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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. 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 03/10/2005

There’s an excellent article on happiness and the rise of positive psychology in the magazine of the latest Sunday Times. The work of the Centre even gets a good plug.

There is little doubt that happiness is becoming one of the most talked about, and studied, topics of our age. A few months ago Time Magazine devoted over 64 pages to the new science of happiness. Books keep appearing on the topic and now we have a weighty 5,000 word article appearing in one of the UK’s heavyweight Sunday papers.

Concluding that happiness should be an important subject for study, or social policy, is not new. Almost two hundred years ago, the British philosopher and radical, Jeremy Bentham, put happiness at the centre of his utilitarian philosophy. “The greatest happiness of the greatest number” was the benchmark against which everything was to be judged. Happiness, however, fell out of favour with social scientists – both psychologists and economists – who believed that happiness was subjective and so not a worthy subject of study. The idea that happiness is lightweight and inconsequential also helped to confine it to academic obscurity.

What has helped to redeem the study of happiness is that given developments in neuroscience and psychometrics a ‘science of happiness’ now seems possible. In other words, there are now fairly reliable measures for measuring happiness and enough solid knowledge for academic experts, such as Professor Martin Seligman to claim that so much is now known about what increases happiness that it is possible to teach people the skills of amplifying positive experiences and happiness.

Last year I had the pleasure of organising a dinner so that the American professor Ed Diener, another of the world’s leading authorities on happiness, could meet and discuss his work with a variety of people from Scottish business, politics and academia. He began by telling us about how as a young undergraduate he wanted to write his dissertation on a comparison between the happiness levels of poor Hispanics in his area with better off WASPs. (White anglo-sazon protestants.) His hunch was, that despite the lack of cash the poor Hispanics were just as happy. But when he explained his idea to his tutor he was derided. He was told not only that happiness was entirely subjective, and so not amenable to measurement, but also that the poor were much less happy than the rich. The young Diener had no choice but to drop the topic. And what did he choose to study instead? Conformity.

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