British Conservative party leader David Cameron has been saying recently that it’s time we concentrated not just on GDP (gross domestic product), but on GWB (general wellbeing). I’m as cynical as anyone else about what will happen to this policy if he ever gains power, but at least he’s bringing the idea of happiness as something worth promoting into the public arena.
So what’s the background to this idea? Recently psychologists in the ‘positive psychology’ movement, as well as economists like Richard Layard, have been looking at what promotes happiness.
In the economic field, Layard and others have found that beyond a fairly basic minimum level, increases in income don’t make us happier. Once our basic comfort and survival needs are satisfied, we focus on status. Plus, money matters less the more you have of it. It follows (says Layard in his excellent book Happiness: Lessons From A New Science) that the most equal societies are the happiest. I can’t see the Conservatives fully embracing the policy implications any time soon.
The Education Guardian recently interviewed another ‘happiness economist’, Andrew Oswald:
"Before we can tell how happy we are, we have to keep comparing
ourselves with the neighbours. To keep up with the Joneses, we spend a
vast proportion of our income on things we don’t need. It’s the way
human beings are. But, collectively, we can’t all be ahead of the
average. That’s the key factor in why the continued emphasis on
economic growth doesn’t work for the whole of society."
For individuals, one key to being happier is to focus on small improvements, and accept imperfections. Another is to cultivate social relationships.
Tal Ben-Shahar’s "Positive Psychology" is the most popular course at Harvard. Reading about it, it’s easy to see why. Here’s an interview with him: How To Be Happy. It includes this lovely anecdote which for me puts the more ‘gung-ho’ wing of the self-improvement gurus into perspective:
Ben-Shahar remembers having an epiphany at a lecture on self-esteem,
given by a psychology professor he won’t name, who argued that we
should ignore what other people think of us, and get our validation
solely from within. "But after the lecture, when he was mingling with
the audience, I heard him keep asking, over and over again, ‘Did you
like my lecture? Did you like my lecture?’ ‘Overall, I thought it was
great,’ someone replied. ‘Overall? Overall?’ the professor responded.
‘What was wrong?’ We might as well accept that we crave external
approval, or we’ll only end up making ourselves feel bad for failing to
make ourselves feel good."
Ben-Shahar is featured on NPR radio here: How To Be Happy In A Harvard Classroom (this site also includes his ‘Six Tips For Happiness’).
And here’s an article by him: Make Lemonade Out of Lemons.