David Cameron measuring 'wrong type of happiness'
American 'optimism expert' who inspired prime minister fears that he got it all wrong
David Cameron wants a gross domestic happiness scale to become a reliable indicator of a country’s progress.
by Tracy McVeigh
As David Cameron's £2m plan to measure the nation's happiness gets under way this month, the American psychologist whose work inspired it has said he has changed his mind about the importance of being happy.
One of the pioneers of positive psychology, Professor Martin Seligman insists he is not recanting the doctrine which has made him a bestselling author and world-renowned expert on optimism but just that we should be focusing less on people's happiness and more on their ability to "flourish". He said he was naive in the past to think wellbeing was based only on mood.
"The word 'happiness' always bothered me, partly because it was scientifically unwieldy and meant a lot of different things to different people, and also because it's subjective," said Seligman, the director of the Positive Psychology Centre at the University of Pennsylvania.
The prime minister has long been interested in Seligman's work and first floated the idea of a "happiness index" in 2005. When he was in Downing Street Tony Blair considered the idea but dismissed it as "too flaky" and Cameron has been criticised for focusing on wellbeing as a distraction from the economy. He has admitted that measuring happiness could be seen as "woolly" and "impractical" but insists he wants a gross domestic happiness scale to become as reliable an indicator of a country's progress as its economic output.
Now the Office of National Statistics has four happiness questions in this year's annual Integrated Household Survey which will be sent out to 200,000 British homes this month.
Seligman, who has been in touch with the British government over his methods, said he welcomed the move on "both on scientific grounds and on political grounds". But he added that the notion of what made people happy had to be rethought. He said he has become increasingly frustrated with the perception of what he called "happyology" and has written a new book called Flourish, which will be released in the UK next month.
"I wanted to be much clearer that this was much more than a happyology. What humans want is not just happiness. They want justice, they want meaning. An interesting example is that there is quite a bit of evidence that says people's mood isn't as good once they have children. If that were all people were interested in, we should have been extinguished a long time ago," he told Psychologies magazine in an interview to be published next week.
Even depressed people, he said, can flourish. "I think you can be depressed and flourish, I think you can have cancer and flourish, I think you can be divorced and flourish. When we believed that happiness was only smiling and good mood, that wasn't very good for people like me, people in the lower half of positive affectivity.
"When positive emotion was more central to your ideas, one problem was the evidence that most people have a 'set point' or 'set range' for their mood, meaning that whatever they do or whatever happens to them, they tend to revert to a certain level of happiness."
It was while president of the American Psychological Association in 1998 that Seligman began to promote the idea that psychology should be about creating better mental health. He is involved in a project with the US Army to increase levels of resilience and decrease mental health problems among soldiers and there is enormous interest in what positive psychology could achieve in schools.
Flourish: A New Understanding Of Happiness And Well-Being – And How To Achieve Them by Martin Seligman is published on 12 May.
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