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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 Welsh revival: mass hysteria or outpouring of grace?

Next week, I’m off to Wales. First, I’m going to Cwmbran, where something is happening called ‘the Welsh Outpouring’. In April, when a young pastor called Richard Taylor was preaching, the congregation felt filled with the Holy Spirit, there were tears, shouts, groans, and this started to happen every evening. Word got out, congregations swelled, queues formed to get into church, services went deep into the night, and many people were apparently healed from mental or physical complaints. I’m going there with a local GP, who I met at the Hay book festival, who is curious about this outpouring which has helped a lot of local people overcome alcoholism, apparently.

Then I’m going to Ffald-y-Brenin, a Christian retreat in Pembrokeshire, and a place where people have often said they’ve experienced miraculous visitations from the Holy Spirit. It is known as a ‘thin place’ – in Celtic Christianity, there are supposed to be certain places where the border between the sacred and the secular is particularly diaphanous.

Obviously, I feel like a bit of a spiritual tourist. Am I going for my own advancement as a writer, or am I going with a genuinely open heart to see what is ‘out there’? I hope the latter, but as a writer there’s always some ego mixed in.

When writing on religious group psychology, you have to decide how much you should ‘go with it’ and give yourself to the experience, and to what extent you should stay objective and detached. When Jon Ronson, one of my heroes, went on the Alpha course in 2000, he felt he couldn’t switch off his journalistic mind during the Holy Spirit session of the Alpha weekend:

James rests his hand on my shoulder. “Oh Jesus, I pray that Jon will receive Your wonderful spirit. God. Please come and fill Jon with … ” It is not working. The spell has broken. I tell James again that I’m sorry, but I’m a journalist.

I’m also a journalist, although I happen to believe in God and was helped to overcome Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder through a near-death experience which felt like an experience of grace. So I’m more open to the value of ecstatic experiences. But there are aspects of charismatic Christianity that I find off-putting. When an entire church gets ‘slain’ by the Holy Spirit, when people fall over, roll around on the ground, bark like dogs and so on, is it a visitation by God, an outbreak of mass hysteria, or some kind of learned cultural practice?

When it comes to Welsh religious revivals, Welsh Christians think of them as both a supernatural experience and a learned cultural practice. They are very aware of the history of Welsh revivals, and this knowledge creates expectations of future revivals. Wales is known as ‘the land of revivals’ – previous revivals include a Methodist revival in 1735, when congregations would shake, weep, faint and jump for joy, and a cross-denominational revival in 1859, when historians suggest 100,000 people – a tenth of the population of Wales – converted, and services were so ecstatic that ‘people were carried out of chapel unable to move hand or foot’. Both revivals were intensely musical – hymn-singing plays a central role in Celtic ecstasy.

The most famous Welsh revival was in 1904-5. It was started by a preacher called Joseph Jenkins, after he had a vision of being wrapped in a blue flame. His sermons started to inspire great excitement among his congregation, particularly young women, one of whom followed him home one night, then stood up at church the next day and declared ‘I love Jesus with all my heart’. This set others on fire, and the normal order of service gave way to spontaneous testimonials, conversions, moans, fainting and hymn-singing.

The fire spread to a 26-year-old miner called Evan Roberts, an intensely religious young man who had prayed for a revival ‘for 10 or 11 years’. He was dramatically filled by the Spirit during a service, bending his knees and crying out. The next nights, he had a series of visions, of hell, of Christ’s victory over Satan, of an enormous religious revival that would save 100,000 souls. Although not a priest and not very educated, he became the de facto leader of a revival that swept through Wales ‘like a hurricane’ as David Lloyd George put it.

A journalist who covered the revival, WT Stead, was struck by the unplanned spontaneity of the services, though in other ways, the scenes closely followed the cultural script of previous Welsh revivals – melted hearts, tears, joy, fainting, spontaneous hymn-singing, public confessions, testimonials, mass conversions, the sense of ‘a country aflame’. All of this was repeated from previous Welsh revivals. What was new in the 1904 revival was that young people, particularly young women, played a leading role, singing and giving testimonials, in a break with religious tradition. And the mass media also played a central role in the revival, helping to spread the fire through their reports – one historian calls it ‘a newspaper revival’.

A postcard of ‘the revivalist’ Evan Roberts and some of the young ladies of the revival.

As Roberts predicted, there were scores of conversions – perhaps 100,000 or so. Many alcoholics gave up drink, and supporters of the revival said the entire moral climate of the country was improved, with pubs emptied, crime down and industrial unrest quelled.

Then, after a year or so, Roberts became more and more exhausted and erratic. He would dramatically stop the singing during the services, declaring there were obstacles to the Holy Spirit’s visitation, naming people in the congregation who were obstacles, including priests. He emphasized there must be total obedience to the Holy Spirit among everyone present. He became uncertain about when it was the Holy Spirit prompting him to speak, or the Devil. He eventually retired from public life, publishing a book six years later warning of the rapid approach of the Apocalypse.

What are we to make of it all? It’s a sensitive subject, particularly for an English journalist (although as my name suggests I have a lot of Welsh blood in me). For the Welsh, the 1904-05 revival was and is a source of national pride, evidence of the country’s special relationship to God, Who speaks to their warm Celtic hearts in a way the mechanistic English could barely appreciate. The academic historian, meanwhile, might look for social or cultural causes of the revival, and interpret it as some sort of mass psychic reaction to the advance of scientific rationalism and the demands of industrial civilisation.

