Well-Doing: Personal Projects and the Social Ecology of Flourishing

  • Brian R. LittleEmail author
Part of the International Handbooks of Quality-of-Life book series (IHQL)


Has research by psychologists truly advanced our understanding of human flourishing and the quality of lives? Some philosophers (e.g. Nussbaum, J Leg Stud 37(52):S81–S113, 2008)) are sceptical and believe that the models and methods of psychology obscure or ignore those features of lives constitutive of flourishing. I engage this debate by calling for a reformulation of how we study the quality of lives by focusing upon well-doing or felicitous action. Well-doing comprises the sustainable pursuit of core projects in our lives. A social ecological model of project pursuit is presented in which the stable and dynamic features of individuals and the contexts of their daily lives are highlighted. Research on the social ecology of well-doing provides a thickly textured and granular level of analysis of how people craft their lives. It opens up a research agenda in which philosophers and psychologists can find congenial intellectual company and common purpose.


Happiness Well-being Eudaimonia Personal projects 


  1. Betzler, M. (2013). The normative significance of personal projects. In M. Kühler & N. Jelinek (Eds.), Autonomy and the self. New York: Springer. (forthcoming).Google Scholar
  2. Bronfonbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, UK: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Cantor, N. (1990). From thought to behavior: “having” and “doing” in the study of personality and cognition. American Psychologist, 45, 735–750.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Costa, P. T., & McCrae, R. R. (1980). Influence of extraversion and neuroticism on subjective well-being: Happy and unhappy people. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38(4), 668–678.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. DeNeve, K. M., & Cooper, H. (1998). The happy personality: A meta-analysis of 137 personality traits and subjective well-being. Psychological Bulletin, 124, 197–229.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Depue, R. A., & Collins, P. F. (1999). Neurobiology of the structure of personality: Dopamine, facilitation of incentive motivation, and extraversion. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 22, 491–569.Google Scholar
  7. DeYoung, C. G. (2010). Personality neuroscience and the biology of traits. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4(12), 1165–1180.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. DeYoung, C. G. (2015). Cybernetic big five theory. Journal of Research in Personality, 56, 33–58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Diener, E., & Suh, E. M. (Eds.). (2000). Culture and subjective well being. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  10. Dowden, C. (2004). Managing to be free: Personality, personal projects and well-being in entrepreneurs. Unpublished Doctoral dissertation, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.Google Scholar
  11. Helliwell, J. R., Layard, R., & Sachs, J. (2012). World happiness report. New York: United Nations.Google Scholar
  12. Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzyan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 33, 61–83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Hwang, A. A. (2004). Yours, mine, ours: The role of joint personal projects in close relationships. Unpublished Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.Google Scholar
  14. Kashdan, T. B., Biswas-Diener, R., & King, L. A. (2008). Reconsidering happiness: The costs of distinguishing between hedonics and eudaimonia. Journal of Positive Psychology, 3, 219–233.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Kristjánsson. (2013). Virtues and vices in positive psychology: A philosophical critique. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Little, B. R. (1983). Personal projects: A rationale and method for investigation. Environment and Behavior, 15, 273–309. (205–244). New York: Wiley.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Little, B. R. (1989). Personal projects analysis: Trivial pursuits, magnificent obsessions, and the search for coherence. In D. Buss & N. Cantor (Eds.), Personality psychology: Recent trends and emerging directions (pp. 15–31). New York: Springer-Verlag.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Little, B. R. (1996). Free traits, personal projects and idio-tapes: Three tiers for personality psychology. Psychological Inquiry, 7(4), 340–344.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Little, B. R. (1998). Personal project pursuit: Dimensions and dynamics of personal meaning. In P. T. P. Wong & P. S. Fry (Eds.), The human question for meaning: A handbook of psychological research and clinical applications (pp. 197–221). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  20. Little, B. R. (1999a). Personal projects and social ecology: Themes and variation across the life span. In J. Brandtstadter & R. M. Lerner (Eds.), Action and self-development: Theory and research through the life span (pp. 197–221). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Little, B. R. (1999b). Personality and motivation: Personal action and the conative evolution. In L. A. Pervin & O. P. John (Eds.), Handbook of personality theory and research (2nd ed., pp. 501–524). New York: Guilford.Google Scholar
  22. Little, B. R. (2000). Free traits and personal contexts: Expanding a social ecological model of well-being. In W. B. Walsh, K. H. Craik, & R. H. Price (Eds.), Person environment psychology: New directions and perspectives (2nd ed., pp. 87–116). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  23. Little, B. R. (2006). Personality science and self-regulation: Personal projects as integrative units. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 55(3), 419–427.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Little, B. R. (2010). Opening space for project pursuit: Affordance, restoration and chills. In C. W. Thompson, P. Aspinall, & S. Bell (Eds.), Innovative approaches to researching landscape and health (Open space: People space 2, pp. 163–178). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  25. Little, B. R. (2011). Personality science and the northern tilt: As positive as possible under the circumstances. In K. M. Sheldon, T. B. Kashdan, & M. F. Steger (Eds.), Designing positive psychology: Taking stock and moving forward (pp. 228–247). New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Little, B. R. (2014a). Me, myself and us: The science of personality and the art of well-being. New York: Public Affairs Books.Google Scholar
