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Where next for well-being policy?

783472895I went to the book-launch of a new book on well-being policy yesterday, which brought together some leading figures in this nascent movement – including David Halpern of the government’s ‘nudge unit’, Canadian economist John Helliwell, psychologist Maurren O’Hara, and Juliet Michaelson of the new economics foundation. The book – Well-being and Beyond – is edited by Michaelson and Timo Hamalainen, and has some great essays in it, including a particularly interesting one by Mihayli Csikszentmihalyi on ‘the politics of consciousness’.

With the news that the government is set to establish a What Works research centre for evidence-based well-being policy, and that David Cameron may be resuscitating his well-being agenda, it seems like a good time to take a panoramic view of the politics of well-being in the UK, some of the areas into which it’s developing, and some of the areas where more research is needed. It will obviously be a partial and incomplete view, but here goes:


The ministry of education under Michael Gove pulled back on some of New Labour’s well-being initiatives, such as Every Child Matters and the promotion of Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL). However, there seems renewed political interest in the idea of teaching character skills like resilience, with all three parties recently offering broad support for such a move. The work of James Heckman, focused on early interventions, is particularly popular with policy-makers at the moment.

The area is likely to progress through local and regional evidence-based initiatives, rather than top-down national initiatives like SEAL. Key players include the Jubilee Centre for Character and Values, Jen Lexmond’s work at Character Counts and elsewhere, James O’Shaughnessy’s Positive Education network, the Education Endowment Fund’s research, and the National Citizen Service, which apparently is building up a great evidence base for its intervention. The challenge is how to teach not just skills but also values within a pluralistic and multicultural society – more on this below.


There’s growing interest in the importance of well-being at work, partly driven by the high economic cost of sick days due to stress and mental illness. Some of the more enlightened companies have bespoke well-being courses for their staff – like Google, Zappos, M&S, British Telecom or Saracens rugby club – in a manner reminiscent of 19th century Quaker companies like Rowntree’s. A key player in this area is the firm Robertson Cooper, which established the Good Day at Work network.

Nils Mordt of Saracens brushing up on some philosophy

As in schools, the new focus on work well-being ties in – or should tie in – with an ethical focus on values, character strengths and social responsibility. Saracens’ personal development course is a good example of how to teach well-being + values but in a flexible and peer-led way, compared to Zappo’s which, from the outside, seems quite inflexible and even authoritarian in its collective happiness ethos. Well-being at work ties in to another policy area, adult education (of which more below) – see, for example, Google’s emphasis on adult education for its workers, again reminiscent of Quaker companies like Rowntree’s. I also love the Escape the City network (by the by!).


One of the main recommendations in Sir Gus O’Donnell’s Legatum Institute report on well-being, released last month, was that the NHS should focus more on prevention of ill-health, and also treat mental illness as equally important as physical illness.

That means greater support for the burgeoning Improving Access for Psychological Therapies programme across the UK, particularly in Wales, where there are high levels of depression and long waiting lists for talking therapy. It also means public health organizations like Public Health England taking more of a lead in promoting mental well-being. It means more support for peer-led well-being networks (one of the themes of Michaelson’s chapter in her book), which can draw inspiration from historical models like 19th century Friendly Societies. And it also means trying to work out a better way to treat psychosis, as the government is now trying to do.

Well-being health policy ties into well-being policy in other areas, particularly schools, work, and adult / online education. Empowering people to take care of their own physical and mental health means treating them as reasoning agents rather than as malfunctioning machines.

Prisons and probation services

At the book launch yesterday, John Helliwell mentioned a paper he’d written on well-being in prisons, championing the Singapore Prison Services’ reforms. Singapore pioneered a mutual model of well-being, in which staff, inmates, former inmates and the wider community worked together to help inmates flourish.

We’re a long way from that here, but there is some interest in the ‘desistance’ model of rehabilitation, whereby inmates make a reasoned choice to leave their former criminal life and to pursue a new narrative. This fits with the coherence model of well-being, in which well-being is connected to our ability to find meaning and value in ourselves and the world. Some charities and probation organizations are also looking to extend the desistance / mutuality model beyond the prison walls – I’m meeting with one such organization, Co:Here, next week.

In England, the probation system is on the verge of a massive privatization, which is likely to cause stress to the system and to the people in it. However, the chaos will also create opportunities for new and innovative approaches. I’m interested to learn more about the RSA’s research on prison learning.

The economy / housing / urban planning

The O’Donnell report suggests the best economic policies to promote well-being would be to reduce unemployment, which has a particularly negative impact on well-being. Fine – but which government says it’s in favour of high unemployment? Other well-being economists suggest there is a correlation between income equality and national happiness – but so far this has failed to lead to major tax distribution policies, and inequality continues to rise.

