The most important Manhattan Projects of the future will be vast government-sponsored enquiries into what the politicians and the participating scientists will call "the problem of happiness."
— Aldous Huxley, preface to Brave New World
A new type of politics has appeared in the last decade: the politics of well-being. It’s a fusion of ancient Greek and Buddhist philosophy, cognitive psychology, and public policy. At its heart is the idea that governments can increase their citizens’ happiness and flourishing using the science of well-being, and for such an idealistic project, it has won a surprising amount of support.
The politics of happiness have led to mass psychological interventions in hospitals, schools, prisons, armies and corporations, costing billions of dollars, and paved the way for governments to measure "national well-being." In the past three years, the UK, France, Germany, and China have all launched national well-being measurements. Their national statistics departments now go from door-to-door asking people, "How happy do you feel on a scale of one to ten?" then aggregating the data to discover what policies raise the national happiness level. The U.S. is considering following suit, and the United Nations unanimously approved a resolution last year to broaden economic indicators to include well-being.
Nothing better indicates the evangelical faith that policymakers have in this new politics of well-being than the Christmas gift that the president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, sent out last year. As the euro zone crumbled, Van Rompuy sent out a book on positive psychology to 200 world leaders, urging them to “make well-being our priority in 2012.” He declared, “Positive thinking is no longer something for drifters, dreamers and the perpetually naive. Positive Psychology concerns itself in a scientific way with the quality of life. It is time to make this knowledge available to the man and woman in the street.”
The linchpin of liberalism, forged from centuries of violence between Catholics, Protestants and Jews, is the idea that people should be free to pursue their own version of well-being, without interference from the state. As Sir Isaiah Berlin pointed out in his 1958 essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty," liberalism assumes that reasonable people may disagree on the definition of the good life. Seeing as an entire population is unlikely to agree on one comprehensive definition of the good, any attempt by a government to find a "final solution" to the problem of happiness will likely end in coercion, oppression, and even totalitarianism. Governments should therefore confine themselves, Berlin argued, to protecting our negative liberty, our freedom from interference by others, rather than trying to enhance our positive liberty, our spiritual fulfillment, our self-actualisation. This warning sounded wise to policymakers after World War II and the horrors committed by Stalin and Mao on their citizens "for their own good."
However, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Western governments needed a new mission to fulfill. So, just as Nietzsche predicted, at the end of history, the last men invented happiness. A handful of social scientists and policy makers insisted that the liberal mission was not complete, because although citizens in the west were free, they were not happy. They seized on the "Easterlin Paradox," a graph that economist Richard Easterlin had plotted in 1974 to show that, while GDP has risen since the 1950s, our national happiness levels (based on how happy we report ourselves to be between one and ten) have stayed flat. This, then, should be governments’ new mission: to lift our happiness.
The missionaries quickly found new demons to dispel. Western society was suddenly beset by a range of profound social and behavioral epidemics — drug addiction, alcoholism, obesity, depression, anxiety, consumer debt — all of which emerged (according to the technocrats of well-being) from people’s chronic inability to make intelligent life choices. Classical liberalism was based on a flawed model of human nature, in which we were assumed to be rational autonomous sovereign beings. In fact, as the new fields of behavioral economics and neuropsychology showed, we are irrational, unconscious, self-deceiving, dopamine-craving animals whose desires are shaped by our environment and culture. To complete the liberal project of emancipation, then, we need a final revolution: to be freed from ourselves.
This project takes us well beyond the limits of Berlin’s "negative liberty" and into the dreams of the ancient Greek philosophers, particularly Plato and Aristotle, who both insisted it was the proper function of the state to enhance the well-being or eudemonia — or meaningful happiness — of their citizens. This final revolution turns policymakers from bland technocrats into something closer to Plato’s exalted law-giver, who combines in their person the physician, the tutor, and the priest. That’s not far from the role envisaged by economist Jeffrey Sachs, one of the prophets of the new politics, who describes his work as "clinical economics," combining economics with ethics, psychology, politics, health care, and cultural anthropology into a form of total politics designed to heal entire nations.
