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Home » All, In-the-News, Three Pathways

Measuring the Nation’s Well-being: Authentic Happiness and Well-being Theory

By on February 26, 2011 – 4:09 pm  24 Comments

Bridget Grenville-Cleave, MAPP graduate of the University of East London, is a UK-based positive psychology consultant, trainer and writer. She is author of Introducing Positive Psychology: A Practical Guide (2012), and The Happiness Equation with Dr Ilona Boniwell. She regularly facilitates school well-being programs and Positive Psychology Masterclasses for personal and professional development. Find her on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter @BridgetGC. Website. Full bio. Her articles are here.



The British Parliament and Big Ben

The British Parliament and Big Ben

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.

Smiling Eyes

Smiling Eyes

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.

Joy

Joy

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)

Bulls Eye

Bull's Eye

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.
 


 

References

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.

Images

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/

24 Comments »

  • Timothy T.C. So says:

    Thanks Bridget! Great one!

  • Todd Kashdan says:

    Just curious. How is informing policy makers to measure well-being, and choosing which dimensions they should focus on, descriptive and not prescriptive? Here is my thought. Science is not value neutral, especially when focusing on improving human welfare. Thus, why not lose this erroneous soundbite? Wouldn’t it be more honest and valuable to educate people on what separates science from other sources of information (e.g., quality control, testing intuitive ideas, discovering non-intuitive ideas, ruling out alternative explanations)? Continuing to pound on the table that our work is descriptive and objective is simply inaccurate. But here’s the rub, its okay if we are both descriptive and prescriptive. What matters is timing and context for when we are prescriptive. This is a different approach that arguably will help our dissemination efforts in the short-term and long-term.

    Your thoughts?

    cheers,
    Todd B. Kashdan, Ph.D.
    Associate Professor
    Department of Psychology
    Senior Scientist
    Center for Consciousness and Transformation
    George Mason University

  • Oz says:

    Bridget,

    I really don’t think PP is in a position to influence this. There is no broad agreement on measuring wellbeing within PP – Selligmans model (and a western one at that) is just one model and it has changed substantially over 10 years.

    And the PERMA model really misses some basics eg mindfulness

  • Mark2 says:

    Hi Bridget – so far as the survey questions go it seems the deed is done.

    The ONS published a Press Release on Feb24 http://www.statistics.gov.uk/pdfdir/stwell0211.pdf with details of the 4 questions they will be using to measure the nation’s SWB, they are:

    Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?
    Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?
    Overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?
    Overall, to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?

    The questions will be added to the Integrated Household Survey from April 2011.

    Overall, on a scale of 0 worst possible to 10 best possible, how do you rate these questions?

  • Hi Timothy

    Thanks! I’d be interested to hear how PERMA compares to your Flourishing model – any comments?

    Bridget

  • Hello Todd,

    Ah yes, well that’s a very apposite comment! I’m with you on the prescriptive/ descriptive argument. But generally speaking I do think that people in the US and increasingly in the UK are cautious about saying anything which could be taken as ‘advice’ just in case 1) it doesn’t work or 2) it causes some unwanted side-effects or 3) it backfires completely, because then a lawsuit would probably follow (Of course many working in the health & welfare fields say it’s in order to give people control over their lives and their decisions, but I have to say I’m sceptical about that. If I’ve got a serious health issue, I want my medical consultant to give me her advice, not just give me a range of options and ask me to choose….)

    So the descriptive/ prescriptive phrase is a handy little get-out clause, isn’t it?

    As to educating people about what separates science from other sources of information, I agree, but to be honest, I think people would be too bored to listen. In this day and age, people are encouraged to want the soundbites.

    In relation to PP and to this paper in particular, to be fair, the advice to policy-makers, if you could call it that, was limited to ‘use both subjective & objective measures and create some kind of dashboard’. Move over positive psychologists, here come the management consultants….

    As to context & timing for prescription, fair point, although how do you know if they’re right except in retrospect?

    Bridget

  • Hi Oz,

    When you say PP isn’t in a position to influence this, do you mean public policy? I agree that PP is messy – over time there will be convergence though I don’t know how long that’ll take. I’m not sure I agree about the inability to influence, even if the economists overshadow the pos psychologists on the Advisory Forum. And I think any economist arguing simply to increase GDP would be laughed at.

    Yes PERMA is a Western model, Pos Psychology (as we know it) is a Western invention. I wouldn’t argue that it’s the only way to look at well-being, or even the best way. In Forgeard et al’s paper, various well-being approaches, models and measures were mentioned (even if PERMA was in the spotlight) there just wasn’t space here to refer to them all.

    I think PERMA’s critics would agree with you that it misses a lot of basics, although if you take the criteria for inclusion (each of the 5 elements is “the best approximation of what humans pursue for their own sake”), does mindfulness fit?

    Bridget

  • Hi Mark2

    Yes I heard about it on the news. And it did make me wonder why go through the façade of a public consultation, which doesn’t end till mid-April.

    I suppose we must be pleased that something’s included in the survey even if the questions aren’t perfect. If you’re only asking 4 questions, you’re going to be limited. Even the Satisfaction with Life Scale has 5! There are so many nuances to well-being that this isn’t going to give us a complete picture. And it does rather boil down to what we do with the results.

