Democratising the well-being movement

The danger of the well-being movement is that it could lead to us being spoon-fed advice on how to live. Yet the art of living may be the most rewarding subject to teach and learn, as long as adults and children are given the opportunity to challenge this advice, and hold it to account
Jules Evans
6 May 2011

In 2003, when the British government first decided it wanted to teach emotional well-being to the nation’s youth, it decided that each British school had a statutory responsibility to turn children into SHEEP. The acronym stood for ‘Safe, Healthy, Enjoying life, Economic well-being and Positive contribution’ - well-intentioned stuff, but the acronym unfortunately suggested that the Department for Education wanted to raise a nation of docile conformists. 

And, in fact, one of the principal dangers of the entire ‘well-being movement’ or ‘happiness agenda’ is this: it could lead to adults and children being spoon-fed advice on how to live, without being given the means to challenge that advice, and hold it to account. When managed this way, then the ‘happiness agenda’ really is creating sheep, rather than rational, autonomous and empowered citizens.

The main problem is that the ‘happiness agenda’ is being presented as an objective science, rather than a moral philosophy. This is particularly the case with Martin Seligman’s Positive Psychology, which informs Richard Layard’s Action for Happiness, and which is now being taught to every soldier in the US Army. It’s also being piloted in 60 British schools, and may eventually be introduced it into the British national curriculum, to replace the increasingly discredited Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL).

Positive Psychology purports to teach people how to ‘flourish’. It teaches a model of the Good Life, and uses government policy to disseminate this model. Now, until recently, it was assumed that the role of liberal governments is to secure our negative freedom from war, crime, disease, want and so on, while leaving people free to pursue their own good in their own way. Governments should protect our inalienable right to pursue happiness, but how we pursue it is up to us. It was previously seen as dangerous, or even illegal, for governments to go any further and promote a particular model of the Good Life, because that would overstep our religious freedom, our freedom to decide what we and our children believe about life, the universe and everything.

This has changed in the last decade, thanks to the growth of ‘happiness science’, which claims to have experimentally discovered what ways of living really lead to well-being and happiness. Scientists like Martin Seligman insist that what they are producing is not moral philosophy. It is science - descriptive, not prescriptive. Therefore, if governments promote it in schools, or armies, or prisons, or anywhere else, they are not really telling their citizens how to think, how to live, or what to believe. They are merely passing on the evidence-based skills and techniques needed to thrive. The language is one of skills, means and technologies, rather than moral values.

It is hoped that, through this neat manoeuvre, the state can finally go beyond a limited nightwatchman function, and provide the people with some form of moral guidance, to help them learn how to control their minds and bodies, to overcome all the problems of western society - depression, anxiety, drug abuse, food disorders, smoking, stress, insomnia, obesity, underage sex and drinking, bullying, loneliness - all those emotional and behavioural problems that emerge from our apparent ignorance of how to live, and how to govern ourselves.

Now there is a lot to welcome in this initiative. I happen to believe there are certain ‘techniques’ which one can use to learn how to govern yourself and live a happier life. Many of them come from ancient philosophies - from Stoicism, or Buddhism, or Yoga - but you can test them out, and build up an evidence base to show they work. So a lot of the new happiness science actually draws on ancient wisdom, and re-connects us to it. 

However, there’s a limit to the extent to which one can ‘prove’ what is the right way to live, and what the Good Life consist of. There is also a limit to what government technocrats, civil servants and teachers can roll out to the people as ‘objective science’. Most of the evidence for the science of happiness comes from happiness questionnaires, which ask you simply to rate how you are feeling, on a scale of one to seven. So, in order to test a happiness intervention, researchers will simply ask you how you feel before doing an intervention, and how you feel after doing it. If you feel better after doing it, presto, another happiness technique has been discovered, and we’re one step further towards a perfect model of the Good Life.

The problem is, there is a moral assumption behind the objective science. It is a Utilitarian or Epicurean assumption: that the aim of life is simply feeling good, and that the test of the worth of an action is simply how many good feelings it creates. That’s what Epicurus believed, it’s what Jeremy Bentham believed, it’s what Lord Richard Layard believes, but it’s certainly not what everyone believes. In fact, I’d say a majority of people believe there’s more to life than simply good feelings. Many might agree with Aristotle that some things, like virtue, achievement, knowledge or civic duty, are good in themselves. They might make you feel good too, but the good feelings are a bonus, rather than an end in themselves. Others might agree with the Stoics that the Good Life doesn’t just mean focusing on the positive. It also means being able to face the worst that life can throw at you, and still carry on.