A colleague of mine at the Centre for the History of the Emotions, Rhodri Hayward, has written an excellent book on the question of how to interpret mass ecstatic experiences like the 1904 revival, called Resisting History: Religious Transcendence and the Invention of the Unconscious. He looks at how the unconscious was invented in the late 19th century, as a way for the new secular discipline of psychology to provide a naturalistic explanation for ecstatic religious experiences like trances, automatism, visions and mass revivalism.

Rhodri traces this invention from Frederick Myers, founder of the Society for Psychical Research, who posited a subliminal self to explain the behaviour of spiritual mediums, to William James, who developed this naturalistic explanation of religious experience in his Varieties of Religious Experience, to early explorers of the unconscious like Janet, Charcot and Carl Jung, all of whom were keen to explain spiritual experiences through the naturalistic idea of the unconscious. The unconscious was a crucial device in a broader move to disenchant supernatural experiences and fit them into a naturalistic historical narrative.

What’s interesting is that the early pioneers of psychology remained very ambivalent about whether religious experiences were supernatural or not. The border between natural and supernatural explanations of ecstatic experiences remained rather thin, or diaphanous. Myers, at the end of his life, decided that some spiritual mediums really were communicating with the dead. Jung came to view much unconscious phenomena as genuine communications by spirits. William James was also convinced that some mediums were genuine and remained open-minded about whether religious experiences could be genuinely supernatural. He wrote: ‘The notion of the subconscious self certainly ought not at this point in our enquiry be held to exclude all notion of higher penetration.’

Right at the birth of psychology as a rationalist discipline, there’s uncertainty about whether the unconscious is a trash-heap of primitive impulses, or a cave of hidden treasures.

This uncertainty about apparently supernatural experiences exists for Christians too. Even during the 1904 revival, Welsh people wondered if Roberts was simply a ‘neurotic youth’, if his fits weren’t manifestations of pathology rather than divine ecstasy. One church minister wrote to the Western Mail suggesting there were, in fact, two revivals going on, a genuine revival, and a ‘bogus revival’ being led by Roberts. Roberts also became uncertain whether his visitations came from God or the Devil, and this uncertainty and sense of a cosmic spiritual war being waged in his own person eventually exhausted him.

Speaking for myself, I remain uncertain about the religious experience which healed me of years of trauma and suffering. Was it an experience of the Holy Spirit, or a moment of religious mania prompted by a near-death experience after several years of depression? If it was some sort of supernatural visitation, from who or what?

William James, who helped to invent the psychological concept of the unconscious, remained unsure whether religious experiences were supernatural or natural

William James suggested that, even if we can’t know for sure where such experiences come from, we can still empirically weigh their effects: ‘What comes must be sifted and tested, and run the gauntlet of confrontation with the total context of experience…Its value must be ascertained by empirical methods.’

We see chroniclers of the 1904 revival trying to do just this, taking statistical evidence of the numbers of conversions in each village and town. Judged by the number of people it saved from alcoholism, the 1904 revival seems socially valuable (although Marxist historians like EP Thompson might argue that such ecstatic outbreaks put back the cause of political agitation).
It’s very difficult to empirically asses all the effects of a revival – particularly as historians can’t peer into the spiritual realm to see what might have been the effect there. Certainly, the Welsh revival had a huge impact on modern Christianity, helping to popularise a new, highly emotional form of worship which one meets on the Alpha weekend. The revival didn’t seem to have such great long-term effects for Roberts himself, though for all I know his reward was in the afterlife.

I wonder, finally, if one can combine cultural historical accounts of ecstatic experiences with an open-mindedness to the possibility that such experiences are, at least partly, supernatural.  In other words, is it possible that spirits or the Spirit really do speak to humans, but that we also interpret such experiences through pre-learned cultural scripts (such as the history of Jewish messianism, or the history of Welsh revivals)? Some of those scripts are perhaps better than others, in that they more successfully ‘run the gauntlet of confrontation with the total context of experience’. I think that one problem with the Christian eschatological script is it leads to mass Millenarian expectations that the world is about to be utterly transformed into a perfect Age of Love. History has repeatedly disappointed this ecstatic expectation, yet somehow it keeps coming back.


In other news:

Talking of Millenarian expectations, the NYRB reviews a new book that looks at Millenarian expectations and the idea of the demonic enemy in fascism and communism. Behind a pay-wall alas.

The New Yorker, meanwhile, looks at a new neuroscientific attempt to measure and quantify consciousness.

I did a 5 min essay on Radio 3’s Nightwaves this week, about the 2400th anniversary of the founding of Plato’s Academy, asking whether philosophy belongs inside or outside of academia. Its 26 minutes in here.

On that theme, here’s Philosophy Bites’ Nigel Warburton, on why he’s left academia to practice philosophy outside of it. And here’s a BBC article looking at philosophy’s central role in French school education.

Here’s an New York Times article covering a successful trial of cognitive processing therapy for rape victims in the Congo.

Here’s a Spectator piece by Norman Stone looking at the political crisis in Turkey and Erdogan’s over-played authoritarianism.

Here’s a piece I wrote about the Sunday Assembly and why I don’t think God minds me playing the drums there.

Here’s a piece on how psychedelics is turning into a subject of serious academic research (man).

UCLA has a great centre for investigating mindfulness. Its website has some good free meditation podcasts.

Finally, this week I got very excited about Laura Marling’s new album. Here’s a short film she helped to make of the first four songs of the album.

See you next week,