    As with all surveys there are going to be some problems. Asking people how happy or anxious they felt yesterday depends on when you answer the question of course. If it’s on Saturday 30th April, I dare say most British people would say 10/10 and 0/10 respectively, we all so love a Royal Wedding…

    I like the last question which taps into meaning & purpose. I think the absence of something about relationships/social connections/ trust is a missed opportunity though it’d be difficult to get it all into one question.

    My summing up at this point would be ’not perfect but better than nothing’. Yours?

    Bridget

  • Todd Kashdan says:

    Thanks for responding. I think people can handle stronger soundbites. For me, the soundbite needs to be truthful at a minimum. Saying our science is descriptive and not prescriptive is simply wrong. And that becomes easy for critics to point out and then discount anything else you have to say.

    Starting with truthful statements is the best strategy for persuading people to commit resources.

    You would be surprised how you can describe the value of science in interesting, engaging ways. Focus on stories and concrete examples. I do this everyday inside the class and outside to the media, corporate professionals, allied health professionals, schools, etc. I put the onus on the speaker. Science, if described well, is as exciting as science fiction. Look to exemplars: Hawkings, Zimbardo, Gladwell, Dawkins, etc. People are writing NYT #1 bestsellers that tell stories about what science offers people and societies. Its not boring but it can be described in ways that are boring.

    cheers,
    Todd

  • Hi again Todd

    I couldn’t agree more. Hawking, Dawkins and co are deserved No1 best sellers, but I’m not so sure this means they’re read by the average man or woman in the street. The problem is that by dumbing down (which I think is happening in science) a lot gets lost in translation.

    Does science equal truth? In chemistry maybe, but in psychology? If it were a question of fact rather than interpretation, surely we wouldn’t be arguing about global warming.

    In PP, one could argue that empirical evidence is irrelevant anyway i.e. ‘as long as it works, who cares (apart from scientists) what science says?’ I’m sure there’s a lot of nonsense peddled in some (best-selling) self-help books, but many people find it works for them….

    Bridget

  • Todd Kashdan says:

    I’ll give you one concrete example of why empirical evidence is absolutely important in PP. this is quote from p. 410 of

    Froh, J.J., Kashdan, T.B., Ozimkowski, K.M., & Miller, N. (2009). Who benefits the most from a gratitude intervention in children and adolescents? Examining positive affect as a moderator. Journal of Positive Psychology, 4, 408-422.
    (download here: http://psychfaculty.gmu.edu/kashdan/publications/Froh,%20Kashdan%20et%20al%20%282009%29%20who%20benefits%20most%20from%20a%20gratitude%20tx.pdf)

    “Of the nine studies examining gratitude interventions, three studies (Emmons &
    McCullough, 2003, Study 1, Study 2; Froh et al., 2008) found that the majority of statistically significant differences existed between the gratitude intervention and hassles condition, not the control condition. The study using early adolescent participants (Froh et al., 2008), most relevant to the current study, found differences between the gratitude condition and no-treatment controls on only one outcome at posttest and follow-up. Furthermore, another study found no significant differences between a gratitude intervention
    and listing the details of one’s day (Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2006). The remaining five studies, however, draw a brighter picture for the efficacy of
    gratitude interventions. Two found that a gratitude intervention was more strongly associated with well-being compared with no-treatment controls
    (Emmons & McCullough, 2003, Study 3; Lyubomirsky et al., 2005). One found that grateful processing, compared with focusing on regrets, was related with less NA (Watkins et al., 2003, Study 3). Another found that grateful processing, compared with writing about the layout of a living room, was
    related with more PA (Watkins et al., 2003, Study 4). Only one found that two different gratitude interventions were related with more happiness and less
    depression compared with a ‘placebo control’ group (Seligman et al., 2005). See Table 1 for a summary of these nine studies.

    Taken together, these studies provide mixed findings supporting the efficacy of gratitude interventions. The hassles and regrets conditions might be driving
    the between group differences by producing NA, rather than the gratitude condition producing well-being. The gratitude condition might be the control, and these studies might have only shown that listing hassles or regrets decreases well-being compared with control groups. One reason for the non-statistically significant differences between the gratitude interventions and controls may be due to a moderator. Perhaps the interventions only work for certain types of people.”

    how many times do people describe the research on gratitude interventions that differ from these data? Only by empirically testing questions can we determine what works for whom, and why, under which conditions. For all we know, much of what is being done by PP coaches is nothing more than placebo effects. Which is fine, except placebo effects tend not to last, placebo pills require a lot less money and effort, and how should people continue on their own and sustain gains if the mechanisms are misunderstood? For this reason, empirical evidence is absolutely relevant to PP.

    cheers,
    Todd

  • Oz says:

    Bridget,

    Mindfulness doesn’t fit the criteria for inclusion – but then who is to say the criteria are right.

    PP can’t (and shouldn’t) influence policy as it really doesn’t have its head around wellbeing. And the research is in its early days. Todd’s example of gratitude is typical of this. Likewise there is reserach showing that working on weaknesses improves wellbeing, forgiveness is more effective for women, achievement is more important for men, meaning isn’t as important for Australians, optimism only benefits the healthy. All highlighting the compexity of the issue.

