Timothy So, Msc, is a PhD candidate in Psychology in the University of Cambridge Department of Psychiatry. He is a Research Associate of Cambridge University's Well-being Institute and a Chartered Occupational Psychologist. Timothy is also responsible for both the Traditional and the Simplified Chinese PPND sites. Full bio.
In both his opening and closing addresses at the 1st World Congress of the International Positive Psychology Association (WCPP), Dr. Martin Seligman challenged the community to meet an ambitious goal:
To increase the percentage of the world population that is considered ‘flourishing’ from today’s 7-33% to 51% by the year 2051.
This is a splendid goal that needs to be pursued not just at the individual level, but also at the institution and population levels.
Why the Population Level Matters
While research at the individual level demonstrates that people can take responsibility for their own health, emotion and behavior and make their own lives more enjoyable and meaningful, it is equally important to take an epidemiological perspective and recognize that health, emotion and behavior can be profoundly influenced by the society someone belongs to.
Studies by Huppert show that whether or not a person has a mental health problem is influenced not only by individual characteristics and experiences, but also by population-level factors.
Some people may think that putting many happy individuals together will make a happy society. It is not so simple. In one of my favorite books, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, Lord Richard Layard (p. 225) stated that “our society is not likely to become happier unless people agree that this is what we want to happen.
” In Yes, I Stand By My Words: Happiness Equals Love—Full Stop, George Vaillant explains how capacity for relationships predicted rewarding lives among the Harvard Study participants. Similar results are also shown by Helliwell and Putnam. The capacity for relationships is affected by societal and cultural practices and values. Take trust in others as an example: according to the World Values Survey (WVS), the percentage of a population agreeing with the statement, ‘Yes, most people can be trusted’ varies widely from 5% in Brazil to 64% in Norway. Where a person lives affects the likelihood of experiencing trust, which influences happiness and well-being.
Three Essential Goals at the Population Level
What goals can we set at the population level to work towards the lofty 51% by 2051 goal set by Seligman? I propose the following three. The rest of this article explains the first. Subsequent articles will explain the second and third。
- New consensus definitions and reliable measures;
- Positive Education; and
- Integrating related disciplines into positive science
New Consensus Definitions and Reliable Measures
Diener and Seligman proposed the need to measure how populations experience life in order to supplement existing objective measures such as GDP and health, social and environmental indicators. In the past, GDP was considered a good first approximation of how well a population was doing. However, evidence suggests that on average people are no happier today than they were fifty years ago, even though average incomes have doubled and the GDP has gone up. We are now enjoying better physical health, nicer living and working conditions, and ever-advancing technology. Yet, Seligman points out that depression is about ten times more common now in every wealthy nation on the planet than it was fifty years ago. So how should we define and measure well being and good life at the population level?
In Education Today, Seligman argued that “the aim of wealth should be to produce more well-being.” General well-being can be validly quantified, and such measures could complement the GDP as standards for evaluating public policy.
In order to enhance societal progress on population well-being, we need timely, validated, and reliable measures that allow psychologists, sociologists, educators, policy makers and the public to understand and interpret the state of the population. We need new consensus definitions to form reliable measures so that we can study underlying correlates and determinants. We need valid measures of well-being, happiness, positive mental health and flourishing that can be understood and used by people in many different roles.
I conclude with a lovely statement by Layard (p. 234), “A society cannot flourish without some sense of shared purpose. The current pursuit of self-realisation will not work. If your sole duty is to achieve the best for yourself, life becomes too stressful, too lonely – you are set up to fail. Instead, you need to feel you exist for something larger, and that very thought takes off some of pressure.”
Watch for additional articles on the role and significance of positive education and integrating related disciplines.
Helliwell, J. F., & Putnam, R. D. (2005). The social context of well-being. In F. A. Huppert, N. Baylis & B. Keverne (Eds). The Science of Well-Being. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Huppert, F. A. (2005) Positive mental health in individuals and populations. In F. A. Huppert, N. Baylis & B. Keverne (Eds). The Science of Well-Being. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Diener, E. & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Beyond money: Toward an economy of well-being. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 5, 1-31.
Layard, R. (2005). Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. New York: Penguin.
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. (2008). Positive education and the new prosperity. Education Today. August, 20-21