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The Oxford Handbook of Happiness (Book Review)

By on July 29, 2013 – 2:03 pm  2 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.



“Happiness reminds us that ultimately this is a world of people, of families, of communities all alike – of human beings seeking the same thing. When we grasp this universal simplicity – this sense of a shared planet and  shared fate for those who walk on it in a common quest for happiness, well-being, and contentment – the answer to national and global problems will come closer at hand”  HM The King of Bhutan (pp. vii-viii)

With two forewords, one written by His Majesty Jigme Khesar, the King of Bhutan (the first country in the world to start measuring Gross National Happiness, back in 1974), and the other by Professor Felicia Huppert from the Well-being Institute at the University of Cambridge, you know this is a real heavyweight in the world of positive psychology textbooks. The product of “more than 3 years of work, decades of research, and many centuries of thinking” (p1), the Oxford Handbook of Happiness, edited by Susan David, Ilona Boniwell and Amanda Conley Ayers is the most comprehensive book on happiness that I have come across. Over 1000 pages long, with 79 chapters, over 120 contributors, and weighing more than 4.5 pounds (2 kilograms), this is a book for the serious student, tutor, researcher, and practitioner.

Even more than meets the eye

When it arrived on my desk earlier this year, my first reaction was absolute delight – all these fabulous ideas, research studies, and insights consolidated into one huge volume! As someone with strengths in curiosity and love of learning, it was like being a kid in a sweetshop. But where to start? A quick flick through the contents pages suggested so many avenues to explore it was difficult to choose. 

What initially struck me was the sheer breadth of topics covered. You get everything you’d expect in a textbook on happiness, including sections on psychological approaches to happiness, psychological definitions, positive education, happiness in organizations, and happiness interventions, but there’s so much more. There are sections on

  • Happiness in society, which includes research relating to happiness and geography, consumer societies, and sustainable development
     
  • Philosophical approaches including chapters on happiness in early Chinese thought, continental contributions to our understanding of happiness and suffering, and philosophical methods in happiness research
     
  • Spiritual approaches including happiness from Buddhist and Hindu perspectives, sanctification, and meditation and mindfulness

While many of the topics covered in this book have already been touched on in other edited positive psychology textbooks, there are many chapters in this handbook that are truly unique.

Why do we need another textbook on human happiness?

The authors’ rationale for this book is that it answers Professor Martin Seligman’s call at the First World Congress on Positive Psychology in 2009 for a positive social science, one which unites researchers and practitioners from fields as diverse as psychology, philosophy, education, economics, politics, sociology, health, and business. This has to be one of the first books in the world to do that comprehensively.

We know that Martin Seligman himself isn’t a big fan of the word happiness. In his 2011 book, Flourish, he writes of having been saddled with the word and “that awful smiley face” for the past decade, ever since he was persuaded by his publishers to use the title Authentic Happiness instead of his preferred title, Positive Psychology. The authors of The Oxford Handbook of Happiness deliberate chose the word because it’s an umbrella term that covers diverse approaches to well-being, including psychological well-being, hedonic well-being, eudaimonic well-being, life satisfaction, subjective well-being, health, and flourishing. The book successfully represents the different research interests, approaches, and thinking of its many contributors.

Amanda Conley Ayers

Amanda Conley Ayers

What else makes this book special?

In addition to the multi-disciplinary approach, state-of-the-art research, and depth of coverage, this book has several other distinguishing features:

  • This is an accessible text, even its sheer size may initially put some people off. Most chapters are easy to read, and you don’t have to start at page 1 and read it cover to cover. You can dip in and out, selecting the section that most interests you at the moment, since all ten can stand alone.
  • Daring to challenge positive psychology’s sacred cows, and doing it openly. As a new science, it seems odd to suggest that some ideas might already be beyond criticism, but reading this book really brought home how quickly they have taken hold. One such example is the importance of relationships to happiness. I’m sure many of you will be surprised to learn that according to one recent researcher, the importance of relationships to happiness has been overstated. Given our general acceptance that not only do other people matter, they matter enormously (yes I love that Chris Peterson quotation too), this assertion is definitely something worth exploring further.
  • There is a strong focus on practical applications. One section is entirely devoted to happiness interventions and includes chapters on coaching for well-being, Well-being Therapy, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Chapters in other sections describe practical approaches to increase happiness, such as well-being curricula in schools, specific practices to increase well-being in the workplace, and changes to social policy. Although not necessarily written as a guidebook for the practitioner, it contains a wealth of ideas for teachers, trainers, coaches, therapists and counselors.

