Having worked in the voluntary mental health sector for ten years before becoming an academic, and having also faced some weighty challenges to my own wellbeing in the past, I have had a longstanding interest in what makes people happy with their lives despite facing many difficulties along the way. For many years this topic seems to have been the domain of philosophers, religious thinkers and poets. The scientific community appears to have been more interested in exploring what makes things go wrong, looking at ‘pathology’, rather than seeking the ingredients for a contented and satisfying life.
In recent years this deficit has started to be addressed, especially by proponents of ‘positive psychology’ who have studied the factors which make people happy with their lives. Personally I have welcomed this approach as I think it provides some useful insights into what really makes people happy, offering an alternative to the messages peddled by advertisers that we can buy our way to happiness.
So, in theory, I should be pleased when politicians embrace the messages coming from positive psychology. Richard Layard is an economist and Labour Peer who has written a popular book on happiness and has promoted policies focusing on increasing psychological and emotional wellbeing. Conservative leader David Cameron has been on record as saying that GWB (general well being) should be as important as GDP (Gross Domestic Product). Both talk about the dangers of thinking that more money equals more happiness. However, in practice I feel disturbed by such messages coming down to the populace from people with positions of power in our society. While they may be genuine in their intent, there is always a danger that positive psychology will become associated with ulterior political motives – a new ‘opium of the masses’. If the move towards being a happier society is to be a liberating experience doesn’t it has to come from the bottom up and not the top down?