  27. Little, B. R. (2014b). Well-doing: Personal projects and the quality of lives. Theory and Research in Education, 12, 329–346.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Little, B. R., & Coulombe, S. (2015). Personal projects analysis. In International encyclopedia of social and behavioral sciences (2nd ed., pp. 757–765). Oxford, UK: Elsevier.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Little, B. R., & Frost, D. (2013). Aspects of love: Connecting, romancing and caring. In M. Hojjat & D. Cramer (Eds.), Positive psychology of love (pp. 162–176). New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Little, B. R., & Gee, T. L. (2007). The methodology of personal projects analysis: Four modules and a funnel. In B. R. Little, K. Salmela-Aro, & S. D. Phillips (Eds.), Personal project pursuit: Goals, action, and human flourishing (pp. 51–94). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  31. Little, B. R., & Joseph, M. F. (2007). Personal projects and free traits: Mutable selves and well beings. In B. R. Little, K. Salmela-Aro, & S. D. Phillips (Eds.), Personal project pursuit: Goals, action, and human flourishing (pp. 375–400). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  32. Little, B. R., Lecci, L., & Watkinson, B. (1992). Personality and personal projects: Linking big five and PAC units of analysis. Journal of Personality, 1992(60), 501–525.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Little, B. R., & Ryan, T. J. (1979). A social ecological model of development. In K. Ishwaran (Ed.), Childhood and adolescence in Canada (pp. 273–301). Toronto, Canada: McGraw-Hill Ryerson.Google Scholar
  34. Little, B. R., Salmela-Aro, K., & Phillips, S. D. (Eds.). (2007). Personal project pursuit: Goals, action and human flourishing. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  35. Lomasky, L. E. (1984). Personal projects as the foundation for basic rights. Social Philosophy and Policy, 1, 35–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Lomasky, L. E. (1987). Persons, rights, and the moral community. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  37. McGregor, I., & Little, B. R. (1998). Personal projects, happiness and meaning: On doing well and being yourself. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 494–512.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. McKeen, N. A. (1984). The personal projects of pregnant women. Unpublished Bachelor thesis, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.Google Scholar
  39. Melia-Gordon, M. (1994). The measurement and meaning of personal projects creativity. Unpublished Master’s thesis, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.Google Scholar
  40. Nussbaum, M. (2008). Who is the happy warrior? Philosophy poses questions to psychologists. Journal of Legal Studies, 37(52), S81–S113.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Oishi, S., & Graham, J. (2010). Social ecology: Lost and found in psychological science. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5, 356–377.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Ozer, D. J., & Benet-Martínez. (2006). Personality and the prediction of consequential outcomes. Annual Review of Psychology, 57, 401–421.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Phillips, S. D., Little, B. R., & Goodine, L. A. (1997). Reconsidering gender and public administration: Five steps beyond conventional research. Canadian Public Administration, 40, 563–581.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Salmela-Aro, K. (1992). Struggling with self: The personal projects of students seeking psychological counselling. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 33(4), 330–338.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Salmela-Aro, K. (2009). Personal goals and well-being during critical life transitions: The four C’s—channelling, choice, co- agency and compensation. Advances in Life Span Research, 14, 63–73.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Salmela-Aro, K., & Little, B. R. (2007). Relational aspects of project pursuit. In B. R. Little, K. Salmela-Aro, & S. D. Phillips (Eds.), Personal project pursuit: Goals, action, and human flourishing (pp. 199–219). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  47. Salmela-Aro, K., Read, S., Nurmi, J.-E., Vuoksimaa, E., Siltala, M., Dick, D. M., et al. (2012). Personal goals and personality traits among young adults: Genetic and environmental effects. Journal of Research in Personality, 46(3), 248–257. ISSN 0092-6566.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Sheldon, K. M., & Kasser, T. (1998). Pursuing personal goals: Skills enable progress, but not all progress is beneficial. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24(12), 1319–1331.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Steel, P., Schmidt, J., & Shultz, J. (2008). Refining the relationship between personality and subjective well-being. Psychological Bulletin, 134(1), 138–161.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Tiberius, V. (2008). The reflective life: Living wisely with our limits. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Tiberius, V. (2015). Well-being, virtue and personal projects: A normative framework for virtue ethics and public policy. Unpublished ms., Department of Philosophy, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.Google Scholar
  52. Vittersø, J., & Søholt, Y. (2011). Life satisfaction goes with pleasure and personal growth goes with interest: Further arguments for separating hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. Journal of Positive Psychology, 6, 326–335.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Williams, B. (1982). Moral luck. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of CambridgeCambridgeUK

Personalised recommendations