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Carol Craig's commentary on happiness in The Scotsman 26 July 2011

Carol Craig was asked to submit a small commentary piece for The SCotsman in light of the Office for National Statistics announcement on their progress on well-being indicators. The piece appeared on 26 July. The Scotsman isn't on-line and so you can't access the piece. Also it has been shortened so here's the full version Carol submitted:


In 1968 President Kennedy summed up the problem of GDP:  'It does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play' he declared, adding 'It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.'

To this extent, the UK Government's decision to employ measures of well-being is a positive development. But it will be a retrograde step if well-being and happiness become, as they currently are in the press, interchangeable terms and if we become a nation obsessed with levels of personal happiness.

Well-being is a composite term. It implies a judicious balance of physical, emotional, social and spiritual health. We intuitively understand that, despite daily discomfort, a mountaineer or charity worker in Africa can have better well-being than an affluent celebrity. 

Philosophers can define happiness in elaborate terms but the general public understand happiness as being in a good mood and having positive feelings now. This type of happiness can easily become instant gratification, hedonism and indulging children's whims. Thanks to the mass media, and the values of consumer culture, we've already got too much of this already: the last thing we need is for it to be given an added boost from Government policy.

What's more, there's considerable evidence to show that pursuing happiness backfires: those who make happiness a goal are less likely to find it than those who get on with their lives.

Indeed some American therapists report changes to their clientele. They now see more thirty somethings – the offspring of devoted parents intent on nurturing happiness. These new clients feel empty and obsessed with their feelings. As they were shielded from negative feelings in childhood, they lack resilience and can't weather life's inevitable ups and downs.

Individualism and what Martin Seligman calls 'the bloated self' underlie many of the problems of well-being in western culture. The pursuit of self-interest has undermined the economy and standards in public life. It's also threatening the eco-system through the overuse of resources.

As Kennedy's critique showed, even in 1960s America there was an understanding of the public realm. In discussing alternatives to GDP, and 'what makes life worthwhile'  he mentions public discourse and standards and when he talks about what makes 'Americans proud' he isn't talking about their individual lives but their country.

The public realm has hardly surfaced in the debate about well-being indicators other than the impact of government policies on individuals' jobs and health care.  But if this development is really going to help national well-being we need to move beyond discussion of individual life satisfaction into public and cultural arenas.

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