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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.

Beware toxic fatalism, in its atheist and theist forms

This week I met a charming young man who had recently dropped out of university. He was writing an undergraduate dissertation on free will, read Sam Harris’ book on the subject, and came to the conclusion that free will does not exist, therefore there was no point finishing his dissertation. So his university gave him a ‘pass’ and he’s now wondering what to do next (not that he has any choice in the matter).

Talking to him, I was struck, paradoxically, by the power of ideas and beliefs to alter people’s lives, and to harm them. This smart young chap – call him Eric – happened to go to university now, in the high point of Scientistic Materialism, which meant he happened to have read Sam Harris, and to accept the hardcore materialist line that free will is an illusion. He accepted that idea, absorbed it into his organism, and it led to real-world consequences for him – he now can’t do an MA in anthropology, as he planned, and is stuck in something of an existential crisis.

Eric might say to me that what his situation really proves is that he had no choice. As I’ve just said, he happened to be at university during the high-point of Scientistic Materialism, he happened to be exposed to Sam Harris, and hence this situation. Yet I – like the good Stoic I am – would say that he did have a choice, whether to accept the hardcore materialist theory or not. He swallowed it, then he chose to act on it. And here’s where he ended up.

Nonetheless, his story does illustrate the power of culture – by which I mean the amniotic fluid of ideas that we find ourselves absorbing and feeding off. We may have some choice what we believe, but our range of choice is limited by the ideas we find in our culture at any one moment. And that is what worries me about the popularity of hardcore materialism in our culture – I think the theory that we have no free will is a toxic idea, which has serious real world implications for those unfortunate enough to swallow it, because it attacks and dissolves their sense of meaning, purpose and autonomy.

I don’t think the main battle line in our culture is between theists and atheists. The main dividing line, for me, is between those who believe in free will, and those who don’t. It’s between those who think we can use our conscious reason – however weak it is – to choose new beliefs and new directions in our life; and those who think we are entirely automatic machines, without the capacity to choose.

Hardcore materialists insist we don’t have free will, we don’t have the capacity to choose a path in life, because free will seems too ‘spooky’ and doesn’t fit with their strict material determinism. Where I see a universe brimming with consciousness, they see just a mass of matter, like a vast rubbish dump, a tiny portion of which suffers from the delusion of choice.

I think this is bad science, ignoring our everyday experience of being conscious and making choices. It’s bad psychology, ignoring humans’ capacity to change themselves and get out of even chronic problems like alcoholism or depression (without medication…not that there’s anything wrong with medication). And it’s bad ethics, because it empties our lives of meaning and autonomy, and leads to people like Eric wondering what’s the point of doing anything.

The hardcore materialist position also leads to the rise and rise of pharmaceutical solutions to life’s problems – people think their emotions have no meaning or connection to their own beliefs and choices, they are simply malfunctioning machines, so the only solution is to put chemicals into the machine (despite the fact that 90% or so of the effect of anti-depressants is placebo, ie it comes from our own beliefs and expectations).

This is not strictly an argument against atheism, only one variant of it. It’s also an argument against a particular variant of religion. There are religious believers who seem to have little or no belief in free will or our power to make conscious, reasonable choices in our life. We are entirely at the mercy of God’s will, and our only option is to beg God to intervene in our lives.

In Christianity, for example, there is a strong tradition going back through Calvinism and Augustine all the way to St Paul, which suggests humans have no real choice or control over whether they are ‘saved’ or not. It’s all down to God’s choice, and that choice was made before we were born.

This is why ecstatic experiences for, say, Methodists were quite so ecstatic – they felt the Holy Spirit and thought I’m saved! God had chosen me! I’m not going to Hell for eternity! Thank fuck for that!  It’s like suddenly winning the lottery for eternity. As for the other 90% of humanity who aren’t chosen by God, well, sucks to be you, we’re off to Vegas, I mean, heaven!

The hardcore Calvinist belief in predestination isn’t that ubiquitous anymore, thankfully, but I still meet a lot of charismatic Christians who seem to think God has complete control over their life and they should surrender their own reason and choices entirely to God and wait for His directions. God will reveal what to do. God will show the way. God? Hello? God?!?

