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Martin Seligman

Anti-Happyism and the defence of bourgeois freedom

The New Republic has a cover story by eminent social historian Deirdre McCloskey warning of the dangers of Happyism, or ‘the creepy new economics of pleasure’. The piece shows American culture beginning to engage more deeply with the politics of well-being – there have also been excellent articles recently in The Atlantic and I wrote my own little contribution in The New Inquiry last week – as president Obama’s government quietly considers whether to launch national well-being measurements, as the UK and France have recently done.

There’s much I agree with in the article, but I don’t think McCloskey does the movement justice, so I find myself in the unusual position of defending a movement which I’ve also spent a lot of time critiquing.

In some ways, the whole piece is a straw-man attack, in that she defines the movement as purely committed to a hedonic or utilitarian definition of happiness. She then proceeds to make the usual (and justified) critiques of this definition of happiness:

  • it assumes that people’s definition and experience of happiness are the same the world over, ignoring linguistic and cultural differences.
  • national measurements of hedonic happiness don’t tell us much of use, as national happiness levels seem to stay flat over time no matter what’s happening.
  • if we accept the utilitarian principle of ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ it could lead to all sorts of unjust policies, like pursuing policies that favour the extrovert / happy majority while punishing the introvert / unhappy minority.
  • if pleasant feelings are the sole aim of life, what’s to stop us engineering them with ‘soma’ type chemical interventions.

This ‘new hedonics’, she says, is a travesty of the older Aristotelian idea that:

Happiness is a good story of your life. The Greek word for happiness is “eudaimonia,” which means literally “having a good guiding angel,” like Clarence the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life. The schoolbook summary of the Greek idea in Aristotle says that such happiness is “the exercise of vital powers along lines of excellence in a life affording them scope.”

But to define the politics of well-being as purely committed to a hedonic definition of happiness is to massively simplify the movement. There is a profound awareness within the movement that there are several ways one could define happiness or the good life, and many of the philosophers, psychologists and economists within it are committed to a more Aristotelian or eudaimonic definition of happiness.

Positive Psychology, for example, has for at least decade distinguished hedonic happiness from other forms of happiness, such as ‘meaningful happiness’ or ‘flow’. The new economics foundation, which is the leading think-tank on the politics of well-being here in the UK, also makes this distinction, and tries to find ways to measure a eudaimonic definition of happiness. The UN Summit on happiness last year began with the utilitarian Peter Singer and the Aristotelian Jeffrey Sachs making this distinction. So it’s a straw-man to define the movement as homogenously utilitarian / hedonic.

If, as McCloskey seems to do, you accept a more Aristotelian definition of the good life, as one involving the virtues, character development and the pursuit of meaningful projects, then you are faced with two questions. Firstly, can we measure this more Aristotelian notion of happiness. And secondly, what role if any should public policy play in promoting it.

Aristotelian ethics were built on a foundation of psychology. Aristotle argues that we should pursue the good life and cultivate the virtues because it fulfills our nature and leads it to flourishing. This is a psychological as well as an ethical claim – it’s a form of ‘moral science’. So science should be able to tell us some useful things about whether it’s true or not. It involves some testable claims: that humans are capable of changing their habits through reason, that we can build stable character dispositions, and that the practice of the virtues leads to something we can somehow recognise as flourishing.

McCloskey seems to recognise the role of science in exploring this eudaimonic project: she supports Positive Psychology’s attempts to put virtue ethics on a firm empirical evidence base, and calls their work “gratifyingly sensible”. She seems to like the science when it supports her own Aristotelian definition of the good life, while dismissing any research into a utilitarian definition of the good life as “not science”.

The point is this: if we’re interested in the good life and happiness – and why shouldn’t we be – then this research project will involve both the sciences and the humanities. It will involve both social science and ethics. We have to be very careful in this fusion, careful not to leap from an Is to too rigid or dogmatic an Ought (and I think Positive Psychology does, on occasion, make overly prescriptive claims). But we can’t blithely ignore the relationship between the Is of science and the Ought of ethics. It’s a question of finding the right balance between the two. And why shouldn’t research into hedonic happiness be a part of that project?

Secondly, there’s the question of if or how social policy should be used to encourage eudaimonia or a certain definition of the good life.

McCloskey, who is committed to a bourgeois definition of the free individual, insists that social policy has no role to play in the attainment of eudaimonia. She says: “there are regions of meaning for free adults that social policy, even benevolently applied, should not penetrate”. We should be free, as bourgeois individuals, to pursue our own ‘self-culture’, through the consumption and discussion of cultural products like novels and museums. And that works best in a consumerist, capitalist economy, where ‘high culture’ typically flourishes.

