Happy Now?


Jane McChrystal.

Positive psychology, subjective well-being and the state of the nation.

There’s a lot of happiness about in the UK.  The trend is reflected in our national press by reports of various initiatives led by the “happiness Czar”, Lord Richard Layard, with the support of Prime Minister David Cameron.

Layard has persuaded the government to adopt his happiness index, alongside gross national product per capita, as a measure of the nation’s success.  In a paper published by the Office of National Statistics Layard and his fellow academics, Paul Dolan and Robert Metcalfe1 explained their choice of three ways to measure subjective well-being to gauge the level of national happiness.  They intend to use the findings to inform policy design and implementation.

Cameron’s former chief policy advisor, James Shaughnessy, has piloted classes in mindfulness, optimism and resilience designed by Layard, to educate students at an elite, private school, Marlborough College.  Students at state-funded academies can expect to benefit from the same training when the trial is completed.

The Observer newspaper has endorsed Layard’s Increasing Access to Psychological Therapies programmes2  and in 2012 demonstrated  enthusiasm for the happiness agenda by giving a free copy of Tal Ben-Sahar’s self-help manual “Happier: can you learn to be happy?”3 to all its readers.  Ben-Sahar aims to help them reach a positive conclusion through a series of meditations and exercises in self-reflection.

So, where does this happiness come from?

Ben-Sahar and Layard both identify Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, a pioneer of the positive psychology movement, as a significant influence on their ideas of happiness and subjective well-being.  This movement emerged in the ‘90’s under the aegis of Martin Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi as a result of their dissatisfaction with the direction psychological research and practice had taken since WWII.  They argued that psychology’s preoccupations with fixing the dysfunctional and pathological was a distraction from a far more productive approach to human behaviour.  If psychologists could refocus on unlocking the secrets of the highly talented and successful, it would enable the rest of us to reach our potential and would result in profound social change.

In 2006 a group of academics from the Universities of Leicester and Warwick produced a position paper 3 reviewing positive psychology and predicting great things for its future.  They traced its origins to humanistic thinkers such as Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers who proposed that all human beings will aspire to be the best they can be through the process of self-actualisation.  Rogers believed that, given the right relational climate, our natural inclination is to do the right thing and achieve our potential, like plants growing towards the sun.

The positive psychologists are ambitious for their project.  With their knowledge of how high-functioning individuals and organisations work, they aim to influence stake holders at all levels and help build on strengths within society rather than trying to repair what’s damaged.  In this way, positive psychology will become woven seamlessly into the social fabric and the need for the movement will disappear.

Like most of us, I’m all for happiness, and things do seem to be going rather well for positive psychology.  But what exactly do its proponents mean when they talk about it?

Tal Ben-Sahar, a former Israeli squash champion, is a Harvard-educated, international coach and motivational speaker who lectures executives in multinational corporations.  He advocates a revolution.  If the achievement of happiness  replaced materialism as the central focus of each individual’s life, the world could be transformed.  The process begins with individual examinations of the following questions: “What will make me happier?”, “What gives me meaning?”, “What are my strengths?”, and “What gives me pleasure?” 3.  The revolution will flow from the transformation of the individual.  Successful people educated by Ben-Sahar’s programmes could help world leaders to desist from grabbing land and resources from each other and put a stop to world-conflict and war.

Lord Richard Layard is Director of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics.  He comes from a literary family which includes W.H.  Auden among its forbears and his father, anthropologist John Layard, was one on Jung’s early supporters in England in 1940’s.  Richard Layard is a highly influential advisor to governments at home and abroad.  He started his career in the 1960’s as a research officer for the Robins Committee which was responsible for the first great wave of university expansion in England and Wales.  He has been an advisor to both the last Labour government and the current Coalition.  In 2007 he launched the Increasing Access to Psychological Therapies programme2 to help the long-term unemployed return to work with the aid of a brief intervention based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy*.  This was an interesting move for one whose father engaged in analysis with Carl Jung to help him deal with depression.

*Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is based on the idea that we are not troubled by the world we live in but rather by the way we see it.  In other words it is our beliefs about self, others and our environment which cause disturbing feelings and trigger dysfunctional patterns of behaviour.  The individual who seeks help from the Cognitive Behavioural Therapist can expect a collaborative, educational approach.  Initially therapist and client will work to identify those beliefs which cause negative thoughts and feelings and hold them up for examination.  Are they accurate?  Are there any alternative views?  Some time will be spent on the origins of mistaken beliefs but most of the work focuses on the now.  Once the distorted beliefs are out in the open the clients are expected to do homework between sessions.  They will monitor beliefs and how they affect thoughts, feelings and behaviour using worksheets and diaries.  They are expected try out new ways of viewing problematic situations and initiating new adaptive behaviours learnt at a later stage in therapy.  For example a client with panic attacks will learn that a racing heart or breathlessness is a physiological reaction to stress not a sign of imminent death.  S/he may then learn from the therapist how to control anxious feelings through breathing exercises.  This should lessen the need to resort to maladaptive reactions to anxiety such as avoiding the situations which usually activate symptoms of panic.  The goal of the therapy is to equip the client with a new set of skill which s/he will be able to take into the world independent of the therapist.  CBT does not aim to bring about fundamental shifts in the individual’s personality but to extinguish symptoms, mitigate overwhelming feelings and set in motion new adaptive behaviours.  It is time-limited and of relatively short duration depending on symptom severity.

Layard and Ben-Sahar cite the works of Csikszentmihalyi in their writings1, 4 and Layard avowed his intention to bring the inner person to policy formulation in a debate with the moral philosopher, Julian Baggini published in London’s Guardian newspaper5.  So it might seem that they are talking about the same thing when they talk about happiness.  However a closer look at “Measuring Subjective Well-being for Public Policy”1 reveals a degree of divergence.

Layard traces his concept of subjective well-being to Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian philosophy.  Layard is an English academic par excellence who deals exclusively with the observable, the measurable and the doable.  He believes that subjective well-being depends on individual ratings on a scale of 1-10 of levels of satisfaction within a specific set of domains: work, housing, environment, finance, physical and mental health and relationships.  The aggregate of scores within each domain are applied directly to measure how well the country is being governed and determine how it could be done better.

This is very different to the approach advocated by positive psychologists.  In their scheme people reach their potential within a  socially supportive environment which is the product of individuals’ search for meaning.  They advocate deep reflections on happiness and the meaning of life as means of achieving self-actualisation.  Communities, organisations and governments become transformed when they are populated by sufficient numbers of individuals who have completed the process.  In Layard’s scheme the inner person is examined as part of the entire population and is the object of investigation by an outsider rather than a subject in search of meaningful experience.

The distance between the two routes to happiness is noted by Martin Seligman in his criticism of the happiness index which he has called “misguided” on the grounds that objective measures cannot capture the quality of the individual’s search for meaning.  Julian Baggini5 raised a further concern.  He argued that the “good life” is not amenable to scientific investigation as it is impossible to agree on its constituent parts, especially when concepts of well-being tend to vary from culture to culture and in accordance with changing historical circumstances.  If they cannot be defined they cannot be measured.  He goes on to say that the attempt to fix what makes up the good life can tend towards totalitarianism.  Current research suggests that married people and those with religious beliefs tend to be happier.  If the government aims to make us all happier, will it begin to promote marriage and religious faith for all? He may have shown some prescience as MPs have recently been calling for tax breaks for married couples.

Tal Ben-Sahar is clearly aware of the limits of happiness.   He knows that his constituency is to be found among the elite, fostering their super-talents and sending them into the world’s organisations to do their transformational work.  Despite his ambitions for happiness he does not believe it is a panacaea.  He certainly does not view it as a plank for policy makers.

Layard clearly has enormous credibility with the political class.  What makes his happiness agenda so appealing in these troubled times?  It is clear to many that our political, financial and social structures are in need of a radical overhaul.  Referring to national levels of well-being to drive national policy might present a less challenging project.  For an administration, which struggles constantly with its image it has the added advantage of presenting its leaders as touchingly concerned with our welfare rather than as a bunch of pleb-hating toffs.

The pursuit of happiness is a thoroughly worthy cause for the individual and society.  But whether we strive for our own mental well-being or the amelioration of society, it is essential to look squarely at the unpalatable, the difficult and the dark.  Merely accentuating the positive tends to result in high hopes which are bound to fail when they meet with reality.

Jane McChrystal 2013

1.  Paul Dolan, Richard Layard and Robert Metcalfe.  Measuring Subjective Well-being for Public Policy.  February 2011.  Office for National Statistics.

2.  Jane McChrystal.  The many roads to ordinary happiness. 2008.  London Grip.

3.  Tal Ben-Sahar.  Happier: can you learn to be happy? 2008.The Observer.

4.  P.  Alex Linley, Stephen Joseph, Susan Harrington and Alex M.  Wood.  Positive psychology: Past present, and (possible) future.  The Journal of Positive Psychology, January 2006: 1 (1): 3-16.

5.  Julian Baggini and Richard Layard interviewed by Susanna Rustin.  Can happiness be measured? Guardian, 20 July 2012.  http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jul/20/wellbeing-index-happiness-julian-baggini