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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. Her latest book is Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland's ill health. 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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Posted 12/04/2011 | 2 Comments

I have just given  an interview with Radio Scotland and yesterday wrote a short piece for The Scotsman on the new Action for Happiness Project and I know that I am sounding like a typical Scot. 'Happiness? wait a minute … .' But on the other hand I have to be true not only to what I, as an individual, believe but also to what we as a Centre stand for.  

First let me say that there is a huge amount in Action for Happiness which I applaud. I think they are right to give out as one of their key messages the importance to doing things to create happiness for others. They are also right to stress the limitations of focusing on economic growth. I also support many of the items in their Happiness Action Pack such as keeping learning and taking exercise.

Indeed there is little in this pack that as a Centre we would disagree with for two main reasons. First some of it is basic common sense or old style values. The importance of life-long learning for example has been the focus of adult education for years. Secondly the pack is subtitled 'putting the science of well-being into practice',  so much of it overlaps with the type of work the Centre has been doing for the past seven years.

So what are the Centre's reservations and quibbles about the focus on happiness based on? There are two main reasons.

The first is the way that change tends to happen. I suspect that this campaign will have a major impact but this may not end up being particularly positive. My reasoning here is that few people will actually bother to read the materials or what is actually being said by the campaign leaders. This means that they are much more likely to get a watered down and headline message – happiness, positive emotions and feeling good, really, really matter and this is what we should pay attention to. Indeed making happiness a major goal is one of the expressed objects of the campaign.

A good example of a diluted message and a huge gap between what the leaders of a movement recommend and what actually happens on a day to day basis can be seen with self-esteem.  The thinkers behind the self-esteem movement like Nathanial Branden believed in challenge and autonomy but what actually happened in the name of self-esteem building? - false praise, reduction in challenge and overprotection of young folk. Youngsters' resilience, mental well-being and educational standards have suffered hugely as a result of such practices. Every American psychologist who has come to speak at one of our events (Martin Seligman, Carol Dweck, Jean Twenge, Keith Campbell, Barry Schwartz)  has reinforced our view that the self-esteem movement has been toxic to American youth and American culture.

In the UK we have felt the impact of these ideas and most parents now believe that it is a terrible thing if their child is not experiencing positive feelings as it may damage their self-esteem. Many already are anxious if their child has a bad day or a bad experience. This is why teachers report that parents are continually complaining about a myriad of things which may be undermining how their child feels – not getting the lead part in the pantomime, falling out with a friend, finding school work challenging. Paradoxically this attempt to protect youngsters in this way is undermining their resilience and also their mental well-being partly because they are being encouraged to blow out of all proportion every set back in life.

This focus on making children happy is leading to all sorts of parental behaviour which is not helpful for children's long-term well-being such as indulging their wishes for consumer goods or tvs in their rooms, allowing them to wear micro skirts to school or play the computer for hours and colluding with the idea that they can't learn certain subjects.  

Some of this is about parental guilt and busyiness but it is also about the psychology of our times – we don't like negative emotions or the idea of youngsters being challenged. If a full-blown happiness movement gets going I just don't see how this isn't going to get worse no matter how sophisticated the core message is of the Action for Happiness campaign.

Our second major reservation about the focus of this campaign concerns the pursuit of happiness. For centuries philosophers have encouraged us to see that happiness is elusive – the more we pursue it the less likely we are to be happy. And this is indeed verified by empirical research. 

In September 2010 the American psychologist Dr Todd Kashdan wrote an article outlining this very problem. He points out that American society is obsessed with happiness where the pressure to be happy is everywhere. He then goes on to explain that this is undermining the chances that people will actually be happy. This is not just his opinion as he cites several research projects which demonstrated this effect:

In one study, people were asked a number of questions about how much they value happiness and how much they believe it is important to work toward being happy. When in the midst of great stress, people were generally unhappy. For everyone else, the greater emphasis put on happiness, the least successful they were at obtaining it. It didn't matter how happiness was defined. People putting the greatest emphasis on being happy reported 50% less frequent positive emotions, 35% less satisfaction about their life, and 75% more depressive symptoms than people that had their priorities elsewhere. And in case, you are shaking your head at this narrow definition of happiness, take note that people that valued happiness the most also reported ~15% less psychological well-being. Psychological well-being is a smorgasbord of what is good in life including self-esteem, positive relations with other people, meaning and purpose in life, a sense of autonomy, and a sense of competence in tackling life's challenges. In sum, the more you value happiness, try to be happy, organize your life around trying to become happy, the less happy you end up.

As Kashdan points out happiness is more likely to be obtained as a by-product of a good life rather than as a goal in itself. Richard Layard, the prime mover behind Action for Happiness, was also a key player in The Good Childhood Inquiry. We believe that it might have been better if he had created Action for the Good Society or the Good Community or the like as we think this approach, paradoxically, may lead to more happiness than an Action for Happiness campaign.

As a Centre we nonetheless wish the project well and we'll look at what they are doing and draw people's attention to some of its ideas and research.

Comment By Comment
Joined: 28/06/2011

Comment Posted: 28/06/2011 19:01
Thanks for the interesting blog. I am currently volunteering for Oxfam Scotland and thought that you would be interested in a project we are undertaking at the moment, The Humankind Index. Basically it is looking to go beyond using economic growth to measure prosperity of a country and take in other aspects of life such as relationships, environment, health etc. to hopefully show what is truly important to people. Have a look at the link below for more info, any thoughts or feedback would be greatly appreciated.

Here is the link -http://www.oxfam.org.uk/resources/ukpoverty/humankind-index.php

Thanks again.

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Joined: 17/09/2011

Comment Posted: 17/09/2011 18:38

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Interesting. Insightful informed opinion as usual Carol. I had seen older view/research that pointed the other way. Dr Fordyce, an early happiness pioneer found people who 'value happiness' were happier.

Hope your well

Chat soon



Phil McNally BSc
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