She finds happy economics ‘creepy’ because it seems to go against her liberal individualism, by trying to nudge or tax us towards a ‘puritanical’ and anti-consumerist definition of the good life. We should be left to pursue the good life in our own way without intrusion of social policy, she insists.

This makes the naive bourgeois assumption that there is some ‘public sphere’ disconnected from policy. But our ability to pursue ‘self-culture’ depends on social policy: on the education we receive in schools and universities; on our working lives, the meaningfulness of our jobs, the amount of leisure we have; on the media and the ease of access we have to ‘culture’; on the quality of our environment, including everything from housing to policing to the natural environment.

We are not born free, rational, autonomous creatures. We become so, through education. And the quality of that education depends on social policy, particularly in education. McCloskey seems to hold the classic bourgeois illusion of independence. It’s an illusion because it ignores all the social conditions and social policy that allows the middle class that independence.

It reminds me of Habermas’ defence of the ‘public sphere’ of 18th century coffeehouses, where free bourgeois individuals could congregate to freely discuss ideas. But what about those who weren’t allowed into the coffeehouse – the women, working class men, the slaves? The creation of a just coffeehouse which everyone has the education and leisure to join requires social policy.

I also find suspicious her attempt both to embrace an Aristotelian idea of eudaimonia and to argue for unfettered consumerism. It presupposes that we are more free than we are. The Greeks, including Aristotle, recognised that our degree of freedom over ourselves is quite limited, that the cultivation of good character is hard. It takes teaching, practice, leisure, and a culture and economy that is hospitable to this project.

Aristotle thought this project was only possible for a wealthy few, supported by a large caste of slaves (there’s that bourgeois illusion of freedom again, dependent on the enslavement of others).

The challenge, if you accept the eudaimonic project and are also a social democrat, is to try and make this project feasible for the many, not just the few. And it’s also to create a culture and economy that is hospitable to this project – and that necessarily involves social policy, particularly in education. I don’t think you can say ‘leave it to the market’, because the market is infused with its own values and logic which are often inhospitable to the pursuit of eudaimonia. You end up with a culture where even the art is hopelessly saturated with consumerist values.

McCloskey’s notion of bourgeois independence also ignores the Aristotelian idea that part of the good life involves engagement with politics and policy. We reach flourishing partly by engaging as citizens with the mutual creation of our government and society.

The Neo-Aristotelians that McCloskey approvingly quotes, such as Martha Nussbaum, clearly believe that social policy has a role in encouraging eudaimonia. Nussbaum helped to develop the United Nations Development Index, and has also come up with a list of ‘capabilities’ which governments should promote. But Nussbaum then faces the charge that all Neo-Aristotelians have to face: why those capabilities? Why those virtues and not others? How can you prove that they really lead to flourishing? What gives you the right to use social policy to promote them? And how, exactly, will you promote them in the public at large?

You can’t rely, as Nussbaum seems to do, purely on the university as a vehicle for eudaimonic education. Because a lot of people don’t get the opportunity to go to university, or are so saddled with student debt that they have to focus on getting a good job. The attainment of a liberal education for the many rather than the few requires supportive social policy. I personally think it shouldn’t stop at university either, but should involve life-long community learning. But that, too, involves social policy, and the capacity of academics to engage in extra-mural activities rather than being lost in endless managerial paperwork.

In her defence of the status quo (liberal consumerism), McClusky makes the same mistake that Adam Smith made in his Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith argued in that book that we should all be free to pursue our natural desire for happiness. But he recognised, in his more pessimistic moments, that left to ourselves, we find our happiness in the approval of others, and this natural bias would probably mean that many of us would end up chasing illusory goals of external status, and that this would make us miserable. He both deified nature, and recognised it leads us astray.

But, he concluded, it’s good that we chase these delusions because, even if consumerism makes individuals miserable, it helps the economy grow, and that is good. But good for who? At what point do the needs of the economy become more important than the needs of the individuals who constitute it?

Our natures need institutions to guide them and give them shape. Institutions need social policy to create them and to defend them. If you ignore that in the name of bourgeois individual freedom, then you are abandoning the terrain to other forces – particularly corporations – to shape our nature into the shapes that serve their ends rather than ours.

The challenge, for everyone in the politics of well-being, is to balance the communitarian idea of the good life with a liberal, pluralist insistence on our right to make up our own mind and choose our own way.  It’s to find the right balance between tradition and freedom, between culture and anarchy.

