UK readers of Positive Psychology News Daily will be aware that the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which is the UK Government’s single largest statistical producer, is developing new measures of national well-being. The aim is that these new measures will cover the quality of life of UK citizens and environmental and sustainability issues, as well as the economic performance of the country. In order to do this, the ONS is currently running a public consultation, asking what matters most in people’s lives and what is important for measuring the nation’s well-being.
Whilst I hope it isn’t an indication of their focus, I think it’s significant that of the 40 or so eminent academics, politicians, business people, and management consultants who make up the ONS’s Measuring National Well-being Advisory Forum, about half are economists and only three or four have well-known connections to positive psychology.
It seems that a lot of effort is going into this consultation, with a number of events being organized across the country, some of which are open to the general public. But you do have to ask why this is. Why is so much time and effort (oh, and let’s not forget the £2m) being spent on consulting the public on the subject of well-being when we already have volumes of research about happiness, well-being, and life-satisfaction, their correlates, benefits, contributing factors as well as the things which stand in the way, and a multitude of different theoretical approaches to choose from. On top of this, the UK’s New Economics Forum (NEF for short) has already developed comprehensive National Well-being Indicators, which incorporate personal, social and work well-being. And they have already published National Well-being Accounts for 22 European countries. Presumably the ONS hopes that a public consultation will shed more light on these complex matters.
Back to Basics?
The topic of measuring national well-being was the subject of a recent BBC Radio 4 programme: The pursuit of happiness. One of the first questions asked was “what is happiness and can it measure national well-being?’”Most of you will have read Martin Seligman’s Authentic Happiness (2002) which brought positive psychology out of the shadows and into the mainstream.
In Authentic Happiness, Seligman describes a compellingly simple model of happiness based on three pathways:
- Positive emotion – leading to a pleasant life
- Flow – leading to an engaged life
- Purpose – leading to a meaningful life
In short, the Authentic Happiness model suggested that you can achieve happiness in your life by pursuing one or more of these three pathways. This means that even if, for example, you don’t experience much positive emotion in your life, you can still be happy by doing activities which engage or absorb you fully, or by finding meaning in life by using your strengths in service of something larger. This conclusion was probably quite a relief to Seligman, who freely acknowledges in the book that until relatively recently he himself had been a bit of a grouch.
Authentic Happiness – the Sequel
In the past decade or so since positive psychology was launched, hundreds of scientific experiments have been carried out which are moving the field forward. So it’s exciting to hear that the original Authentic Happiness model has also been developed to embrace two further pathways, relationships and accomplishment. This new well-being theory (aka PERMA: Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment) is described in Seligman’s forthcoming book, Flourish: A new understanding of happiness and well-being – and how to achieve them.
Incorporating a relationships/ connections component makes sense on the basis that social support has been recognized as one of the most influential determinants of well-being. University of Michigan psychologist Christopher Peterson put it succinctly: ‘other people matter.’ Students of positive psychology will already be familiar with Ed Diener and Martin Seligman’s 2002 paper entitled Very Happy People, which is often used to highlight the finding that the difference between very happy people (which means the upper 10% of consistently very happy people) and those who are average or unhappy (which means the rest of us) is their relationships and social connections. When we are talking about national well-being, the frequency and quality of our interactions with family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and strangers, as well as our experience of trusting others and feeling like we belong, are all central to our level of well-being. As the 17th Century English poet John Donne said, ‘no man is an Island.’
Including accomplishment in well-being theory seems not so straightforward, however. Firstly there are numerous definitions of accomplishment. Do we mean accomplishment as in ‘achieving a personal goal’? Do we mean ‘competence,’ one of the three basic psychological needs in Self-Determination Theory? Or the sense of accomplishment we get from doing a good job and which makes the day seem worthwhile? Or perhaps we mean something else. Secondly, how should accomplishment be assessed? Will we use objective or subjective measures? Thirdly, if accomplishment is a suitable pathway to well-being, why not physical exercise, or eating a balanced diet? Since the science of positive psychology is descriptive, not prescriptive, surely there are other equally valid pathways to well-being which deserve a place in the theory of well-being.
It’s opportune that just as the UK government sets out to measure the nation’s well-being, Marie Forgeard and her colleagues Eranda Jayawickreme, Margaret Kern, and Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania publish a paper called Doing the right thing: Measuring well-being for public-policy. It gives an overview of the main theoretical perspectives on happiness and well-being and highlights Well-being Theory in particular, explaining the PERMA components as follows:
“These five elements are the best approximation of what humans pursue for their own sake …. Although individuals may sometimes pursue these elements for other ends (e.g., they may for instance think that accomplishment will bring positive emotion), many choose to do so because these elements are intrinsically motivating by themselves” (p. 97) (italics in original)
So the UK’s Office for National Statistics has certainly got its work cut out in interpreting well-being and applying it at a national level. The PERMA model has the advantage of being concise, covers both hedonic and eudaimonic aspects of well-being and, say Forgeard and her colleagues, all five facets can be measured both objectively and subjectively. Whether this is adequate for assessing national well-being is another matter: the PERMA measures are currently being developed.
Until the public consultation closes mid-April, and possibly for several months after that, we won’t know what measures the Office for National Statistics chooses to assess national well-being, nor what these measures reveal. I will keep you posted.
Diener, E. & Seligman, M.E.P. (2002). Very happy people. Psychological Science, 13(1), 81-84.
Forgeard, M.J.C., Jayawickreme, E., Kern, M.L. & Seligman, M.E.P. (2011). Doing the right thing: Measuring well-being for public policy. International Journal of Well-being, 1(1), 79-106.
Peterson, C., (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Seligman, Martin (2004), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.
The British Parliament & Big Ben: ** Maurice **: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mauricedb/2706292588/
Smiling Eyes: Yogendra174: http://www.flickr.com/photos/yogendra174/4369433169/
Joy: Henrik Ström: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sunefrack/2320900660/
Bull’s Eye: _StaR_DusT: http://www.flickr.com/photos/star-dust/1346110605/