Putting happiness, wellbeing and positive psychology on the agenda

Putting happiness, wellbeing and positive psychology on the agenda

The science of happiness – championed by Richard Layard (pdf) and others – has achieved much, not least putting wellbeing on the agenda. But it is already showing signs of reaching its limits. Why? Because it has sidelined or ignored the great insight of the philosophers of happiness. As John Stuart Mill put it: happiness is only achieved when it is not a direct end. Mill himself found lasting happiness not by pursuing it but in friendship. However, it would be a mistake to think that wellbeing might be boosted just by promoting friendship. For like happiness, friendship too is found indirectly.

The basic problem is that, to date, the science has tended to treat life as simpler than it is. For example, if happiness is defined as positive emotional states, that is pleasure, it excludes the happiness that can only be obtained with pain. In fact, since the sources of the most profound kinds of happiness require us to deal with other people, to say nothing of ourselves, it seems highly likely that happiness is inseparable from suffering – or at least the potential for suffering.

This suggests why friendship is such a critical issue. And as with happiness, the point is not that science has nothing to tell us about friendship. For example, according to research from the Mental Health Foundation, two-thirds of people with mental health problems reported that it helped to have friends around, and one in three commented that they received more help from their friends than their GP or family. Alternatively, when it comes to people’s working lives, there is clear evidence that pressures at work put unwelcome strains on friendship.

The 2007 British Social Attitudes survey found that 77% of women in full-time work and 67% of men in full-time work would like to be able to spend more time with friends. These figures were much worse than those in 1989, when only 62% of women and 49% of men said so. And this is after 10 years of businesses trumpeting the so-called work/life balance…

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