Home All Well-Being at the Population Level: Building a Flourishing World

Well-Being at the Population Level: Building a Flourishing World

written by Timothy T.C. So 18 July 2009

Timothy So, Msc, es candidato al Doctorado de Psicología en el Departamento de Psiquiatría de la Universidad de Cambridge. Es Investigador Asociado del Cambridge University's Well-being Institute y Psicólogo Ocupacional. Timothy también es responsable de los sitios del PPND tanto en chino tradicional como en el simplificado. Biografía completa.

Sus artículos anteriores en inglés están aquí. Y también puedes encontrar sus otros artículos traducidos al español aquí.

Martin Seligman at the Podium

Martin Seligman at the Podium

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.

Scholars and researchers are working on consensus definitions and measures. OECD and ISQOLS are organizing the upcoming Satellite Meeting on “Measuring subjective well-being: an opportunity for National Statistical Offices?” to raise awareness within the statistical community about the importance of good measures of subjective well-being, quality of life, and flourishing. They are going to identify the best approaches for reliably measuring subjective well-being and plan next steps, such as developing a handbook on these measurements. Scholars will share existing results. For example, Professor Huppert from the Cambridge Well-being Institute will give a presentation titled How many European are flourishing and what characterizes them?


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.



Further readings:

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

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Kathryn Britton 18 July 2009 - 5:47 pm

Thanks for writing about the Seligman challenge — and about zooming out to see things at population levels. It raises interesting questions — like why is the level of trust so high in Norway? Is something happening there that could be replicated elsewhere?


Mina McBride 18 July 2009 - 8:34 pm

Great article. I especially like your parting words. I think they have particular meaning here in the West where a lot of our focus seems to be on getting the best for ourselves. The interesting thing is, looking at those who are most successful, they seem to become that way by giving the most of themselves to others.

Timothy T.C. So 19 July 2009 - 11:37 pm

Kathryn – Thanks for your insightful question, as usual. Building or developing trust is actually a process through social interaction opportunities involving risk are transformed into trust relations in which the people involved come to trust each other and honor that trust. I personally would claim prior personal experience, how parents and education shape population shared concepts, the norm and cultures, all have a role in trust development. I would like to recommend to you a book, ‘Social Trust and Human Communities’ by John Rempel. Instead of my blunt sharing, the author discussed in one of the chapters how higher and lower trust society will offer a completed and research-based finding. 🙂 Best, Timothy

Timothy T.C. So 19 July 2009 - 11:38 pm

Thanks Mina – Very true. And it happened in Eastern cultures recently. With collectivism cultures we used to focus on interpersonal relationships and community relationship. However, with the economy rapidly developing while education focusing less on the values of community relationship, people tend to seek their own success and wealth instead of common good. Taking self-help publications as an example, across East and West, 99% of them offer individualized solutions for pursuing personal good but only a few of them talk about common betterment at community or population level. Best, Timothy

Warren Davies 20 July 2009 - 4:00 pm

“To increase the percentage of the world population that is considered ‘flourishing’ from today’s 10-15% to 51% by the year 2051.”

Lofty goals, especially for a psychologist! Not to turn this into a political discussion, but it’s going to be tough for us to move into the mindset that money should be used to increase well-being. Movement to more ‘green’ societies seems very very slow to me, mainly (it seems) because of the economic implications of making dramatic shifts. And that’s an issue that could destroy us all, let alone leave fewer people than we’d prefer in a position to flourish. (Sorry to be dramatic).

But maybe I’m being too negative for a positive psychology site! Maybe people outside of politics and governments are the best people for the job, since they don’t have as many, umm, ‘obligations’, shall we say.

Anyway, looking forward to your follow up articles!

WJ 20 July 2009 - 5:28 pm

Timothy, interesting goals on Seligman’s behalf – and a challenge when the world economy is based on consumption – and research suggests consumption is based on negative emotions. For an example see http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=257

Flora Morris Brown, Ph.D. 9 January 2010 - 12:58 pm

Thank you for pointing out the importance of happiness not just at the individual level but at the population level. While a group can flourish when they have a shared purpose, the purpose is not always the positive one that many of us visualize unless the individuals in the group have found individual happiness first. I’m thinking of cults and dictatorships, for example, where individuals not only relinquish their personal control over their lives but become convinced not to develop individual desires, goals and feelings. Many of these members, when interviewed, believe the group happiness is all that is important. It’s as if they lose themselves.

Jenny 1 August 2012 - 2:01 pm

Hi Timothy,

Any chance you have the source for this stat? “today’s 7-33%”

Thank you!

Daniel 8 August 2014 - 7:44 am

I like the article Timothy, and was unable to find the follow-up article on “Integrating related disciplines into positive science”, is that published here? Thanks so much, Dan, MAPP6


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