This also seems to me a bit of a recipe for feeling helpless and morose. The Stoic in me feels like saying, look mate, God has given you reason, and the capacity to choose your own path in life. Stop waiting for the Divine Hand to pick you out of the gutter and instead try to change those parts of your self and your life that you can (while also praying to God for help in that process).

That might sound a bit DIY – the self-help myth of the self-made man, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. I recognize the limits of that myth. I recognize that most of my decisions are automatic, unconscious, and determined by the past and the culture I happen to be floating in, and it’s the same for others too. We don’t choose to be destructive bastards, it just sort of happens. More positively, I also recognize that there are moments of grace, moments where something beyond our rational consciousness picks us up and carries us. I am fascinated by such moments, and have been hugely helped by them in my own life.

But we can’t rely entirely on such rare moments of grace to guide us every day of our life. At least, I don’t think you can (maybe that makes me a bad Christian or a Pelagian heretic). I think part of the meaning and value of our lives comes from using our God-given free will and discernment to try and make wise decisions and to try to come closer to the reality of God. Of course, we can sometimes choose to surrender, just as the Stoics choose to surrender their external lives to the Logos. Such surrender is still, paradoxically, a choice.

You may not believe in God or the immortality of the soul. You may not believe our free will is God-given or that the proper end of it is to return to God. Still, if you believe in trying to liberate beings from suffering, and you believe we can use our reason and free will in the effort to do that, then I am on broadly on the same side as you (although of course we have some big differences). If, on the other hand, you think we have no free will and no choice, if you either think we’re entirely automatic machines or are completely at the mercy of God’s will, then to me those are two sides of the same toxic fatalism.


In other news:

The Harvard philosopher Roberto Unger is in London. I’ve only recently (as in…this morning) read some of his ideas. Interesting stuff – reminds me of continental philosophy like Heidegger or Badiou but the mysticism is not too pretentious and is democratic as opposed to Maoist. Read this lecture, the inspiration for his upcoming book ‘The Religion of the Future’.

Leading neuroscientist Christoph Koch explains why he believes in panpsychism – which for him means the theory that consciousness is the product of highly integrated systems, and therefore the potential for consciousness is in all matter (so the internet could become conscious, for example).

My friends at Aeon have launched Aeon Films, showcasing short, beautiful films like this one about the last days of Philip Gould, which rather undid me.

Also from Aeon, cognitive scientist of religion Jesse Bering discusses the $5 million ‘Immortality Project‘, which tries to find empirical evidence both for immortality, and our belief in immortality.

This week I spoke at a well-being at work conference to lots of Human Resources people. Weird! But interesting too – with talks from Paul Farmer of MIND about overcoming the stigma of mental illness at work; a presentation from an online CBT company called Big White Wall,and an inspiring talk by the Free Help Guy, who for six months decided to offer free anonymous help for whatever people suggested, via GumTree. This week, another anonymous person gave him £100,000 to carry on his work!

Here’s a TEDX talk I did! If you’ve seen me talk about Philosophy for Life, you’ll have heard it before. Would be great if people shared, retweeted etc.

Philosophy for Life needs all the help it can get in the US, where the publishers are struggling to get any publicity for it. Even a review on would help, if you feel like it.

The Nation lays into a swathe of new happiness books, declaring them ‘neoliberal’, and suggesting we should really find happiness via Keynesian economics. Which to me is another form of toxic fatalism – the only solution to our emotional problems is collectivist economics. Keynesian institutional reforms might be some of the answer but it’s not all of it – we can also take care of our own souls (and help others learn how to do that).

Finally, this week’s Start the Week had Sir John Tavener, Jeanette Winterson, and the head of All Souls College discussing prayer, faith and culture in a post-religious age. I felt like Andrew Marr was seeking to explore how his stroke had changed him and made him more interested in the life of the spirit…but there was a nervousness about doing that on primetime BBC. Interesting though, and poignant, as Tavener died the following day.

That’s all. Next week I’m in Durham doing various talks, including one on ecstatic experiences at the Centre for the Medical Humanities on Wednesday the 20th. I’m also doing a talk at St Cuths on the 19th, at 4pm.

Oh, and thanks to the platinum members who contributed to the blog! Your names will echo for eternity! If you want to donate £10 or more for your annual enjoyment of the blog (it costs $30 a month to run the newsletter, not including my own time, so it’s very much a loss-making venture!), click on the link below.