    And then most of the research has been on psychology students – and probably middle class anglo cohorts. I don’t think its reasonable to extrapolate this to the broader community

  • Mark2 says:

    3 out of 10 for me, Bridget – 1 question about as good as it could be, 3 not so:

    1 Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?
    Good question, widely used so there’s plenty of comparative data & experience available to help interpret the results (for example, we know the usual answer is 6 or 7 out of 10). And as it’s the first element in a widely researched & respected models of wellbeing (SWB = Life Satisfaction + Frequency of Positive Affect – Frequency of Negative Affect) it also helps provide a sound theoretical basis

    2 Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?
    Poor question, why focus exclusively on happiness? There are many other forms of positive affect that also contribute to our sense of wellbeing, so why not embrace the variety & try to capture all forms of positive subjective experiences, large & small: ‘How many positive thoughts & feelings have you had over the past couple of days?’(0 none, 10 very many).
    And, since the optimum doseage for positive affect is a little & often, I wonder if there’s a good reason why the ONS question addresses the intensity of happiness rather than it’s frequency?

    3 Overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?
    Again, why single out anxiety above all other varieties of negative affect? Is anxiety more injurious to the nation’s wellbeing than anger, failure, despair, loneliness or exhaustion? Is it even invariably negative? In 4 questions why not invite people to simply describe the tone of their feelings rather than their content, ‘How many negative thoughts & feelings have you had over the past couple of days?’.
    And 2 such matched questions would also provide a positivity ratio.

    4 Overall, to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?
    This is the one that really mystifies me, it seems so random. If the purpose of these few questions is to help inform policy making, surely policy makers would want to know the vector, the broad direction people felt their wellbeing was heading in ‘Looking ahead, to what extent is life getting better or worse for you’?

    Or maybe not?

  • Hi Todd

    We’re dealing with humans not machines, so even if we can determine the conditions etc, we still can’t guarantee that a PP intervention will work. Which is why Lyubomirsky and others give so much attention to the person-activity fit.

    And there is an argument that rather than taking a reductionist approach to PP we’d be better off with a systems approach. We’d be focussing on the bigger questions of social change etc that impact well-being which I think is far more important. At least it’s worth considering even if it’s not fashionable.

    Bridget

  • Hi Oz

    Yes there might well be other, better criteria.

    We’re never going to reach a point of perfect understanding through science. At least, not in our lifetimes

    I agree completely with complexity (hence the need for a systems approach), that PP is too white/middle-class/Western etc and that other perspectives are needed.

    Bridget

  • Hi Mark2

    Thanks for these comments, v helpful. I’m not sure the policy makers really know what they want to know. Hence the huge advisory board. I thought the final question was about meaning/purpose, though how it’ll be incorporated into public policy is a mystery.

    It’s an interesting point about a trajectory. Do you know of any research which includes projections of well-being/life satisfaction in this way? I know there’s some on our inability to accurately forecast emotions.

    Bridget

  • oz says:

    Bridget – Perhaps working on system issues like exercise, sleep and nutrition might be more important than PP.

    See http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=871

  • oz

    I agree – these would go a long way to solving the depression problem.

    Nutrition is completely overlooked in PP. I highly recommend Bernard Gesch’s work at the University of Oxford – it will open your eyes. I was shocked to find out that the food we class as good today just isn’t (and I’m not talking about processed stuff either).

    Gesch has also done lots of work on the impact of diet on criminal behaviour:
    http://www.fabresearch.org/554

    Bridget

  • Oz says:

    Bridget – thanx for the research – it was really interesting

  • oz

    You’re welcome!

    I suppose exercise, sleep and nutrition etc will only start to feature if we focus less on the means (psychology) and more on the ends (wellbeing). But then it wouldn’t be positive psychology would it!

    Bridget

  • oz says:

    Bridget, it’s interesting that Selligman is promoting positive health but sees it separate to positive psychology.

    Equally interesting is that PP’ers are comfortable acknowledging the impact that PP can have on health but not the other way around. Sees like there might be a self serving bias happening here.

    By the way if you are interested in alternatives to the PERMA model check out my PERFORM model – there is probably just as much research supporting its theoretical background. see http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=863

  • oz

    There was some early discussion on our MAPP about taking a more holistic approach in PP, but it seems to have disappeared off the radar.

    I liked PERFORM btw. Does ‘regulatory strength’ mean self-regulation?

    Bridget

  • oz says:

    Bridget,

    yep regulatory strength is self regulation

    perform seems to strike a chord in the corporate work that I do

    well I guess the narrow focus of MAPP is a good thing. Leaves huge opportunities for those of us prepared to look at well being from a more holistic perspective

  • oz

    Including self-regulation is a stroke of genius. Many people seem to think that you can just improve your well-being and ‘be happy’ without actually doing anything different. I’ve always argued that happiness is about doing not being (I’m not talking about mindfulness here. I mean in the same way that ‘love’ is about doing not being). So that makes sense to me.

    Bridget

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