The argument in defence of bourgeois liberalism and laissez faire consumerism becomes particularly untenable when it becomes environmentally unsustainable. Then, clearly, the balance between wisdom and freedom, between culture and anarchy, has been lost.


James O’Shaughnessy on how the Tories get the well-being bug

One of the interesting things about the politics of well-being is how, in the UK, it began as a movement on the Left, through figures like Geoff Mulgan (the head of Blair’s policy unit), and Richard Layard, but then managed to cross over and become a cross-party consensus, both in the Lib Dems (through people like Richard Reeves, Nick Clegg’s policy advisor) and even more surprisingly in the Conservative Party.

Who would have thought David Cameron would push forward ‘national well-being measurements’, create a National Citizens Service, inaugurate parenting classes, and double the funding for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy?

As I’ve discussed over the last couple of days, there is a Neo-Aristotelian consensus now, of politicians, policy wonks and even civil servants who believe that humans can achieve flourishing, and governments and civil society can help them in that journey. This includes Neo-Aristotelian Tories such as David Willetts, Ferdinand Mount, and Oliver Letwin – who wrote his thesis on Aristotelian ethics and the emotions (I reviewed it here).

This week, I met one of the Neo-Aristotelians on the Right: James O’Shaughnessy, formerly head of Cameron’s Number 10 policy unit, which Cameron sadly scrapped last year and replaced with a civil service-run unit  (a mistake, I fear). James left government to become a ‘social entrepreneur’ with a particular focus on integrating Positive Psychology into education – Positive Psychology is very influenced by Aristotelian philosophy and was described by one of its founders as ‘the social science equivalent of virtue ethics’.

We met in the RSA, and James told me how the Conservatives got into the ‘well-being agenda’, how he became a convert to Positive Psychology, and why he thinks the future of well-being education is not nation-wide programmes designed in Whitehall like Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL),  but rather smaller independently-designed experiments. The interview will hopefully be used in an article but I thought blog-readers would enjoy the full transcript.

The politics of well-being  arguably began as a New Labour phenomenon, through people like Geoff Mulgan and Richard Layard. So how did it get taken up by the Conservative Party? 

It was particularly taken up by Steve Hilton, who came to government from his Good Business consultancy; and by Oliver Letwin, who wrote his PhD thesis on Aristotle and the idea of eudaimonia. It’s also something David Cameron believes in, and for him it’s a way of demonstrating that Tories are not people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing, which is one of the stereotypes he is trying to dispel. There’s also the sense that you can’t talk about things like family values or a broken society entirely from an economic point of view, as the Fabians do.

Some dry Tories were dismissive of it, and there was a lot of scepticism – but that’s part of the point, for Cameron to show he’s different. Personally, I think the politics of well-being is deeply conservative – the idea that life is about more than money. Some on the right are sceptical about the idea of using well-being measurements to guide policy, partly because they say the data is so aggregated its meaningless, and partly because the idea that government should promote a particular philosophy of happiness is seen as dangerous socialism.

What do you think of those criticisms? 

Well, it’s true that if you aggregate well-being measurements up to the national level, it becomes so aggregated its basically flat over time, and never seems to go up or down. But the data can still tell you interesting things at the regional or local level. And it’s a start. In politics you can’t go straight from A to Z. Policy changes take time.

Tell me why you decided to leave government and become a social entrepreneur in education. 

I have a sceptical nature, so don’t believe politicians are always the best at running things. It’s about giving people the choice over how to do things. So the idea in many areas of social policy is to let social entrepreneurs provide a range of services and then people can choose for themselves. ‘Progressive ends, conservative means’ is the mantra. In education, that means things like free schools and academies. When you pursue policies like that, the more interesting stuff is actually happening outside of policy, at the grassroots level of services delivery. So I decided to leave government and become an education entrepreneur. There’s now a flowering of opportunity in that field which I wanted to be part of.

Some people think there’s a paradox in Conservative well-being policy. On the one hand, the government has pushed forward things like national well-being measurements. But in education policy, Michael Gove has scrapped Ofsted well-being measurements, and seems to be about to scrap Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning.  

I’ll explain why that’s not a paradox. It’s an epistemic point, about who can claim to possess knowledge. The disposition of Tories is that government is a really bad place to claim epistemic hegemony superiority because of things like the lessons of public choice theory, and the power of vested interests and of Whitehall. If you are too top-down, the programmes you put forward are quickly out of date, and create worse results than if you give institutions the opportunity to experiment and choose programmes that work. As long as they properly track the outcomes of those programmes and share the information, then the market improves.