The UK housing bubble also continues to grow, with the average property price in London now approaching half a million pounds. This is likely to have a significant impact on people’s well-being, and their ability to feel in control of their destinies. As more and more humans live in ‘mega-cities’, will we know and trust our neighbours, will we have access to green spaces, will we have any real connection to nature?

More research needs to be done on the rise of solo living, which is particularly popular in Scandinavian countries (typically championed as happiness templates). What is the trade-off between autonomy and loneliness? Is solo living sustainable or equitable? Are new forms of conviviality emerging? The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has done good work in this area.

Adult education / online learning

So far there is little policy focus on the importance of adult education to well-being. Adult education is, in general, ‘off the radar for policy-makers’, as David Halpern put it. This makes no sense to me, considering all the research into the importance of coherence, meaning, reasoning and collective engagement to well-being – all of which points to adult education as a booster to well-being. There’s been some work showing that engaging in adult education predicts higher well-being, but that has not fed into policy discussions at all, sadly. The national budget for community education shrinks every year.

schooloflife-3However, informal learning continues to grow, with various organizations appearing dedicated to raising well-being, including Action for Happiness and the School of Life. There have also been some encouraging developments in online well-being courses. Stanford’s Greater Good centre is launching an online happiness course in September, Berkeley has also launched a Positive Psychology MOOC, Action for Happiness recently launched an online course, while TED’s Understanding Happiness course has been in the top ten of iTunesU for a few years. Online learning connects to health policy in well-being, particularly with the rise of health apps.

It’s also worth mentioning the boom in mindfulness courses – including for example the phenomenal success of the book / CD ‘Mindfulness’, by Mark Williams and Danny Penman, which has been in the top 30 of Amazon for two years. Mindfulness is a policy intervention that can be deployed in health, work, education and prisons – similar in that respect to ‘mental resilience’ interventions.


British higher education seems so beleaguered that the well-being of staff and pupils is off the official agenda for the time being. If change comes, it is likely to be driven by students and staff rather than top-down, though perhaps some enlightened VC or chancellor will take the lead (eg Floella Benjamin at Exeter!) But this is a sector which potentially could play a very important role in the development and implementation of well-being interventions.

For example, universities could – and should – offer free courses in well-being to undergraduates. Such courses should (in my opinion) teach some of the techniques of well-being, such as meditation, gratitude, self-determination, resilience, while also providing a space for philosophical discussions about what it means to flourish. If done pluralistically, such courses would be an important space for inter-faith discussions, preventing campuses from becoming divided on religious lines.

I also think universities should do more to support the well-being of their staff, particularly PhDs, where burn-out and drop-out rates are high. Some PhDs, such as the LSE’s Inez von Weitershausen, are beginning to work on this, and I think funders like Wellcome are keen to support more work in this area.

Academia could also play an important role in promoting adult education, as it used to do in the university extension movement. Unfortunately, humanities academics seem to have little time for adult education work and little faith in well-being politics – which is typically dismissed as ‘neoliberal’. A few humanities academics, however, understand that well-being policy is an important way to champion the impact of the arts and humanities in national policy. The work of the Reader Organisation, based at Liverpool Uni, is a good example of this more enlightened and engaged approach (they have their national conference in London next month, by the by).

Sports / arts / the festive

Burning Man festival

Well-being research tells us how important sport and exercise is to our well-being. It’s also beginning to tell us about the importance of the arts to our flourishing, particularly arts that engage us collectively, such as singing in a choir or reading in a book club.

I’d like to see more research on the importance of ‘the festive’ to well-being – think of the work of Durkheim, Barbara Ehrenreich, Jonathan Haidt, Martha Nussbaum and Charles Taylor in this area – or Dan Ariely’s writing on Burning Man festival.

Why do the residents of the Orkneys have such high well-being? Ian Ritchie, former co-director of the St Magnus festival there, tells me that that one reason is the islands are so rich in festivals – a folk festival, a blues festival, a well-being festival. Parties, clearly, are good for us, particularly when we help to organize them. It would be good to study the well-being impact of starting a festival in a town. For example, Wigmore, a small town in Scotland with high unemployment, launched its own book festival two years ago and it seems to have revitalized that community.

More generally, well-being economists and psychologists need to connect with arts and humanities practitioners to explore the role of beauty, awe and wonder in well-being, and the higher states of consciousness which arts and ‘the festive’ can create. That means going beyond a aridly Benthamite notion of happiness towards a more Millsian appreciation of the transformative power of the arts.

