Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.
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Time to lighten up ‘the dismal science’
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I’ve been arguing for a while that the research behind Positive Psychology has the capacity to spawn a new Enlightenment. What I mean by this is that the research on what makes people happy and positive – and the importance of these feelings for health, creativity, learning etc – has huge transformatory potential. Not only could this research encourage individuals to transform their lives but also it could create a sea change in other social sciences.
Economics, once dismissed as ‘the dismal science’ by the Scottish thinker Thomas Carlyle, is the discipline most noticeably influenced by the Positive Psychology research. Professor Richard Layard, from the London School of Economics, has written a book on happiness and a clutch of other economists from various parts of the world have produced a variety of works relating to happiness.
However, the latest edition of the Economist shows that this interest is now becoming more mainstream. Not only does the cover carry the words "Happiness (and how to measure it), but there is also a leader and three page article entitled: "Economics discovers its feelings: not quite as dismal as it was".
The Economist is a good read and its take on happiness and economics is worth looking at. Over a hundred years ago happiness was of great interest to economists, many of whom were influenced by Jeremy Bentham and the Utilitarian notion of ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’. But this notion then fell out of favour with economists. Happiness was too subjective. It could not be measured or weighed and therefore was the business of the individual citizen, not the economist. Economists, they believed, should concentrate on how to grow the economy and ensure that people had the opportunity to make and spend money. They assumed that individuals, as rational agents, would take steps to ensure that they made choices which brought them happiness and fulfilment. This is why modern society has come to equate happiness with economic growth.
However, the ‘upstart science of happiness’ as the Economist calls it challenges these assumptions. The research shows that people in rich countries are generally happier than people in poor countries but it also reveals a paradox: affluent countries throughout the world have not got happier as they’ve got richer. It seems that once your basic economic needs are met (roof over head, food on table, an opportunity for leisure and some semblance of stability) more money does not bring more happiness.
In their coverage of happiness and economics, the Economist puts up a stout defence of the importance of consumption and production to people’s happiness and quality of life, but as you’ll see if you read the piece their century old assumptions have been rattled and they are on the back foot.
The beginning of a new Enlightenment or what?
Note: You can read more about happiness and economics in the Positive Psychology Resources section of the website.
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