Any downsides?

  • The absence of focus on strengths may seem unusual. Considering the ubiquity of strengths in positive psychology  it’s surprising that a book of this size has so few mentions (ten, to be precise). They are covered in various chapters on happiness interventions, coaching/work and positive education for example, but there is no single chapter devoted to the theory, literature and practice. If there are any downsides to this wonderful book, this is probably it. However, it does mean that you get different contributors’ perspectives on strengths, and that is no bad thing.
     
  • The size. It’s more of a doorstep than a handbook.
     
  • The cost. At around $160 (£110) per book, it will be beyond the reach of many. It should be mandatory reading on every Higher Education positive psychology syllabus, so I hope college and university libraries across the globe will decide to invest in multiple copies. (see below).

 

In conclusion

This is a ground-breaking volume of positive psychology research, and the breadth of perspectives offered in the Oxford Handbook of Happiness is unparalleled, not just in terms of the variety of new and more specialist topics included, but also because familiar topics such as Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build Theory of positive emotions are illustrated through the most up-to-date research, case studies, and examples. Clearly this is what positive psychology students and teachers need to progress the science, do high quality research, and put it out into the public domain.
 


 
References

David, S. A., Boniwell, I., Conley Ayers, A. (2013). The Oxford Handbook of Happiness. Oxford. Oxford University Press.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2004), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.

Images

Dr Susan David (Institute of Coaching, McClean Hospital, Belmont, MA; Department of  Psychiatry, Harvard Medical Schools, Cambridge, MA; Evidence Based Psychology, Cambridge, MA, USA) courtesy of the International Coaching Research Forum

Dr Ilona Boniwell (École Centrale Paris; Positran, Paris, France)  courtesy of LinkedIn

Amanda Conley Ayers (Evidence Based Psychology, Cambridge, MA, USA), photo by Caroline Miller.

2 Comments »

  • Lisa Sansom says:

    Thanks for this review Bridget. I’m typically a fan of the Oxford handbooks, but I don’t think I’ll be getting this one. The cost is a big deterrent, as well as the title. I was surprised to read this in your article: “The authors of The Oxford Handbook of Happiness deliberate chose the word because it’s an umbrella term that covers diverse approaches to well-being, including psychological well-being, hedonic well-being, eudaimonic well-being, life satisfaction, subjective well-being, health, and flourishing.”

    This may sound like an odd question, but is there a standard definition of “happiness” in the field of positive psychology? I had thought that happiness was merely one positive emotion. I don’t see it as the goal of positive psychology at all, but just one path towards well-being – typically association with hedonic well-being, and not so much the others. Perhaps that’s just a reflection of my own path in life, rather than the science.

    What does seem incontestable is that books with the word “happiness” in the title are more likely to become best-sellers, and so we get that “awful smiley face” more and more frequently. I have to admit, it puts me off. Perhaps I’m just a sourpuss!

    In any case, thanks for the information – perhaps I”ll overcome my reticence and at least put this tome on my wish list. 🙂

  • Hi Lisa

    Thanks for your comments. You raise a very interesting point about happiness and its definition. I don’t think I’ve come across one which everyone agrees about, but I’ll keep looking…

    I wonder whether there is a difference between how the term is used in the US/Canada and the UK/Europe/rest of the world. Actually I’m quite comfortable with using it as an umbrella term (as it’s used in this book)and I don’t see it as merely one positive emotion. Though that was Seligman’s justification for ‘abandoning’ (authentic) happiness in favour of ‘well-being’ and ‘flourishing’ now.

    In the UK we have a movement called Action for Happiness, which is doing a lot of good work to bring about positive social change through promoting all forms of well-being, not just the positive emotion-based/happiness kind.

    http://www.actionforhappiness.org/

    Warm wishes from the UK
    Bridget

    PS And no, I’d never say you were a sourpuss!!

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