But the new politics of well-being faces two criticisms. Can a government really teach people to be happier? And what gives governments the right to indoctrinate people in their particular version of happiness in the first place? Policymakers’ answer to both these criticisms is "we have discovered the scientific formula for happiness. It’s been proven to work, therefore we have a moral obligation to teach it to our citizens."
The Science of Well-Being
The happiness formula governments have discovered is based on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which was invented in the 1950s by two American psychologists, Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis, and is now the dominant treatment in western psychotherapy. CBT has helped millions of people to overcome depression, anxiety and other emotional disorders — including me. That’s how I started writing about this area; CBT helped me overcome depression in my early 20s.
I was interested in where the therapy came from, so I went to interview Ellis and Beck. They both told me that CBT was directly inspired by ancient Greek philosophy, and the idea in Socrates and the Stoics that we can make ourselves happier and more fulfilled by becoming aware of how our emotions follow our beliefs. We can learn to Socratically examine our beliefs and change those beliefs and actions that are unwise or toxic. Through the Socratic exercise of self-knowledge and self-control, we can become masters of ourselves rather than the slaves of our passions and compulsions. CBT essentially took ideas and techniques from ancient Greek philosophy, dropped any references to virtue or Zeus, and incorporated them into a highly effective evidence-based short-term therapy. Where ancient philosophy offered people a philosophy for life, CBT offered the emotionally sick some simple techniques to overcome their disorders, without trying to teach them the meaning of life.
In the 1990s, a younger colleague of Aaron Beck’s at the University of Pennsylvania, Martin Seligman, saw the success of CBT and wondered if its mission could be expanded. Why not use CBT not just for the negative aim of helping people overcome sicknesses but also for the positive aim of helping all people achieve flourishing? Seligman called this new field positive psychology, and again, it was inspired by ancient Greek philosophy. It would be “the social science equivalent of virtue ethics,” as its "director of virtues" Christopher Peterson put it. Virtue ethics always claimed that goodness leads to eudemonia. Now social science could finally prove it. Positive psychology would create an objective science of flourishing, empirically testing out the well-being techniques of ancient and modern wisdom.
This, of course, was a much more ambitious project than CBT. It’s one thing to measure if a person suffers from suicidal thoughts or panic attacks, quite another to measure to what extent they are flourishing. But positive psychology, which launched in 1998, immediately attracted huge amounts of funding and media attention. It tapped into a wave of TED-esque optimism in the power of social science to measure and improve everything — even the twisted heart of man. Positive psychologists excitedly claimed to have discovered the "happiness hypothesis" or the "how of happiness" (as two popular books of the past decade put it). And Seligman insisted that governments should make the secret widely available to their citizens. Last year, Seligman announced that governments are at a "Florentine moment," in which they could roll out positive psychology to their citizens, just as the Medici had rolled out Platonic philosophy to Renaissance Florence. Seligman outlined a "moon shot" for the world to aim for: By 2051, get 51 percent of the world’s population flourishing (using his own method of measurement and therapy, naturally).
How ever could this grand target be achieved? It would involve rolling out CBT and positive psychology in every conceivable public outlet. We’re not quite there yet, but the movement is certainly spreading. The British government has put around $1 billion into making CBT more available in the National Health Service. It’s now available in job centers, as the British government tries to reduce the number of people claiming incapacity benefits because of mental illness. It’s also taught in British and American prisons as part of anger-management courses. Other countries are following Britain’s example: Canada unveiled a $4 billion "national mental health strategy" this month, with CBT at its heart. And positive psychology has exported CBT into education policy: Many schools now include positive psychology in their curriculum, including KIPP charter schools in the U.S. and several academies in the UK.
One of the boldest interventions so far was by the U.S. Army, which spent $125 million on a resilience course designed by Seligman, which every soldier must take.
This could be just the beginning: one influential British policy adviser called for positive psychology to be taught to all 6 million people working in the British public sector, while Van Rompuy apparently wants to teach it to the entire world.
