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Why is happiness on the agenda?

Happiness used to be considered a matter for individuals to sort out for themselves, but recently the question as to whether or not we are happy has pushed its way onto the agenda as one of the key questions of our time.

 As a Centre we are not keen on 'the happiness agenda' in that we think there are dangers in focusing too much on happiness as opposed to well-being. 

Professor Martin Seligman also has reservations and his new book published in the UK in May 2011 is  on 'flourishing'.

We are, however, maintaining these materials as we think they are of relevance to individuals and we shall in time absorb them into our new and developing perspective.

In this section we explore how a topic that used to be considered as lightweight and personal became the issue that has grabbed the attention of policy-makers, educationalists, public health specialists and psychologists.

A raft of recent research projects shows that happy people are healthier, harder-working, more involved with their friends and families and tend to be more successful in life. In short, their lives are more fulfilled and they are less likely to divorce, become long-term sick, long-term unemployed, or to commit crime. For those who want to see a healthier, well-educated, fully-employed society, an increased level of happiness now looks like it could make a significant contribution.

We’ve never had so much – but our houses, cars, holidays, and designer shoes are not making us any happier. Traditionally, the politician’s response to signs of unhappiness in society was to improve the economy, boost our spending power and tell us that we’ve never had it so good. But it is now becoming clear that ever-higher incomes won’t make us any happier, so policy-makers are now looking for some other way of filling the holes in our lives. Improving the sum total of happiness in society is rapidly establishing itself as an area worth exploring.

In a remarkable convergence of thinking, the fields of psychology, economics and public health have also recently started to take happiness seriously. 

Ever since it became a science, psychology has spent most of its resources on trying to repair the ailments of the mind. Some psychologists estimate that more than 90% of research into emotion has concentrated on various forms of mental illness such as depression, anxiety, paranoia, obsessions etc. As a result, we now have effective treatments for a range of conditions, but have failed to find the answer to many others. 

Professor Martin Seligman, who created the concept of ‘Learned Helplessness’, has written more than 20 books, including Learned Optimism, The Optimistic Child and Authentic Happiness. The last of those provides solid scientific research demonstrating that happiness is not just about passing a pleasurable moment or two, it actually makes us healthier, protecting us against the ravages of ageing and even prolonging our life span. 

Seligman, who is spearheading the Positive Psychology movement, argues that happiness is its most important aspect.

Public health specialists like Richard Eckersley of the Australian National University, Canberra, has explored why it is that although we live longer, are healthier and are better off financially, many of us lack fulfilment in our lives.

Economists are also examining the contribution that happiness could make to the well-being of society. In 2005 Richard Layard of the London School of Economics published his Happiness: Lessons from a New Science which argues that we shouldn’t use economic growth or levels of unemployment as a means of measuring our success as a society. Instead, we should measure how happy we are as a nation, or how much unhappiness we’ve managed to reduce.

Layard says: “We desperately need a concept of the common good. I can think of no nobler goal than to pursue the greatest happiness of all – each person counting.”

In psychological terms his outlook is part of the ‘hedonic’ view, the idea that happiness is all about how we feel from moment to moment and that the sum total of our happiness is the quantity of good things that happen in our lives, minus the bad things. Princeton Professor Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel prize for economics in 2002, has been key to the development of ‘hedonic psychology’, the study of what makes life and its experiences pleasant or unpleasant. He has concluded that being better off in material terms does not make us any happier.

The limitation of focusing on pleasant experiences is that we adapt to the good things in life and begin to take them for granted. Your first car was probably a high point in your life, but it probably wasn’t long before it simply became a part of your daily routine rather than a source of pleasure. Quite quickly, you may have started yearning for a bigger, faster, newer model. As your income grows and your quality of life improves, so you want even more. The scientists call it 'the hedonic treadmill' – and most of us spend a big part of every day on it. 

In his book The Progress Paradox, Gregg Easterbrook explores one of the great enigmas of our time. Why is it that while our lives get better in material terms, we feel worse? He argues that factors like our envy of other people’s apparent success, the media’s emphasis on bad news, lack of sleep, and our worries that medical advances carry negative side effects are to blame. He concludes that we’ll feel better if we move “beyond material obsession” and focus on things like positivity, forgiveness, gratitude, rediscovering the spiritual side of our lives.

Research by Edward Diener demonstrates that, in general, people in wealthy countries are happier than those in poor nations. But once they have enough to meet their basic needs, more money does not equate to more happiness. In fact, his research has led him to conclude that while happy people tend to live longer, do well at work and have larger circles of friends than their less happy counterparts, the very happiest tend not to earn as much as moderately happy people. Diener suggests that those who are most happy are less conscientious and tend to spend more time in bars and other social situations, with a concomitant impact on their career advance.

People like Seligman, Eckersley, Diener and the others mentioned above are not lone voices crying in the wilderness, they are simply the pacemakers in the rapidly developing field of Positive Psychology. Few serious psychologists, for example, now scoff at the idea of researching happiness. Over the last few years more than 3000 scientific papers have explored the benefits and impacts of happiness, creating spin-offs such as the World Database of Happiness and the Journal of Happiness.

They are providing the scientific proof for the question which has puzzled human beings for thousands of years, what is happiness?

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