I’m a big believer in evidence-based education policy, and in the work of people like the Sutton Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation, who announced a £200 million project last year to explore evidence-based interventions for disadvantaged children. If you empower independent institutions to choose their programmes, and parents to choose their schools, then you get a much richer ecosystem than if the Department of Education creates one well-being programme for the entire country.

But in this new evidence-based ecosystem, how would schools discover which programmes worked? Would there be like a site? 

Good question. At the moment we’re lacking a free market in information. There are a few university departments, it’s quite a small community, everyone seems to know each other. We need a repository of evidence for well-being education.

So it sounds like the government is going to scrap Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning, which was an example of that sort of centralised top-down policy.  

[SEAL, as many blog-readers will know, was inspired by Daniel Goleman’s pop psychology book Emotional Intelligence, and was enthusiastically taken up by New Labour and introduced it into the national curriculum in 2002. The government only got round to testing if it actually worked a decade later…and found it didn’t.]

The evidence for it was fairly patchy. The position of the government is that they’re all for schools trying well-being interventions out, but the government’s responsibility is to make sure kids learn and can get jobs at the end of school. They’re open-minded about how schools get there.

Some people, including me, expected SEAL to be replaced by the Penn Resiliency Project (PRP) – a three-year pilot scheme designed by Martin Seligman, the inventor of Positive Psychology [that’s him on the right]. It was supposed to be a careful, rigorous, evidence-based intervention to improve young people’s well-being and academic performance. But the evidence after the three-year pilot was not a home run, was it? 

The results were pretty good but you need to keep repeating the intervention for it to work. I’m now working with Richard Layard to try and get funding for a four-year pilot of an intervention that combines the Penn Resiliency Project with other evidence-based interventions.

How does Positive Psychology fit into your model of education? 

I didn’t want to be providing any old education, but rather a particular vision of it, that’s deeply informed by Positive Psychology. I’d spent a reasonable amount of time talking to Martin Seligman. What’s so appealing is the growth model rather than the disease model, and the idea there’s a continuum from ill to well to flourishing. I buy into that philosophically, but it also has a strong evidence base. And what’s fascinating is the interplay with ancient philosophy and virtue ethics. The cutting edge science ties into the best that’s been thought in the ancient world, by philosophers like Aristotle. So Positive Psychology is as much about character development as well-being. It’s part of a developing view that education should be about developing character, rather than merely passing exams.

So my idea was to build a ‘whole school’ approach to building character, that stretches across the whole curriculum and extra-curricular activities, even down to the dining room and how meals are conducted and what pupils eat. Martin Seligman, for example, has talked of extending Positive Psychology into English classes.

I was organising a round-table with Marty Seligman and some others to try and create a framework for a whole curriculum that people could apply in different schools. My career plan was to build on that framework, which would be freely available to anyone to use, to create services to sell into schools. Then Anthony Seldon [headmaster of Wellington] called and asked if I wanted to come on board with the Wellington academies trust. I agreed, and started a fortnight ago. The idea is to take the DNA of Wellington, and export it into different contexts – academies, prep schools and international schools.

Wellington is clearly a pioneer when it comes to ‘character education’ – the first British school to integrate Positive Psychology into its curriculum. But how easy will it be to export that DNA? To what extent does Wellington’s ‘character factory’ depend on its financial resources, and physical assets like the grounds, the facilities, the beauty of the place? Can you export that into an inner-city academy? 

Well, we’re trying to find out. Look at KIPP charter schools in the US, which are explicitly about creating character, and which work in some pretty rough neighbourhoods. Or look at the success of the Ark academies. As a social entrepreneur you want to create the most impact, and you could argue that Wellington has less impact on its pupils because they already have a lot going for them. The Penn Resiliency Project had the most impact on the more challenged kids. But of course, a private school costs £30,000 a year for a pupil, and a state school around £5,000. So we need to find what that buys you. I would also like to try to build find elite partners for the schools, like the Royal Shakespeare Companies or Wasps rugby clubs of this world, for example, so we can try to replicate some of the College’s breadth and excellence across the group.

But the aim is not to create a new programme and introduce it into the national curriculum as a nation-wide subject? 

No. The reason SEAL didn’t succeed, why it didn’t have any longevity, was it was too centralised, it was just telling people what to do. [James’ boss at the Policy Exchange, Neil O’Brien, wrote an interesting blog this month about how the Tories hope best-practice will naturally spread through the education ‘eco-system’ through things like chains of academies – you can read it here.]

