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Monthly Archives: January 2015

Why do well-being reports always involve people leaping for joy?

The ‘politics of well-being’ has a credibility issue with politicians and the general public, partly because of how research is communicated. In brief, there is too much leaping for joy.

National and international well-being reports from the last four years tend to have a homogenous style or visual look, which is also reinforced in the media coverage. The covers of these reports, and accompanying media, have typically shown people leaping into the air in a state of euphoria. Reports also often show a wall of smiling faces, or resort to the by-now-ubiquitous ‘smiley face’ cartoon.

This reporting style risks alienating parts of the population, particularly during a period of austerity and global uncertainty. It presents one particular model of well-being – extrovert, high arousal, individualist – while alienating the roughly 25% of the population who may have a more pessimistic, melancholy or introverted bias, including most journalists and academics.

So here are some examples of the ubiquitous ‘leaping for joy’ image in well-being economics. Here’s two from the new economics foundation, pioneers in the field:

nef wellbeing


nef wellbeing 2

Here’s the Office of National Statistics, who launched well-being measurements in 2012:


And here’s how the media report on their findings:

Guardian ONS

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Here’s the cover of Italian statistics agency ISTAT’s well-being report:


Here’s how university well-being departments communicate their research:

aberdeen wellbeing

liverpool wellbeing

And here’s how the wider ‘well-being movement’ tends to picture itself:

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So when the WHO came to decide what to put on the cover of their first well-being reports, there was only ever one way they were going to jump:

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This is not well-being – this is euphoria, ecstasy, a quasi-religious state of exaltation. And it’s not a state most of us feel all that much, outside of 80s pop videos and the occasional full moon party. We particularly don’t feel it that often during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. So if the politics of well-being is not going to seem culty, simplistic, or frivolous to skeptics, it needs to find a way to communicate its findings, verbally and visually, in ways that honour the variety of ways people might define and express well-being.

Sanderson Jones on mystic humanism

Following on from my earlier post on ‘the varieties of transcendent experience‘, I remain interested in the role of transcendent experievent_247363282ences, or the yearning for the transcendent, among humanists. Someone who is definitely exploring in this area is Sanderson Jones, one of the founders of the Sunday Assembly, which is a booming humanist congregation.

Unlike earlier humanist groups like Skeptics in the Pub, where the focus is more on…er…skepticism, Sunday Assembly is trying to develop a more ecstatic and enthusiastically affirmative brand of humanism, using high energy group singing, contemplative silence, small group bonding, and comedic compering from Sanderson and his co-host Pippa Evans. You could call it ‘charismatic humanism’, but another term Sanderson has used to describe himself is ‘humanist mystic’. I asked Sanderson to try and sum up mystic humanism in a few sentences. Here are his off-the-cuff thoughts, which he was kind enough to share:

To me ‘mystic humanism’ is a transcendental, ecstatic experience of the joy of being alive brought on by facing my total extinction square in the face.

In the context of total annihilation after our death, and the void before it, our brief lives are magical miraculous gifts. Compared to the big nothing then the simplest sensation – the tap of my fingers on this keyboard for instance – can become a joyous reminder of the blessing of existence.

When I feel that I making the most of this little blip of me time. That’s when I get the mystical feeling. And why do I call it mystical? Because when I read mystics talking about their relationship to God, I think “That’s how I feel about life’. I love life that much. I am overwhelmed by the fact of existence. I realise that I can never begin to understand life. Life is bigger than me, it gives me all I have, without it I am nothing.

The more I concentrate on the wonder of life then the more wonderful life becomes. Physically it is an ecstatic way of going through the day. A breathe of wind can transport me, a text from my sister have me in raptures, a cup of tea send me over the edge because I am infinitely lucky to exist and, compared to the end that awaits, simply living is joy.

Now, I don’t know what it feels like to feel god’s love, presence or anything of those other things, but when I’m close to the life I want to live, then I’m fairly sure I have the feeling of the divine in me.

What’s great, from my point of view, is that this comes from contemplating a simple fact: I am alive. That’s why the Sunday Assembly is a celebration of life. It is what we all take for granted, when we should be looking each other in the eye saying “Holy shit! I exist. I can think. I can feel. I can love.” – then just scream and scream and scream. The interesting thing is that this is a feeling and a way of being that can be developed through practices, and intentionally directing your thoughts.

I also know that there are times I feel a long way away from this way of being (I think it’s pretty similar feeling that folk get when they feel far from God) – this seems to happen when my own life isn’t in order. When my own life is not on the path I want it kills me. I am so aware of how fortunate I am to get a go on being a human, that not doing it right really pains me. How then can I enjoy the simple things when I am not living my own life to my full potential? My hell is deathbed regrets.

It’s a big jujitsu on the fear of death. Instead of worrying about death (and I don’t because it is the same nothing that happened before I existed and I don’t stay awake worrying about that), I just use it to make my time on earth divine. What’s more, I use it to motivate me to make the most of this time, and this has not come easy, but what kept me going as my own lack of self-regulation held me back, is knowing I had one shot.

More important than that, is how the fact of being alive motivates me to try to help others. I feel unbelievably privileged to exist, and I want to help other people to make the most of the incredible gift of being alive.

Are you a humanist or agnostic who nonetheless feels transcendence? What gives you that experience or intimation? How do you interpret it? How does it affect your attitude to things like the universe, death or other people? Let me know in the comments!