Layard versus Seligman: happiness versus flourishing
Richard Layard reviews Martin Seligman's new book, Flourish, in The Observer this week. You'd think it would be a rapturous review, considering Layard gave a comment for the back of the book, saying 'The spread of positive psychology is a key development in world culture'. Layard is also referred to in the book as one of Seligman's 'mentors'. And Layard campaigned to get Seligman's emotional resilience classes introduced into British schools. So, you'd expect a pretty positive review.
But, as it happens, Layard says there are "important areas where I disagree with Seligman". Do tell...
First, flourishing versus happiness. In his great book, Authentic Happiness, Seligman focused on just that, and I agreed with his argument. He now prefers a different objective: flourishing, which consists of "Perma" (positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment). But how do we add these five together? If I ask you: "Is your child happy at school?", you know the answer exactly. [Really?] "But is your child flourishing?" Well, it depends.
Seligman is against the "monism" of focusing on happiness alone. In this respect, he is what Isaiah Berlin called a fox rather than a hedgehog. He is especially keen to bring into his ultimate goals some objective elements like accomplishment, on the basis that people's feelings of joy and contentment, rather than despair and torment, do not provide a sufficiently complete objective for the good society.
But surely Abraham Lincoln was great because he did a lot for human happiness – not, as Seligman says, because he accomplished highly, as though accomplishment were sufficient without some external criterion for deciding what accomplishment is valuable. Rational public policy requires a single criterion for comparing the benefits of different types of expenditure – and for comparing the costs of different cuts. So Seligman will have to come up with a system of weights for combining his different objectives, and where will they come from? I dare guess that, in the end, the weights he chooses will in fact depend on how far positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment each affect human happiness.
Layard seems to have taken objection to an interview Seligman did with Julian Baggini in the last issue of Psychologies, in which Seligman said he thought there was too much focus on happiness, and that we should pursue a broader idea of flourishing, rather than focusing purely on positive feelings, as Layard and his fellow utilitarians do. Plus, perhaps he's annoyed Seligman hasn't publicly signed up to his Action for Happiness movement.
But promoting flourishing rather than happiness is not a new position for Seligman. His first book, Authentic Happiness, was already groping towards a broader, more Aristotelian idea of well-being - that's what he was getting at with 'authentic'. I interviewed him in 2007, for The Times, and he told me there: "There is too much focus on happiness, I think. I'm interested in the meaningful or virtuous life, what the Greeks called eudaimonia." He also wrote in an earlier essay that focusing just on subjective well-being is "morally and politically imprisoning". So I don't think Seligman's new book is a major shift in position.
The rift between Seligman and Layard is the old rift between Aristotelians and Benthamites over how to define well-being. Layard always harks back to the 18th century - a period in which he claims "this whole tradition of thought springs". That's not true for Neo-Aristotelians like Seligman, Nussbaum, the New Economics Foundation and others, for whom the tradition of the politics of well-being begins, of course, with Socrates, before being developed by Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics and others in the ancient world.
However, Layard is quite right that, if you define the goal of public policy as not just happiness but flourishing, then you are faced with a challenge of how to measure it. He writes: "Rational public policy requires a single criterion for comparing the benefits of different types of expenditure – and for comparing the costs of different cuts. So Seligman will have to come up with a system of weights for combining his different objectives, and where will they come from? I dare guess that, in the end, the weights he chooses will in fact depend on how far positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment each affect human happiness."
Layard is saying that we should measure all these different aspects of eudaimonia through the single measurement of happiness. How accomplished is someone's life? Well, we'd have to measure how much happiness it gave rise to in their life and in other people's lives. But however could we do that? How could we possibly measure how much happiness Abraham Lincoln's life caused? It's an impossible challenge, even for an economist as accomplished as Layard.
In other words, I agree with Seligman that happy feelings are too narrow a definition of a good life. But I think Layard quite rightly points out that it is very difficult to measure eudaimonia and use the data to guide public policy. It just doesn't lend itself to mass measurement. The good life is too complicated, varied and nuanced for that. That's a serious challenge for the idea of measuring national well-being, which Layard has endorsed and David Cameron has made a government policy.
But it's also a challenge for Seligman, who claims he has created a science of flourishing, which can accurately measure a person's moral strengths, and even their level of 'spiritual fitness', using automated questionnaires. His Comprehensive Soldier Fitness programme, which every US soldier must take, claims to be able to measure soldiers' 'spiritual fitness' using automated questionnaire. If they score too low, it tells them to 'read the relevant self-development modules'. This reminds me rather of an expensive psychometric test my parents paid for, to see what A-Levels I should do. It told me to drop the English Literature and concentrate on Geography. I didn't, and instead went on to study English at Oxford, and got a first in it. If those dumb questionnaire tests fail to measure what A-Levels you should do, how much more do they fail in measuring your level of moral and spiritual development?
I'm sorry Marty, but the good life is not always going to fit into neat boxes. That doesn't mean I'm a moral relativist - I do believe that some lives are better than others, I just don't think you can measure it using simplistic automated questionnaires. Julian Baggini's review in the Financial Times is much closer to my own thinking. He writes:
The broadening out of authentic happiness into flourishing is to be welcomed. The deep problem is that, in so doing, Seligman has made it even more difficult to maintain the illusion that his enterprise is truly scientific. When, for instance, Seligman says meaning “consists in belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than the self”, how can that be an objective scientific claim rather than a contentious philosophical one? Nor can we objectively assess whether someone’s projects or values have meaning by seeing whether others endorse them, as he claims we can. That just tells us what people think, not what is true. In a fundamentalist society, all might agree that it is meaningful to martyr oneself in suicide for the glory of God. And if meaning can’t even be defined or identified objectively, it certainly can’t be measured.
We don't have to conclude that empirical evidence has absolutely no bearing on the good life. For example, Daniel Batson's work on altruism, using psychology experiments to test whether humans have altruistic motivations, is a great example of how experiments can inform important philosophical discussions. Likewise, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy has made an important contribution to the philosophical discussion of our emotions and how (or whether) we can regulate them.
The danger is that we then go too far, and try to argue that science and empirical measurements can tell us exactly what the good life is. It can't, not yet anyway, because the good life involves questions of meaning and purpose which in turn involve moral and philosophical debate. Let's embrace that, rather than trying to silence the debate. Let's get psychology and philosophy talking to each other properly - because both parties need the other side.