There’s a lot I like about the idea of teaching Positive Psychology in schools, but my concern is that it becomes a form of rigid indoctrination, where if you disagree with the prescribed route, you are deemed unwell, sick even. If done badly, it could easily suppress creative or critical thinking, and attempt to create happiness by rote-learning or drill-training. That’s not going to work, is it? 

Well, I think you can encourage different routes to excellence. Wellington, for example, encourages people to ‘be the best you can be’. It’s the Aristotelian idea of virtue in excellence. And you can try lots of things to try and find out what you’re best at. That’s what really encourages self-esteem: walking into a room and knowing that, of everyone there, you’re the best at some particular activity. In general, though, I don’t have a problem with indoctrination! If you’ve grown up without structures and boundaries, it’s actually a relief to have them. I think we’ve learnt what’s wrong with progressive education, with the child-centred model where educationalists felt ‘who are adults to pressure children to learn?’ The result of that was a generation with high levels of illiteracy and a massive increase in educational inequality. Free creative thinking is fine for a small group who are already quite naturally talented. But it’s really bad for those students unable to cope with it.

I’m also wary of extending the Positive Psychology dogma into every subject, so that you have positive economics, positive physics, positive history.  Shouldn’t English Literature at its best explore the dark side as well as the positive? I remember my first term in English A-Level I read Hamlet, King Lear, Heart of Darkness and Freud’s Five Lectures on Hysteria. And I loved it!  

Yes, you have to be careful about the ‘positive’ label, it can be too narrow. It’s important not to be too blinkered, you can’t simply think positive and ignore objective facts.

Finally, is there a risk you could be criticised as creating a new free market in education when you were in office, and then profiting from it once you’re out of office? 

It’s not a privatised market, that’s important. It’s not for profit. The academies are run as charities, and any profits they make have to go back into the charitable purposes of the group. The board of the charity can set my salary, but that’s the only remuneration I get from my work with Wellington.

Thanks very much, James, and good luck. 

Thank you too.

What’s the next big idea? Neo-Aristotelianism.

People keep asking what’s the next ‘big idea’. The philosophy festival How The Light Gets In, in Hay-On-Wye next month, has a whole session devoted to ‘the end of big ideas’ (well..for you maybe!)  The philosopher Bryan Appleyard likewise opined on Twitter: ‘The centre left dream of Europe is dead, neo-liberalism is dead, neo-conservatism is dead. Anybody got any ideas?’ I suggest that neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism have both been replaced by neo-Aristotelianism and the politics of well-being (or eudaimonia, if you want to be properly Aristotelian).

Very briefly, neo-Aristotelianism grew out of the revival of virtue ethics from the 1950s, in the work of Anglo-Saxon philosophers including GEM Anscombe, Iris Murdoch, Alasdair MacIntyre, Philippa Foot, and more recently Martha Nussbaum and the current philosophe-du-jour, Michael Sandel. From Anscombe on, virtue ethicists tried to construct an Aristotelian ethics founded on a functional psychology of intention, will, emotion, habit and capacities. The good life, Aristotle argued, is the life that develops our nature to its fullest potential, so that it achieves flourishing or eudaimonia. Ethics, therefore, needs to be based on good solid psychology. The Ought of the good life needs to be based on a solid Is of empirical research.

GEM Anscombe

At the same time that Anscombe called for a ‘philosophy of psychology’, cognitive psychologists were also coming back to the Greeks and their cognitive theory of the emotions, which is basically the idea that emotions are value judgements about the world and how it should be. We can change these judgements, and thereby change our emotions, even chronic emotional habits like depression or anxiety. This Socratic idea was taken up in the 1950s by the pioneers of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis. Later, it fed into Positive Psychology, which was described by one of its leaders, Christopher Peterson, as ‘the social science equivalent of virtue ethics’.

So you have this useful dialogue emerging from the 1950s onwards between virtue ethics and cognitive psychology, and a renewed optimism in the power of reason to change the self and achieve flourishing. You see this dialogue in the works of Martha Nussbaum, for example, or Robert Solomon, or Jerome Bruner.  It’s also something I try to explore in my book, in my own middle-brow journalistic fashion. You also get a renewed optimism in the power of public policy to cultivate eudaimonia among citizens. From around the mid-1990s, around the same time as Positive Psychology was appearing, you start to see Neo-Aristotelians influencing and steering public policy. If you ever hear a politician or policy wonk talk about flourishing, character, civic virtue or the common good, the chances are they’re a Neo-Aristotelian.