The media

Alain de Botton has been generally mocked by humanities academics for his latest book, The News, but as is often the case there is wisdom beneath his gimmickry. Our well-being is deeply connected to our culture, and therefore to the media – in the broadest sense of TV, online media and advertizing. How, in a free market economy, can we try and make sure the messages we soak in are not entirely shallow?

This morning, it was announced that Richard Hoggart, the great public intellectual and critic of commercial television, has died. He thought commercial TV pushed viewers towards a way of life ‘whose texture is as little that of the good life as processed bread is like home-baked bread’. His involvement in the Pilkington Report led to the establishment of BBC 2. But the vision of Hoggart, Reith and others – that broadcasting could be a force for the raising of public consciousness – seems to be in abeyance.

Perhaps this area of policy links up with health and adult education – the BBC is looking to launch MOOCs on FutureLearn, and to develop its online learning platforms. I know people in BBC Arts have been interested in promoting things like meditation or ancient philosophy, but it hasn’t happened yet. Indeed, there is a weird absence of ethical / spiritual discussion on TV. Radio 2’s Sunday morning show, once a province of spiritual discussion, is now presented by a sports presenter, which sums up the BBC’s (understandable) unease with promoting any particular ethics in a multicultural society.

The environment

Clearly the big question for well-being policy is: is it at odds with the coming environmental catastrophe? Are we meditating while Rome burns?

In Well-Being and Beyond, Csikszentmihayli outlines three constituents needed for consciousness to flourish: first, the freedom to think what you want and decide what is true (rather than being coerced and lied to by our government); second, to find flow in meaningful and purposeful activity (he understands the importance of higher or altered states of consciousness like awe, wonder, transcendence and ecstasy). And finally, we need hope.

We need the hope, or faith, that tomorrow will be as good as if not better than today. That drives all of our activity, all our plans, our investment in our work and family. Without that, ‘consciousness becomes idle and atrophied’, or it shrivels up in despair or short-term hedonism.

What is weird and unnerving about this historical moment is the loss of hope. Living standards are declining, the young are poorer than the old, but above all, there is a collective sense that the future will be worse – perhaps much worse – than the present, that nature will be severely depleted, the world will be more crowded, politics will be more unstable, the weather will be more violent, and we may see mass migrations and perhaps mass extinctions of animals and humans. Indeed, the animal mass extinction has already begun.

Religion and Wisdom

This brings me to my final point, the final area of research which I think would be fruitful. I don’t think secular humanism is going to be sufficient to sustain us through the coming crisis, because its hope in progress and a better tomorrow will not last in the face of mass extinctions. You need something more transcendent to believe in and give you the strength to do the right thing and to take care of the weak, even in the face of mass extinction and social collapse. Techno-humanism – in which the rich get to detach or upgrade from the rest of humanity – seems to me a much, much worse option than a return to the wisdom of older religious traditions.

Religion seems to me the massive elephant in the room of well-being policy. Well-being policy practitioners sometimes seem to me like people who have had their cultural memories wiped, so that they need to re-discover the basics of human flourishing from scratch. ‘We’ve discovered volunteering is good for well-being! So is collective singing. So is a sense of meaning and purpose. So is gratitude. So are higher states of consciousness. So is neighbourliness, reciprocity and mutuality. So is self-control coupled with an acceptance of the limit of one’s control over the universe. So is faith in the future.’

Well…yeah. All of which we used to get from religion, before we trashed it and turned to psychologists for guidance.

How do we spread the wisdom of religious traditions in a multicultural and increasingly secular society? To me, the key word is wisdom. Wisdom gives us the ability to appreciate the insights and practices of multiple religious faiths, to have respect for those faiths and to learn from them, while also finding our home in a particular tradition.

We need to learn not just the techniques of ancient wisdom traditions (meditation, gratitude, self-control etc) but also to create the space to discuss the different moral ends or goals which those traditions promote – nirvana, union with God, happiness, inner peace, Aristotelian flourishing etc. These different ends should be discussed rather than forced upon people. Socratic discussion is a way to include these moral ends / values without imposing them on people.

At the heart of most of the ancient wisdom traditions is an optimism that humans can use our reason to take care of our souls and our societies, combined with an acceptance that our reason is bounded, and that flourishing emerges best through habits and shared practices. These wisdom traditions are therefore opposed to a more biomechanical model of humanity, which sees negative emotions as chemical imbalances to be corrected with medication.

