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Is Happiness Woolly, Mad, or Insane?

written by Amanda Horne 3 June 2011

Amanda Horne is an executive coach and facilitator whose business theme is "Thriving People and Workplaces." She is an Authentic Happiness Coaching graduate and a founding member of Positive Workplace International. Full bio.

Amanda's articles are here.

I recently read some papers and articles? seemingy unrelated to each other. Yet they caused me to reflect on institutions’ missions to create happiness for and on behalf of others.  To these questions there are no easy or simple answers. In this article are snapshots of what I read and some subsequent reflections.

Happiness and Public Policy

First, let’s recall Timothy So’s PPND article of December 2010 in which he wrote about well-being and policy setting. Timothy witnessed the UK Prime Minister’s announcement on 25 November of £2 million of funding for measuring well-being. “The UK Prime Minister (David Cameron) argued strongly that GDP is no longer an adequate measure of the progress of a country, and that we need a new way to track the success and well-being of the nation.”

Here is some commentary from the UK press in November 2010:


“In 1991, the author Michael Frayn wrote a book, A Landing on the Sun, about a British prime minister who tasked his advisers with looking into happiness and what the government could do to promote it. The prize proved elusive, the adviser went mad and died. Despite the fable, politicians aren’t so gloomy about the prospect of knowing what makes us happy – but substitute “happy” with the compound noun “wellbeing”. So much so that David Cameron is trying to get the concept up and running even in the midst of public service cuts and soaring living costs. He is sticking to a policy commitment he made before the economic crash when growth figures were still rosy. He said: “It’s time we admitted that there’s more to life than money and it’s time we focused not just on GDP but on GWB – general wellbeing.” (The Guardian newspaper)

“Prime Minister David Cameron has insisted his £2m plan to measure the nation’s happiness is not “woolly”. He said economic growth remained the most “urgent priority” but he wanted a better measure of how the country was doing than GDP. From April 2011, the UK Office for National Statistics will ask people to rate their own well-being with the first official happiness index due in 2012. Mr Cameron …. argues that gross domestic product (GDP) – the standard measure of economic activity used around the world – is no longer up to the job.” (The BBC)

With the UK experience as a backdrop, I was interested to read a media release dated 12th May 2011 from one of the Australian public service agencies. Here are some extracts:

Happy Workers

“The Commonwealth Ombudsman has promoted ‘happiness’ as a measuring tool for the success of Government policies and programs. Speaking at a service delivery conference in Sydney, the Ombudsman, Allan Asher said happiness was a ‘legitimate and useful way’ of measuring progress and success. ‘By adopting a new philosophy of public service … we will not only meet their [customers’] needs but enhance the wellbeing of the community,'”

“Satisfactory service delivery depends on listening to consumers of public services. More than that, it means having respect for them and the will to add to their well-being and happiness. Even more than that, it means leading organisations that have happy employees who feel they can make a difference and deliver public services in an ethical and empathetic way.”

“Governments are adopting a new measure of success: happiness. They are asking what makes people happy and how a sense of well-being is affected by policy making and its implementation.”

“New interest in happiness is partly being driven by new measures of happiness developed by scientists and by behavioural economics, which considers what influences human behaviour. But the belief that happiness has a role in rule and policy-making and implementation is not revolutionary.”

“What I want is for the Commonwealth Ombudsman – me and my staff – to deliver instead something I’ll call ‘adding to happiness’. You may decide that I’ve left my sanity in the car park.”

Are we happy with happiness?

Many people are comfortable using the word ‘happiness,’ as illustrated above. By contrast there is a wide and healthy debate over the limitations of such words as happiness and positivity and the merits of pursuing happiness. For example, in What’s Wrong with Being Positive, Chapter 25 of the Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work, Samantha Warren points out the limitations and risks in pursuing a positive strategy in organizations. She points out that routes to self-actualization and self-improvement can paradoxically have a negative effect if we are constantly feeling not good enough. She fears that the organizational agenda of happiness and positivity in fact, “positions many ordinary, normal people as abnormal or at best in need of professional help – whether in the form of therapists or self-help manuals.” She also ponders whether an organization genuinely has the interests of its employees at heart if “its objective is to increase organisational gain in the form of higher productivity, reduced attrition, absence, greater employee commitment and the attraction of the ‘best’ highly skilled workers.” These are just a few of her points and they are by no means representative of overall article.


The different voices and opinions around positivity and happiness raise questions prompting us all to take a balanced approach in this world of positive psychology:

  1. In whose interest is it when a nation or an organization has its people’s happiness as a goal? Would an organization help employees to pursue well-being and resilience if it had a negative impact on profits and performance?
  2. When is not helping people to be happy actually part of helping people with the deeper satisfaction of experiencing life’s ups and downs?
  3. Would a government pursue measures of happiness if it did not win votes?
  4. Could allowing people to be happy without further self-improvement actually help people be happy?
  5. How does a government or organization generate happiness in its citizens/employees when the cultural context created and perpetuated by those same governments / organizations causes unhappiness?

There are, I’m sure, many more questions for us to ponder with curiosity.



Frayn, M. (2003). A Landing on the Sun: A Novel. Picador Press.

David Cameron aims to make happiness the new GDP – 14 Nov 2010 (The Guardian Newspaper)

So, T. (2010). Well-being for Policy and for Life on Our Planet. Positive Psychology News Daily.

Plan to measure happiness ‘not woolly’ – Cameron 25 Nov 2010

A speech by Commonwealth Ombudsman Allan Asher to the conference L21 – Public Sector Leadership 2011: Rethinking and improving service delivery 12 May 2011,

Warren, S. (2010). What’s Wrong with Being Positive? In In P. A. Linley, S. Harrington, & N. Page (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work (Oxford Library of Psychology). New York: Oxford University Press.

Images by Amanda Horne

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wayne 6 June 2011 - 3:18 am

Amanda – I’m not sure if you can create a happy workplace unless you address the sources of negativity. I have great job where I get to use my strengths but some of my work colleagues generate lots of negativity to the point where sometimes I forget I have a great job.

Amanda Horne 13 June 2011 - 6:06 am

Wayne – I absolutely agree. I have seen how quickly an employee with a great job and great passion can decline in happiness if there are toxic relationships in the office.


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