The Neo-Aristotelians on the Left include Geoff Mulgan, formerly director of policy at Number 10 under Tony Blair, then founder of Demos, now at Nesta – who I think has really driven this policy shift forward and shaped public policy in the last 20 years. If you read his essay in the Demos collection, The Good Life, back in 1998, it starts with a quote from Aristotle, and an insistence that there exist ‘eternal values’ which public policy and social entrepreneurship can promote. They also include Leftist communitarians like John Cruddas , Liam Byrne and Lord Maurice Glasman, who often cite Aristotle as a key influence on their politics of virtue; Richard Reeves, formerly head of Demos and now chief advisor to Nick Clegg, who edited a Demos report on character; Matthew Taylor, head of the RSA and another head of the Number 10 policy unit; Anthony Seldon, headmaster of Wellington and champion of ‘character education’, who I put on the Left because he’s a biographer of Blair and Brown; and Lord Richard Layard, who is really an out-and-out Benthamite but who nonetheless has done a lot to promote the politics of eudaimonia, particularly through the expansion of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

Oliver Letwin, who wrote his PhD thesis on Aristotlean ethics, emotions and the ‘unity of the self’

The Neo-Aristotelians on the Right include James O’Shaughnessy, another former head of the Number 10 policy unit (in fact he just left it), who is a big believer in the fusion of virtue ethics, empirical psychology and public policy – I interviewed James this week and will hopefully get the interview up here soon; Philip Blond, who invented the concept of the Big Society, and Max Wind-Cowie, both of whom work or worked at Demos on its Progressive Conservatism project; David Goodhart of Prospect Magazine, who also now works at Demos; Danny Kruger, formerly David Cameron’s speech-writer who now runs a charity (he’s very much a Christian Aristotelian); Steve Hilton (he’s not into Aristotle as far as I’m aware but is very into Positive Psychology, good business and so forth); and, in government, universities minister David ‘two brains’ Willetts and Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin – who actually wrote his PhD thesis on Aristotle, the emotions, and philosophical optimism, as we shall see shortly. It was Letwin and Hilton who encouraged David Cameron to launch national well-being measurements.

Now clearly this is quite a broad movement. The figures within it might disagree about the means of government – some are more pro-market, some are local communitarians, others believe in more centralised or national public policy – but they agree to some extent about the end of government – eudaimonia – and they are all trying to promote a virtue-based politics. Their similarities are greater than their differences. Unlike the previous neo-liberal generation, they look to Aristotle, not Hayek or Friedman. Unlike Thatcher, they believe in society. They believe in economic growth as a means to virtue and flourishing rather than an end in itself. They believe in putting moral values back into economics, in a way quite different to the laissez faire ‘private vice, public virtue’ economics of Adam Smith. They believe in moral limits to the market-place, as Michael Sandel puts it in his new best-seller.

As Richard Reeves writes in the Demos pamphlet on character that I linked to above, a ‘Neo-Aristotelian consensus’ exists in policy circles. And, crucially, there is power there – the Neo-Aristotelians include two serving ministers, and three former heads of the Number 10 policy unit. They also include five British think-tanks on the right and left – Demos, the Young Foundation, the new economics foundation, the Policy Exchange and Respublica –  who agree on the end of eudaimonia even if they disageee on the means.

It is a politics of optimism, as Anthony Seldon recently wrote, infused by Aristotle’s optimistic belief in the power of human rationality to lead the self to flourishing, and the power of government to guide humans on this journey. It can be contrasted to the politics of pessimism, as seen in Augustine, or Hobbes, or Sir Isaiah Berlin, Sigmund Freud or John Gray – which suggests that humans are inherently divided beings, torn between incompatible ends, separated from their fellow beings by incompatible world-views, who must maturely accept that this is ‘as good as life gets’. The Neo-Aristotelians believe that life, for the individual and for society, can get better. The individual can achieve coherence,  flourishing and wholeness. And so theoretically can society. We can all join together in the search for the common good, and get closer to it.

I next want to examine Oliver Letwin’s PhD thesis, which I have actually read  – never let it be said I don’t work for my readers! It’s actually not too long and a good read, and helps us to look closer at the Neo-Aristotelian position and its implications for politics. He’s interesting partly because he came from a family of Thatcherite academics and policy-wonks, and he shows the shift from that position. I’ll do it in a separate post as this is already quite long.

How new is Positive Psychology’s focus on well-being?