There’s something to be said for this, if you think CBT really helps people overcome emotional disorders. However, CBT doesn’t work for everyone. And like the Stoic philosophy out of which it grew, CBT tends to blame people’s emotional problems exclusively on their own "thinking errors," while ignoring environmental factors. This is a convenient line for governments to sell while they’re pushing through austerity cuts, but it ignores the evidence that the best predictor for depression is poverty. Positive psychology, meanwhile, makes a much bolder and less proven claim to have created an objective science of flourishing, which is being imposed on children, the unemployed, soldiers, and employees without their consent and without any opportunity for them to disagree. And in fact, when you’re talking about happiness or flourishing, there is a lot of room for disagreement.
Whose Version of Happiness?
At the UN’s "world happiness summit," where the body unanimously agreed to make well-being a goal of public policy, it rapidly emerged that there was little consensus about what well-being actually is. The summit began with Jeffrey Sachs and the utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer raising the old argument between utilitarians and Aristotelians over the definition of happiness. Utilitarians define it as good feelings while Aristotelians (including John Stuart Mill) insist that flourishing is more complicated than that and that some forms of happiness are higher or better than others. For Aristotle, true happiness is eudemonia, which includes virtue, meaning, wealth, political engagement and even a connection to God.
The scientific experts on well-being can be roughly divided into these two camps, and both of them face challenges. The utilitarians insist that their definition of happiness is easy to measure: You simply ask people how happy they are on a scale of one to ten. But this approach has all the defects of utilitarianism. It assumes happiness means the same thing to all people, it assumes that pleasant feelings are or should be the goal of life, and it ignores the problem of hedonic adaptation — a person may feel happy because they have got used to their conditions, even if the conditions seem pretty awful to most people. The Aristotelians (including Seligman and Sachs) face their own methodological problems. Aristotle defined well-being as including things like meaning, virtue, purpose, spirituality, and so on.
Whose definition of such nebulous terms ought you use? If you accept Aristotle’s idea that some forms of happiness are better than others, then you seem to be empowering an intellectual or religious elite to define for the entire country what real happiness is. Take the example of Bhutan, which is often held up as a paragon of the new politics of well-being because it has measured gross national happiness since the 1970s. Bhutan measures its citizens’ well-being according to how much they meditate, how much they believe in karma, and to what extent they follow the traditional majority culture of Bhutan. By that definition, anyone who doesn’t believe in karma or who doesn’t follow the majority culture is sick. In fact, Bhutan forced out almost an entire ethnic minority into refugee camps in Nepal in the 1990s for failing to follow the majority culture. That’s one way to raise your national well-being.
Seligman has repeatedly insisted that positive psychology is “science and not moral philosophy.” It measures American soldiers’ spiritual fitness, for example, by measuring to what extent they feel connected to a higher purpose, but it does not prescribe what that higher purpose should be. But this highlights the limits of a scientific and instrumental approach to the good life: Seligman has invented a scientific model of the good life that leaves out goodness. Positive psychology ends up spouting tautologies like "the meaning of life is to have meaning," without telling people what that meaning should be. Such an approach makes no distinctions between good meanings and bad meanings. Seligman admits that Osama bin Laden would have scored very high on his flourishing measurements, because his life was high in meaning, engagement, and purpose. That's coming from a man who's paid by the Pentagon to encourage spiritual fitness.
While Seligman ties himself in knots to avoid the accusation of moral paternalism, the teaching of positive psychology on the ground is quite obviously prescriptive and didactic. The authority of Scripture is replaced the authority of scientific evidence, even if the evidence is quite weak. So far, positive psychology interventions in British schools and the U.S. Army have not produced a significant impact on the well-being of participants, suggesting you can’t force people to be happier against their will. Science can test out the means to instill habits, to foster character, to transform selves, but it can only go so far. We still need practical wisdom and communal debate to decide for ourselves what constitutes good character, good habits, good selves. Without this emphasis on the Socratic ability to think for ourselves, the politics of well-being could conceivably become what Aldous Huxley envisaged: a new totalitarianism.