our individual actions – both positive and negative. This is where the responsibility and power of each individual lies, and this is how we can create a more positive future for the world at large. YES!!

What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.
Nelson Mandela (born 1918);
Former President Of South Africa


Achor, S. (2012, November 27). Thoughts on the Plutarch Project. [Online forum comment]. Retrieved from

Fowler, J. H., & Christakis, N. A. (2009). Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: Longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham heart study. BMJ: British Medical Journal, 338(7685), 1-13. Retrieved December 12, 2012 from

Hämäläinen, R. P., Saarinen E. (2010). The originality of systems intelligence in Raimo P. Hämäläinen, R. P., Saarinen, E. (Eds.) Essays on systems intelligence (pp. 9-26). Systems Analysis Laboratory, Aalto University. Retrieved on September 21st, 2012 from

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