Tuesday, 1 March 2011

How happy are you?

Happy People

Last night I listened to Charles Seaford deliver a short talk on the concept of well-being as a policy driver. Mr Seaford is co-founder of Prospect Magazine and as a member of the New Economics Foundation (NEF) co-wrote their paper ‘Measuring Our Progress: The Power of Well-being.’ The paper is a contribution to the current debate on measuring progress in terms of something other than economic growth, viewing the latter as a means to an end – that end being the flourishing of society in some broader sense than just increased economic wealth and power to consume. It proposes means of measuring well-being, and ways to ensure the results influence policy in such a way as to increase this across the population in a sustainable fashion.

Having grappled for a long time, and disagreed, with economic models as ways of defining, predicting and prescribing human behaviour, I have a long-standing interest in the idea of improving human situations in ways that go beyond the limits of economic agency. I’ve also written here before about the detrimental effects of confusing means and ends. What are, and should be, our ultimate goals, or ends, as human beings in our societies?

Seaford’s talk highlighted two distinct answers to this question, which he described as Aristotelian and Benthamite, but that needn’t be thought of that way. Answer A (Aristotelian) defines the end as a kind of flourishing, a state of gratification perhaps, that results from fulfilling one’s purpose and acting out what one finds valuable. Answer B (Benthamite, after Jeremy Bentham) defines the end as maximum good feeling, or happiness, this being a simpler, more hedonic notion of happiness-as-pleasure than the kind of goodness-through-value in answer A.

To illustrate the current state of things, he quoted an email from a minister complaining that he was an Aristotelian about well-being in a government full of Benthamites. The minister was railing against an approach that thinks of well-being as feeling good, regardless of whether that good feeling has come via a kind of human flourishing based on good social function and personal fulfilment.

For example, some studies show that having children decreases the amount happiness (in the narrow sense) people experience on average, but the measures used here disregard the sense of fulfilment experienced by many through parenthood, despite the added stresses. Having children may not make you happier on average, but this disguises the deeper, more complex gratification involved.

There are myriad problems with measuring well-being through subjective reports, and the debate is still raging about quite how to phrase the all-important questions that will go into the Integrated Household Survey to create this data set. I have many other questions around the notions of well-being and happiness though. One, that has arisen from reading Martin Seligman’s book Authentic Happiness, is whether flourishing, or fulfilment, really does lead to good feelings in the way that the NEF’s dynamic model supposes.

Seligman points out that while some people experience strong highs and lows, feeling sad at failure and happy at success, others are set at a more even keel; they may experience gratification when they achieve in valued areas, but this doesn’t necessarily make them feel happy in the simpler sense of feeling good. Of course, taking an average from enough data ought to control for these differences in affective feeling.

Secondly, I wonder whether the notion of fulfilment, of living a good life by enacting what one values, is a notion that makes sense for everyone. Particularly in the current climate, the notion of good functioning within society is something that won’t be much valued by, or even make much sense to, some people.

Likewise some of us crave fulfilment – creatively, as parents, or entrepreneurs – while others appear to be perfectly happy simply living comfortably enough to indulge favourite leisure activities. Is the latter kind of life less of a good life than one spent in endeavour to fulfil one’s perceived purpose? What if a person has no sense of a personal purpose, but simply intends to enjoy the ride?

I know what I need to do to feel that I am flourishing, satisfied with life and even, dare I say it, happy. Developing policy to maximise these across society is an incredibly complex business, but any attempt to do this alongside minimising the negatives is, in my view, a step in the right direction.


  1. I hope you liked Authentic Happiness; I did, because it is one of those rare self help/awareness books that is based on credible research and intelligent thought rather than motivational cliches.

    I'm pretty sure that the Kingdom of Bhutan introduced a concept of GNH (Gross National Happiness) as way of measuring its progress. Yes, just checked it on Wiki and I was right - see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gross_national_happiness

    How come we never get talks like that in Wiltshire? Actually, I know why...

  2. There is proably some useful input here from motivation theory. What used to be called selfactualization and is in practice about developing ones potential and creating a perception of self developmnet sounds like Answer A but with more of a sense of achievement.
    It certainly gives rise to a very positive feeling. Herzberg suggested that one would not value meeting selfactualization needs unless more basic ones were met. Of course if you are still at the finding food and shelter level what makes you happy is much easier!