PoW: This week's highlights from the philosophy, psychology and politics of well-being

I'm going to keep this brief. It's hot, I want to be outside, and you're not paying for this anyway, are you, eh? Bunch of freeloaders if you ask me. Just kidding you're all great.

This week I suggested the new 'big idea' in public policy, the next big thing after neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism, is Neo-Aristotelianism, which is a fancy word for the politics of well-being.

I pointed out how this political movement is now cross-party, with supporters on left and right, and how, critically, it has power: its ranks include two serving cabinet ministers (Oliver Letwin and David Willetts) and three former heads of the Number 10 policy unit (Geoff Mulgan, Matthew Taylor and most recently James O'Shaughnessy).

I then actually read Oliver Letwin's PhD thesis on Aristotle, the emotions and the unity of the self, and (even weirder) actually enjoyed it. Written back in 1982, it's an interesting glimpse of the philosophical roots of the contemporary politics of well-being.  I reviewed it here.

Then I interviewed James O'Shaughnessy, who helped get the Tories on board with the politics of well-being while running the Number 10 policy unit, before leaving to become a social entrepreneur, with a mission to introduce Positive Psychology into schools.

Talking of which, here's a video about a project run by the Young Foundation (until recently headed up by Geoff Mulgan, another head of the Number 10 policy unit) to foster resilience among the elderly using CBT / Positive Psychology.

I'm interested in the field of 'values clarification', which Donald Robertson recently told me about (Donald wrote a great book on The Philosophy of CBT by the way). For example, check out this school in Birmingham that teaches values clarification to children with emotional / behavioural problems. Very interesting - and avoids the instrumentalisation or amorality of Positive Psychology.

What kind of values should courses in 'character-building' etc foster? Gratitude? Optimism? Critical thinking?  Here's one response, from Guy Claxton at the University of Bristol. He proposes 8 'big values' for the learning age: curiosity, courage, exploration, experimentation, imagination, reasoning, sociability and reflection. I definitely like the sound of cultivating experimentation and reflection - and I like how they encourage a person to explore beyond the boundaries of the prescribed ethos, rather than trying to fit them into a box.

To me, it's obvious that every school has an ethos, an esprit de corps, a set of values it tries to instill. I'd be really worried if it didn't. The question is, how can the more intelligent pupils, the individuals, the critical thinkers, be given the space to challenge that ethos and code, without being labelled a 'bad apple' or even sick? Think of Athens, and how its theatre challenged its own Enlightenment values and held a mirror up to it. That's the sign of a really healthy culture, I think - it both has a strong set of values, but also the capacity to reflect on those values and challenge them.  Otherwise you end up with a culture of mindless and even fascistic loyalty, like Sparta. (Talking of which, there's a new essay collection out about Sparta and its influence on modern culture - yours for only £60).

But if we wanted to set up a well-being course that encouraged critical and independent thinking, how the hell could we evaluate it using scientific measurements?  Not an easy question, but an important one. Here's an interesting new article on how the arts and humanities can use well-being measurements to quantify the 'impact' of their interventions.

Here's an example of a bright young person challenging their culture and holding a mirror up to its values: Plan B, the rapper, talking on the Today show about class, education, therapy and responsibility. Interesting stuff, and also funny because Evan Davis sounds well posh talking to him.

Here's a nice video from the OECD about the new craze for well-being economic measurements.

Here's an Economist review of a new history of melancholy and depression.

Here's a nice review from the LA Review of Books of Simon Critchley's new book on 'political theology'. And here is the first in a great three-parter by Critchley on Philip K. Dick's strange political gnosticism.

Here's a piece by my brother on how global CO2 emissions rose in 2010 and 2011, how the levels keep on rising, because we're not doing anything about it!

And, finally, here's a strangely hypnotic video of a slinky climbing up a running machine for three and a half minutes. Go slinky go!

See you next week,


PS special thanks to those of you who've written the lovely reviews of my book on Amazon - five reviews and an average of five stars so far! Everyone who writes a review gets a special cub-scouts reading badge. If you enjoy my work, please help me carry on doing it by buying my book and spreading the word anyway you can. I don't want to go back to financial journalism!