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Building a happier society
An initiative launched in April by Lord Richard Layard and others is on a mission to build a happier society. Action for Happiness, currently part of the Young Foundation, requires its members to make a simple pledge: 'to try to create more happiness in the world around them through the way they approach their lives'. Its website invites people to download a 'happiness action pack', which contains practical tips on being more happy and spreading happiness, including meditating, experiencing gratitude, focusing on your strengths and performing acts of kindness (see www.actionforhappiness.org).
Lord Layard is professor of economics at LSE and was the principle architect of the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme. Other members of the Action for Happiness board are: Geoff Mulgan (chief executive of the Young Foundation), Anthony Seldon (headmaster of Wellington College where pupils receive well-being lessons), Nic Marks (founder of the Centre for Well-being at the New Economics Foundation) and Mark Williamson.
Action for Happiness has received endorsement from a number of organisations, including Relate, the Children's Society and the British Psychological Society. Towards the end of April its website boasted 12,440 members from 105 countries. 'Action for Happiness has a vision where we can all play a role in creating a society which values personal well-being, relationships, and meaningful, purposeful, lives,' said Professor Peter Kinderman, chair of the BPS Division of Clinical Psychology. 'Psychologists are working hard for positive social change and we welcome and fully support the aims of Action for Happiness.'
Several British Psychological Society members and other psychologists are official advisers to the initiative, including Alex Linley (Centre for Applied Positive Psychology), Cary Cooper (Lancaster University), Ilona Boniwell (UEL), Timothy So, Felicia Huppert (both University of Cambridge Well-being Institute), David Clark (Institute of Psychiatry) and Paul Gilbert (Compassionate Mind Foundation). International advisers include Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology, and Nobel-winner Daniel Kahneman.
The Action for Happiness launch is timely, coinciding as it does with plans by the Office for National Statistics to measure the UK's well-being for the first time. However, superficially at least, the initiative probably wasn't helped by an interview given by Martin Seligman in April in which he distanced himself from the importance of happiness per se: 'What humans want is not just happiness. They want justice, they want meaning,' he told Julian Baggini in Psychologies magazine. This view is consistent with the broader ethos of the Action for Happiness movement, but Seligman explained how he now prefers to use the term 'flourishing' rather than 'happiness' to represent the ultimate aim of positive psychology.
Some psychologists and therapists have voiced reservations about the project. Former BPS President Ray Miller, for example, said: 'While everyone seems to be claiming a right to happiness, I want to defend the right to be bloody miserable. If people are seriously led to believe that happiness is a continuously attainable state, then they are being misled. Unhappiness becomes pathology and people feel cheated and deprived. They seek a "cure" and believe "someone should do something" to alleviate their suffering. But unhappiness is a natural reaction to some sets of circumstances. Like a pendulum, we will always swing between the two states with dynamic fluctuation only ending when the clock stops. In a more balanced way, we should perhaps be aiming for contentment.'
The need for caution when promoting happiness and well-being was also highlighted by new research, coincidentally published online in the same month as the Action for Happiness launch. Andrew Oswald at the University of Warwick and his colleagues claimed to have found that other people's happiness can be a risk factor in suicide (Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization). The researchers' data showed that Western countries or US states with higher than average well-being levels also tended to have a higher suicide rate. For example, Utah, the US state with the highest average life-satisfaction, has the ninth highest suicide rate; New York, by contrast, is ranked 45th for life satisfaction yet has the lowest suicide rate. 'Discontented people in a happy place may feel particularly harshly treated by life,' the researchers concluded. 'Those dark contrasts may in turn increase the risk of suicide.'
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