Within the well-being movement, in fact, there is a high level debate between two broad camps - the Aristotelians and the Utilitarians - over the definition of well-being. The Aristotelians, who include some government ministers, define well-being as eudaimonia, which means not simply feeling good, but living a life of optimal human functioning, meaning and virtue. Martin Seligman also considers himself more an Aristotelian, as opposed to a hedonist or Utilitarian.

An Aristotelian approach to life sounds great - but it’s quite hard to turn into an objective science. Can you measure the extent to which a person’s life is eudaimonic? Can you scientifically measure how meaningful a person’s life is, how full of spiritual significance? It sounds ridiculous, but in fact, Martin Seligman’s resilience training course for the US Army claims to be able to measure soldiers’ ‘spiritual fitness’ using a simple questionnaire. It asks them a handful of questions such as ‘to what extent do you think your life is connected to a higher meaning’, and if they score too low, it recommends they read the ‘appropriate self-development modules’. Unsurprisingly, soldiers have been offended by this automatic spiritual counseling, and some have even threatened to sue the Army. It offers a simplistic technocratic solution to a deeply personal spiritual question.


At the moment, I worry that there is a pyramid-like structure in the well-being movement. At the top of the pyramid, experts debate the philosophical ideas of well-being: how can one define it, can one measure it objectively, what moral assumptions are we making, what philosophers have come up with the best answers in the past? At the bottom of the pyramid, however, all this debate is covered up, and the masses are simply presented the evidence as ‘facts’.

This is especially true in well-being classes in schools - all the debate and contention is left out, and one is left with Wellington College’s ’10 steps for a happy life’, which is “what every child and adult needs to follow in order to live a happy life”, as headmaster Anthony Seldon puts it. Personally, I don’t want my children to be taught how to be Utilitarians. That was tried in the 19th century, and the unfortunate pupil who received this Utilitarian education, John Stuart Mill, ended up having a nervous breakdown at the end of it.

It seems to me that, if the well-being movement is not to become another ossified and hierarchical church, then ordinary people need to be included in the debates going on at the top of policy circles over what exactly well-being is. They need to be educated and empowered to consider the different philosophical approaches to the Good Life. They also need to learn about the history of these different approaches, and the areas of disagreement and debate. Otherwise, they are not being treated as equals, but as sheep. 

So what would a more democratic approach to teaching well-being mean, practically? 

1)  You need to be open about your moral assumptions, and the fact that those assumptions are debatable. If you’re teaching a Utilitarian approach to well-being, you need to be up front about that. Let people know that alternate views are possible, that not everyone thinks the meaning of life is to feel as much happiness as possible.

2)  Encourage debate, and train people how to debate. You don’t want well-being teachers who get terrified every time a child (or adult) challenges their philosophical principles. On the contrary, you need a teacher who is comfortable with debate, and who can show their students how to debate, in an open-ended and open-minded way.

3)  Be open about where your ideas and techniques come from, and their history. Some CBT therapists and Positive Psychologists are frighteningly unaware that their theory’s roots are in ancient philosophy. Give people at least some awareness of the original contexts and source material, and make these sources as available as possible to people. In adult well-being classes, the original material should be taught and discussed more directly.

4)  Well-being classes shouldn’t just be for schools and universities. People should have access to them all through life. The government should help set up a network of philosophy clubs, which allow people to come together and debate the Good Life. There should also be a website which gives people the classics of philosophy and spirituality free to download, which provides the latest information, news and essays on well-being, while also allowing people to upload their own stories, videos and findings from their own experiments.

5)  Academia also has an important role to play. In particular, the government should encourage the development of well-being institutes, which bring together leaders in neuroscience, psychology, philosophy and theology, and encourage cross-disciplinary conferences and debates, the proceedings of which should be publicly accessible via YouTube. At the moment, these disciplines aren’t really talking to each other, which is to the detriment of the well-being movement - they have much to learn from each other. 

6)  Finally, you need to teach a plural approach to teaching well-being. You can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach, as Action for Happiness does. I would suggest teaching adults about the Epicurean, Stoic-Aristotelian, Taoist, Buddhist, Marxist and Monotheistic approaches to the Good Life.  What do these traditions say about the question of how to live well? Where do they agree, and where do they differ?

The art of living and governing yourself is not easy to teach well. I think it might actually be the hardest subject to teach, in that it requires real intelligence, humour, flexibility and compassion. But it could also be the most rewarding subject to teach and to learn. The goal, it seems to me, is not to train young people to unquestioningly accept the principles of Utilitarianism, or Aristotelianism, or Marxism, or any other ism, but instead to prepare them to be autonomous and resilient citizens who can think for themselves. You can’t do that via automated questionnaires with a limited set of responses, because their responses might be something very intelligent that we haven’t thought of yet.

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