Martin Seligman is undoubtedly a genius at attracting funding. But how good is his history of psychology?

His funding pitch usually begins with the insistence that he radically altered the direction of psychology when he launched Positive Psychology in 1998. In his inaugural speech as president of the American Psychology Association in 1998, he insisted that psychology had, since World War II, paid “almost exclusive attention” to pathology and illness. It’s a claim he repeats in his 2011 book, Flourish, where he writes that Positive Psychology marked a “tectonic upheaval” in psychology, rescuing it from its exclusive focus on misery and illness.
This sounds so radical, so historically significant, that no layman or funder could resist letting out a whoop and signing a cheque: ‘Of course psychology has always been too focused on illness and suffering! Just think of Freud and Krafft-Ebing. What a great idea, to set a bold new course for the heart of happiness and flourishing. Sign me up!’
But how accurate is Seligman’s reading of the history of psychology?
I’m not an expert, not even close, in the history of psychology. But even to my layman’s eyes, it seems obvious to me that this is an inaccurate and self-serving reading of the history of psychology, which vastly over-states the originality of Seligman’s work.
In fact, as my friend Oliver Robinson recently pointed out to me, many of the greats of psychology were deeply interested in what constituted health, wellness and fulfilment. Think of Carl Jung’s work on actualisation and individuation. Think of Abraham Maslow’s work on the hierarchy of needs. Think of Galton’s work on genius. Think of the work of developmental psychologists like Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg and Robert Kegan on maturity and wisdom. Think of existentialist psychologists like Erich Fromm and Viktor Frankl’s interest in love, meaning and transcendence. Think of William James’ work on religious experience. All these psychologists were deeply interested in the question of what constituted mental health, wellness and fulfilment, and how to achieve it.
Seligman might make the argument that Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, to which Seligman owes so much, was exclusively focused on treating illnesses, and that Positive Psychology used CBT techniques for the new goal of wellness or flourishing – and this is what makes Positive Psychology truly original and historically significant. But actually, Albert Ellis and his colleagues were using cognitive therapy to build resilience, thriving and mental health for several decades before Positive Psychology – and they were already teaching these techniques to kids in schools in the 1970s.
So much of Positive Psychology strikes me as marketing and hype, and this claim to historical originality is just another example of it. When historians look back at what was really useful and valid in Positive Psychology, I think they will decide it was mainly Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, invented back in the 1950s. I don’t think Seligman has added anything genuinely original or new since then – though he certainly has attracted a huge amount of money and media attention.

PoW: Friday round-up of philosophy, psychology and politics of well-being

On Tuesday I went to talk by Brigadier-General Rhonda Cornum (pictured right), who used to be in charge of the US Army’s $125 million resilience-training programme. The event was also the launch of the Young Foundation’s Resilience project. It was held at Macquarie Bank in the City, in a penthouse office-room full of funders, NGOs and policy wonks. A huge amount of interest in resilience, clearly.

I’ve long had an interest in the Army’s resilience programme – I interviewed Cornum back in 2009, and the interview is in the second chapter of my book. The programme was designed by Martin Seligman and his colleagues at University of Pennsylvania, based on techniques from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Positive Psychology.

It was rolled out by the US Army in rather a hurry, in an attempt to cope with the epidemic of post-conflict suicides among the troops. According to this useful report from the Centre for the New American Security, 18 American veterans kill themselves every day – that includes veterans who served decades ago, but still, it’s an awful statistic. The US Army lost 164 active duty soldiers to suicide in 2011, and a Freedom of Information act recently obtained by a US newspaper found that 2,200 soldiers died within two years of leaving the military – half of whom were being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Army, to its credit, is taking this problem seriously and trying to do something about it, by rolling out a CBT / Positive Psychology resilience programme which has been shown to reduce the incidence of depression in school children.

I got over PTSD myself through CBT, so I support the idea of making it more available in the Army, but there are aspects of the Comprehensive Solider Fitness programme (as it is called) that I don’t support. First of all, Seligman added the idea of teaching ‘optimistic thinking’, one of the features of which is to learn to take credit for things when they go well, but to blame your external circumstances when they go badly. I’m generalising – but not much. I think that’s a terrible thing to teach young people. It’s teaching them irresponsibility. Sometimes things go badly because you screwed up, and you need to be able to recognise that.

Secondly, I don’t like the programme’s claim to have discovered a scientific model for emotional and spiritual flourishing, which everyone must fit into, and which can be measured by a computer questionnaire. That’s a crude, vulgar and narrow-minded idea. By all means, help people avoid depression and PTSD, but don’t tell them you can measure a person’s ‘spiritual fitness’ with five questions in a computer questionnaire. This isn’t Cosmopolitan magazine, this is life!

