Sunday, 23 March 2008

The Politics of Happiness

In this article last year I mentioned that the tiny Himalayan country of Bhutan pioneered the measurement of well-being with its Gross National Happiness index.

Now Bhutan is in the news again because tomorrow it will hold its first-ever democratic elections. This could be seen as a test of how serious the two main political parties and their supporters are about happiness, or whether, when they have the opportunity, they put economic growth first.

The head of Bhutan's planning commission suggests that happiness and economic growth are not incompatible, but nevertheless, observers are right to acknowledge that economic growth will have consequences, not all of them positive. But perhaps the Bhutanese know enough about well-being to be wise to the negative effects of materialism.

Whatever the result of the elections, it will be interesting to watch how democracy unfolds in Bhutan in the next few weeks and months.

Image: Babasteve

Thursday, 20 March 2008

More on Money and Happiness

No wonder Jo(e) Public is confused about money and happiness. Here's an article from the UK broadsheet, the Telegraph, also published today with the headline 'Money does not buy happiness'. This seems to conflict with what I wrote in this post....

So can money buy you happiness or not?

Well, even with a scientific subject like Positive Psychology, the answer is never as clear-cut as you might expect!

We're told that income has increased dramatically over the past 40 to 50 years, and that the increase in well-being hasn't kept pace, therefore we must be doing something wrong.

But they haven't mentioned the fact that it's normal for humans to adapt to most positive experiences, such that after a while they lose their edge. It's what we mean when we say the novelty has worn off. If you don't believe me, think back to the last time you got a pay rise and work out exactly how long it took you to get used to the extra cash.

Secondly, it's also the case that as our quality of life increases, so do our expectations. Fifty years ago not every household would have had a phone, a TV and a car. Today these items are considered basic items; one family might expect to own one if not several of them. So what we think we need to live a happy life increases too.

Thirdly, it has been suggested that the rise in income over the past fifty years (in the UK at least) hasn't been distributed equally, i.e. a very small proportion of people have become incredibly wealthy, whilst the vast majority of us have enjoyed far smaller increases or none at all.

The Telegraph article concludes by saying that the reason we're not as happy as we might expect is because we spend more time at work and less time doing the things we enjoy. Even that's contentious. Some studies suggest that in general in developed countries we actually have more leisure time than ever before. Therefore it's what we choose to do with our time that affects our happiness. Watching more and more TV, which seems to be a common leisure time trend in the West, is a sure-fire way to waste the time we could be using to do things which will make a difference to our well-being.

If you have any concrete examples of money buying happiness (as opposed to security or health for example) we'd like to hear about them.

Image: QuietLucid

Money can buy you happiness...

...but not in the way you might think.

Positive Psychologists are often quoted as saying that after a certain point, more money can't make you significantly happier, implying that there's no point in busting a gut to get that next bonus or promotion.

This article however reports the findings of a recent study by the University of British Columbia and Harvard Business School, which shows that spending your money on other people makes you happier than spending it on yourself.

Not convinced? Well, I'm happy to be the recipient of your largesse if you want to try it out!

Image: Material Boy

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

The Cost of Ill-health and Happiness

The cost of ill-health to the British economy is a staggering £103 billion a year according to a recent report from Professor Dame Carol Black, National Director for Health and Work. This article from today's spiked suggests that the government's attempts to get the unemployed back to work by e.g. re-branding "Incapacity Benefit" as "Employment and Support Allowance", is merely tinkering at the edges. I'm inclined to agree. Other carrot-and-stick measures such as tougher health tests for those claiming IB and requiring doctors to intervene sooner are unlikely to be successful and will instead just create more expensive targets and measures to be monitored and circumvented, in the same way that hospital waiting lists have been.

The article quotes one professor of psychiatry, Simon Wessely, as saying that many normal human experiences are being medicalised; for example feeling sadness after a bereavement is now seen as a health "problem" for which there should be a medical cure. People are encouraged to think of negative emotions as something can and should be avoided - take the frequency with which counselling is offered after traumatic events for example, even though there is growing scientific evidence that most people heal better and more quickly without it.

Off hand I don't know how the UK compares to other European countries regarding the true cost of ill-health (if anyone reading this does, let me know!). I agree with Mick Hume that the answer lies not in treating the entire problem as one of ill-health (and certainly not in the ways the government proposes), rather we need to be looking more seriously at the underlying causes. If it is the case that many of those people on IB should really be at work, the question is why they prefer to claim state benefits rather than make a meaningful contribution to society. That is a much deeper issue.

Once again I'm left thinking that those of us with an interest in Positive Psychology and the science behind happiness need to ensure we talk about the benefits of PP in business without it sounding like we inhabit cloud-cuckoo land.

Image: Lindseyy

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Happiness Lessons in Schools

Here's an interesting article from the Guardian about the argument for and against teaching happiness lessons in schools.

You can see why Anthony Seldon, head of Wellington College (one of the most elite schools in the UK) is so keen that kids get something more than the National Curriculum, since it will hardly prepare them for the adult world in the 21st Century after all. But teaching them Positive Psychology doesn't fill Richard Schoch with confidence, largely because he says you can't measure meaning and engagement, which are the holy grail of happiness. He thinks there is a place for well-being in the classroom, but doesn't really have any suggestions about how to teach it, other than getting kids to read ancient texts.


I'm not sure that's the answer either!

The really interesting question is why we feel that children need to be taught about happiness in the first place. Some people (including Seldon) have argued that kids are more prone to depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses than in the past. So teaching them various life skills will help them survive these issues. If that's the case, shouldn't we be asking ourselves what is causing them to be more prone to depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses in the first place, and try to do something to fix that?

According to Schoch, Positive Psychology is a bit like Marmite, i.e. you either love it or you hate it. The challenge for Positive Psychologists is how to persuade its critics that it's a useful subject which can make a positive difference to how people choose to live their lives. I'm not sure it's succeeding in that aim at the moment. What do you think?

You can read the original debate between Seldon and sociologist Frank Furedi here.