Flourishing in the arts is about meaning, mastery and mattering

Committing ourselves to the path of flourishing may sound like an impossible ask – but it's not.

Back in 2011, when the author and psychologist Martin Seligman announced, ‘I no longer think that positive psychology is about happiness’, the scientific community took a collective gasp. This was, after all, the father of modern positive psychology – an individual largely responsible for driving the ‘happiness movement’.

He continued, saying he now believed: ‘the gold standard for measuring wellbeing is flourishing, and that the goal of positive psychology is to increase flourishing’. In an unexpected plot twist, Seligman’s research at the time showed we’d been led astray by mere ‘happiology’.

Oxford Languages defines ‘flourishing’ as ‘developing rapidly and successfully’, a synonym for ‘thriving’. Where ‘happiness’ captures momentary contentedness, flourishing blossoms into the future. It’s a state many of us –especially in the creative space – seek to nurture.

Dr Mark Cross is known as one of Australia’s ‘most-loved’ psychiatrists. With a clinical practice spanning three decades and three continents, Dr Cross’ popularity is matched only by his experience. Dr Cross has also spent significant time in the screen industry, first as the lead psychiatrist on two seasons of the ABC’s Changing Minds, then as the medical consultant on the eight-part hit series Wakefield

While researchers are yet to develop a ‘gold-standard’ measurement for flourishing, Dr Cross offers a simple framework to get us started in the meantime, as was highlighted in his ‘Happiness and Joy with Meaning and Connection – A Clinical Perspective‘ talk at Happiness and Its Causes in March this year. These are his ‘three Ms’: Meaning, Mastery, and Mattering. Though they naturally feed each other, it helps to work through these components sequentially the first time around. 

As a critical aside, it’s important to note that the thoughts and strategies provided here assume we’re already meeting our basic survival needs. ‘Developing rapidly and successfully’ is hard to prioritise in an environment of scarcity. In these instances, seeking professional help should always be our first port of call. 

Meaning

Dr Cross starts with the big one – especially in light of the past two years. For many creatives, our sense of purpose was brutally attacked as the world was blindsided by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of us may have already found innovative solutions and answers, while others may still be grappling with these existential questions. 

On the path to thriving, tethering to meaning is the crucial first step. Years before the explosion of modern positive psychology, Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl noted: ‘The quest for meaning is the key to mental health and human flourishing’.

Strategies:

  • Reflect. Harvard University’s Human Flourishing Program asks participants to consider the following two prompts: ‘Overall, to what extent do I feel the things I do in my life are worthwhile?’, and ‘I understand my purpose in life’. Other reflections could include: ‘What drives me?’, ‘What’s my “why”?’, and ‘What are my values?’

    For some, stream-of-consciousness journaling will best facilitate this. For others, spitballing in a voice memo will prove more effective. 
  • ‘Job-craft’. In our industry, many of us operate as self-employed freelancers. As a result, we have complete control over our ‘job description’ and should look to make it work for us – not the other way around. Consider strengths, skills, passions. Craft a job that embraces USPs (unique selling points), regardless of whether or not a precedent exists. 

Mastery

No doubt we can all recall an experience of ‘being in the zone’ – it’s an intoxicating state. When we hone our craft, we naturally cultivate confidence, pride and self-esteem. This, in turn, motivates us to approach our next task with the same commitment and energy. It’s a virtuous upwards spiral that captures the very essence of flourishing. 

Yet, we’ll all encounter disengagement from time to time. By re-establishing a connection to meaning, we’ll invariably rekindle respect for our means of making this manifest. The second step is then to push ourselves further into the arena of mastery. 

Strategies:

  • Skill up. As the researcher and author Courtney E. Ackerman put it in Positive Psychology: ‘Those who flourish do so not because they are “natural flourishers” but because they are constantly finding ways to improve, develop, and grow. They do not settle for the status quo; they find out what they need to know and what they need to do to and work hard to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to get them where they want to go’. Developing new skill sets can also set the stage for future job-crafting (as mentioned above).
  • Charge accordingly. As creative folk, we’ve all worked for less than we’re worth (or for little at all). If we’re sincere in our dedication to mastery, we need to reflect this in the pricing of our services. Of course, there’s a time and place for passion projects, but short-changing ourselves should be the exception, rather than the rule. 

Mattering

If our sense of purpose wasn’t challenged during the COVID-19 pandemic, our notions of significance likely were. Some (myself included) got the whole one-two punch. 

Having defined meaning and returned to mastery, the third and final step is to extend our flourishing to those around us. The scale at which this takes place is irrelevant – any offer of value strengthens the (correct) belief we matter. 

Strategies:

  • Build a tribe. Constantly jumping from gig to gig, team to team, can lead us to adopt something of a lone-wolf persona. But in an industry as concentrated as ours, this has no reason to be the case. Be proactive in making new acquaintances and deepening existing ones. We don’t have to be best friends with every name on the call sheet –instead, simply resolve to promote consideration and trust. 
  • Coach or mentor. Literature on the benefits of volunteering is both widespread and well-known, but the particular benefits of taking an emerging creative under our wing are hard to overstate. Reach out to a film school to offer expertise. Attend a short film premiere night and engage with those whose work most resonates. Share a few words of wisdom with the fresh face on set. Often, giving does just as much – if not more – for the giver as the receiver. 

Committing ourselves to the path of flourishing may sound like an impossible ask, perhaps now more than ever. Yet if we prize our wellbeing (as we should), science has shown this is our way there. Though simple, Dr Cross’ three Ms can at least get us moving in the right direction. 

Tahlia Norrish (@tahlianorrish) is an Aussie actor and writer currently based between Sydney and London. After graduating from both The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (Acting & Musical Theatre) and Rose Bruford College (BA (Hons) Acting), Tahlia stepped up as Head Coach at The Actor’s Dojo – an online platform pioneering actor empowerment through mindset and strategy training.