Anyway, perhaps it is worth accepting these really dumb bits of the programme in order to get CBT out to the troops. The proof will be in the evidence. There wasn’t a pilot programme done (which is strange when you think how expensive the programme is), but the initial results are in, and they show that soldiers who took the course are about 1% more ’emotionally fit’ than soldiers who didn’t take the course (I’ll post the slides that show this once the Young Foundation makes them available). That’s a pretty tiny impact for such an expensive intervention. Suicides, meanwhile, continue to rise among active troops: they were higher in 2011, two years after the introduction of this course, than they were in 2010 and 2009.

I hope the results of the programme improve – but I would be wary of defining resilience as strength and PTSD as weakness, as Cornum repeatedly did. So Cornum didn’t get PTSD after she was shot and captured. Good for her. But some people go through awful experiences and do get PTSD. That’s not necessarily because they’re weak. It could be because the US Army puts its soldiers through tours that are, on average, twice as long as the tours of British soldiers, which in turn might explain why PTSD is apparently so much rarer in UK troops. It could be because they experienced some awful, awful things. It could be because war is an ugly and corrupting experience that leaves scars, real and hidden, on all who are immersed in it. We are not going to make it a perfectly hygenic and healthy experience with a bit of CBT.

As for teaching resilience in schools, well, we tried that here in the UK, in a government sponsored pilot programme designed by Seligman, the results of which were also disappointing: no long-term impact on children’s well-being or academic achievements. And I have even more ethical concerns about how technocratic, automated, rigid and prescriptive the Penn resilience course is if we start to teach it to children in schools. We shouldn’t claim there is only one scientific answer to the question ‘how to flourish’ – there are many answers to that question, and children should learn to be sceptical of experts who appear before them claiming to have all the answers. They should be trained to see the flaws in people’s arguments and to find their own response.

We need to find the right balance between the sciences and the humanities, between the wisdom of the ancients and our freedom to choose our own path. I personally think we should develop ‘art of living’ classes that combine the cognitive techniques of CBT with open discussion about the ethics and philosophies from which those techniques came.

On the philosophy side of that equation, here are some videos from an excellent sounding course in the Art of Living which Stanford University recently launched. And here is an article in the Telegraph, of all places, calling for compulsory philosophy in schools. That’s a decent idea – but, again, I think it could be very usefully combined with insights from the social sciences, and with an introduction to some of the basic techniques of well-being, like meditation or Socratic self-examination. Philosophy isn’t just about conceptual discussion, it’s also about learning really useful techniques and practices for living, some of which have now been tested out by science.

While we’re wondering whether CBT can be automated, here is Aaron Beck, one of the two inventors of CBT, discussing that very question recently at the Beck Institute. His answer is, yes, maybe.

Here in the UK, it looks like the government’s NHS bill is in trouble. Even Tory journalists are now calling for it to be dropped. Meanwhile, a new report from the King’s Fund says that the NHS needs to do more to recognise and treat mental illnesses among the severely ill. Meanwhile, Labour’s shadow health secretary, Andy Burnham, gave a fascinating speech calling for mental health to become the core focus of the NHS, and even perhaps of government as a whole.

Talking of the King’s Fund, I was at their offices in Cavendish Square last night to talk at a Psychologies Magazine event called ‘Make It Happen’. It was the first sort of self-help talk I’d given. It was really fun: I basically approached it like a London Philosophy Club event and tried to get people to offer solutions to other people’s problems. The attendees were really good at it. Kind of crowd-sourced therapy. I met a lot of people there who were trying to write a novel or get published. I can’t recommend The Literary Consultancy enough – they were a huge help to me in getting published.

Here’s a good article in the New York Review of Books, which suggests something I also have thought: that the Occupy movement is as much a spiritual movement as a political one. It reminds me rather of some sort of pre-modern cult, which expects a new Age of Love to arrive.

Here’s a funny article in the NYT about how young life-coaches are becoming.

Taiwan has become the latest country to measure national well-being.

Here is an eyebrow-raising video of one parent’s reaction to finding an anti-parent rant on his daughter’s Facebook page.

Finally, just to put all this well-being stuff in context, here is a news story about the people of Homs in Syria, saying goodbye to each other as they prepare for the ground assault on their town. I hope they can stay safe, and that Assad and his security advisors have to answer for their actions.

See you next week,