We need universities to take wisdom seriously, but I actually think we need a new sort of research institute – closer to the Esalen model – which combines intellectual and experimental research with practice. Sort of a think-tank / monastery. As Alasdair MacIntyre says at the end of After Virtue: ‘We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”

Well, those are some areas of possible research. A lot to be getting on with! But this is an important movement, and the UK is blessed with some pioneering thinkers and practitioners in this field, not just in economics and psychology, but also in the arts, technology, philosophy and faith.

PS I forgot to mention mental health in the military services. But that’s obviously another potential area for interventions to promote resilience.

The revival of humanisms

I want to explore the idea of Greek philosophy as a meeting-point between various humanisms, including Christian humanism, atheist or agnostic humanism, Islamic humanism and Jewish humanism.

These days, I would describe myself as a Christian humanist. I mean ‘humanist’ in the Renaissance sense – someone who loves and wants to revive ancient philosophy and culture. And I mean ‘Christian humanist’ in the sense of believing that Christianity complements and even completes Greek philosophy.

Plato, Seneca and Aristotle given homage in a medieval manuscript

For many Medieval and Renaissance Christians, as well as for some Jewish and Islamic philosophers, the great Greek and Roman philosophers were prophets or saints. Their profound insights into human nature and the universe helped to lead people out of suffering, like Virgil leading Dante out of Hell in the Divine Comedy.

The revelation of Greek philosophy is this: much of our suffering comes from our thoughts, beliefs and values. We construct our own prisons. We can liberate ourselves from these prisons by learning to examine our souls and to be wiser in our thinking. We can use our reason to shine a light onto our unconscious habits, and to create new, wiser habits. We can learn to take care of our souls, to be the doctors to ourselves.

We cause ourselves suffering by caring for the wrong things, by putting our trust in the wrong things, by worshipping false gods (as Plato puts it), and building our houses on sand (as Jesus put it). We can find a deeper fulfillment by looking within, by cultivating an inner garden of consciousness and reason, and also by cultivating caring and ethical relationships with other people.

Both atheist / agnostic and theist Greek philosophers would agree with what I’ve written above. But they disagreed in their definition of ‘flourishing’, and on the question of where reason comes from. Plato, Aristotle, Heraclitus, Pythagoras and the Stoics thought consciousness comes from God, while Epicurus thought it was a cosmic fluke. I was always more on the theistic side of Greek philosophy. I thought it more likely that our consciousness is God-given, that it’s a fragment of God (or the Logos). I also believed, rather more speculatively, that this Logos is providential, guiding us towards an end or telos.

Why ‘Christian’ humanism?

I’ve become a Christian humanist this year for two reasons. Firstly, I believe in grace. I’ve moved from believing in the Stoic Logos, which is a rather abstract and chilly cosmic intelligence which doesn’t particularly care about individual cases, to believing in a God who loves us as individuals and who occasionally intervenes in our life, lifts us up and heals us through grace.

It was one such experience of grace, back in 2001, which helped me recover from post-traumatic stress disorder and which led me to Greek philosophy. I’ve had some more experiences like that this year. I don’t think this makes me in any way special – such experiences are in fact fairly common among humans, we’re just embarrassed to speak about them in our materialist culture.

Why would I interpret these experiences in a Christian framework? Partly because this year I experienced them in a Christian context, and partly because the New Testament gives a better account of such experiences when talking about the healing power of the Holy Spirit and Christ’s love. Greek philosophers don’t really talk about God’s love healing us (although the playwright Sophocles does). In Greek philosophy, God is an abstract concept you reach through rational dialectic. In Judeo-Christianity, God is a Being with whom you can have a loving relationship. I believe the latter is true.

Feeding our need for community

The second reason I became a Christian is that I was hungry for spiritual community. I’ve been a total individualist all my adult life – a freelance journalist, usually single, socially anxious, bit of a hermit. I am the archetypal modern liberal, suspicious of all communities and organisations, yet longing to find one I can call home. I agree with Jean Vanier that loneliness is one of the great sicknesses of our liberal culture.

I am all for trying to develop ethical communities for non-believers where, in the words of Daniel Dennett, ‘people who are not otherwise loved can be taken in and their lives can be made important’. I would love philosophy clubs to be such places, as well as organisations like the School of Life, the Sunday Assembly, Action for Happiness clubs. I’ve worked with all these organisations and think they’re on to something important. But there’s a way to go yet, in terms of creating spaces where people can bring all of themselves – their baggage, their wounds, their vulnerability – and feel ministered to.

This year, I’ve been exploring Christian community. I guess I started my explorations at the end of last year, when I was dating a lovely girl, and we went to stay at a cottage in Wales with some other friends of hers. They all turned out to be Christians, in fact one of them was a vicar. This initially freaked me out (trapped in a cottage with Christians! aaargh!) but actually I was really impressed by their commitment to one another, by their sincerity and their humour. They were human beings, not Bible-bashing zombies. They listened to each other, cared for one another, allowed each other to be fallible human beings.

The power of small groups

The vicar at that cottage invited me on the Alpha course, which I did at the beginning of this year. I really enjoyed it, partly because of the power of small groups – it’s a wonderful experience to turn up, once a week, with the same group of people, to talk, listen and support each other. We still meet, every other Tuesday evening. Roughly half of us are non-Christian. Humanist groups and philosophy groups have also drawn on this power of small groups in the past and are doing so again. For example, Richard Layard, the founder of Action for Happiness, was inspired by attending a Quaker small group for a year or so, and is now launching an Alpha-style course for humanists (more on that when I get the details).

Of course, the Alpha course has some slightly more, er, supernatural aspects, like asking the Holy Spirit to come in to you. There’s also an emphasis on praying for each other. I personally think this is a beautiful practice. Think of prayer as wishing each other well, deeply. Christians pray, sometimes, by putting a hand on each other’s shoulders. I think touch is important. These days, we hear ‘touch’ and because we’re liberals we think ‘Ugh! Violation of privacy!‘ But we need touch. We’re primates. We have a touch-deficit in our lives. Touch can be as simple as shaking each other’s hands and giving each other the ‘sign of peace’. Touch is healing.

Christian community also puts music at the centre. Initially, I found the contemporary worship very off-putting. I felt it was a desecration of the religion of rock & roll. How dare they play rock music – they’re Christians, the epitome of Uncool. Even worse, some of the Christians there would put their hands in the air and dance. I would look at them, as Michal looked down at David, and think, you poor, poor people.

Michal (top right) looking down on David in contempt as he dances in front of the Ark

It is absolutely fine to put your hands in the air and dance at a club or music festival. It’s fine to raise your hands in a diamond-gesture to worship Jay-Z; fine to raise your hands in worship of Manchester City or Blackpool FC; fine to raise your hands to worship your country at a football match (less cool at a a nationalist rally). But if you raise your hands to worship God then, my friend, you are a nutter.

Well…I still think most Christian rock is pretty cheesy. But some of it is OK, and a handful of songs I actually like, and I’m OK with people raising their hands to worship God. I like worshipping God with other people, through music. No, actually, I love it. It’s a really powerful, wonderful experience, hearing a hundred or a thousand people lifting up their voices around you, affirming your deepest beliefs. Again, humanist groups do this too – I occasionally play the drums at the Sunday Assembly, and sometimes people even raise their hands to the music. Charismatic atheists!

Humanism is also civic, outward-looking, engaged with society. I admire the social work which some of my Christian friends do, in an effort to follow the example of Christ. Some of them have gone off to live in deprived estates, some of them left lucrative careers to set up charities, some of them went to live with mentally disabled people, some of them turned their homes into refuges for addicts.

And I admire the leadership of the Christian community I’ve been engaged with – Nicky and Pippa Gumbel. I admire their humility, the fact they run a huge global movement but haven’t been seduced by money, power or fame. They still ride around on their bicycles and live in the vicarage. Thousands of people come to their church, yet they know the name of all the people in my Alpha group, and care about us. Their community is not perfect by any means, but it’s more nurturing and less corrupted by money or power than most philosophical / self-help communities I’ve encountered. The good thing about belonging to a very old and established church like the C of E is it’s bigger than you and your ego. Newer churches or self-help movements can easily become vehicles for their leaders’ egos.

James Randi, left, is good at ministering to the humanist community.

It is not at all easy to create a community where people feel loved. It’s hard to care about other people, because people are annoying and needy. So we keep other people at arms’ length. I remember a famous philosopher saying of someone ‘oh, they’re very needy’. In Greek philosophy and liberal humanism, neediness is weakness and autonomy is strength. Christian communities, by contrast, are OK with people’s neediness. Christian priests are trained to minister to that need. Does humanism have servants, people who are willing to give their lives to minister to other people and to put them before their own egos? I think James Randi is close – he ministers to the Skeptic community, writing postcards to Skeptics around the world, keeping in touch, giving out hugs at The Amazing Meeting.

I have friends trying to cultivate caring communities for atheists and I’m all for that, because humans need community, and as humanists, we share a common tradition in Greek philosophy. Personally, I would also like to see the revival of the Church of England, and the revival of the Christian humanist tradition within the Church. I would like to see the revival of all humanisms, and of friendship between them.