Well-being, not happiness

How often would you say you feel truly happy? Every day? Once a week? Less? It will vary greatly from person to person, from day to day, and depends on lots of factors.

The positive psychology movement wants to help us live happier lives. Its major proponent is Dr Martin Seligman, Director the Centre for Positive Psychology in Pennsylvania. Over here in the UK, Lord Layard has just set up an organisation called the Movement for Happiness. Wellington College is teaching happiness lessons to its pupils, and the DCSF has funded a 22-school pilot of the Penn Positive Psycholoy programme in schools.

But lots of people have been getting in a real tizz about these ‘happiness’ lessons. The general criticism leveled is that training children to be happy is unrealistic given the hardships they are likely to face, and will only end tears, disappointment and collapse of self-esteem.  Plus, a little bit of melancholy is healthy and normal.

I totally agree with this point. In fact a permanently happy person can be just as disconcerting as a permanently sad person. I refer you all to a tongue in cheek paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics recommending that unusual happiness by reclassified as a psychiatric disorder with the name “major affective disorder: pleasant type”. I am delighted to say that none of my friends have this problem.

However, I think some people are missing the point of the positive psychology movement, largely because of the language being used.

The positive psychology movement isn’t really about happiness, it is about well-being. And well-being is a much more cognitive and complex multi-dimensional construct (as reflected in NPC’s well-being questionnaire for charities). Improved mood, or happiness, might well be ONE outcome of a lesson in positive pschology, but it is really life skills training. As it says on Martin Seligman’s website positive psychology is about ‘the capacity for love and work, courage, compassion, resilience, creativity, curiosity, integrity, self-knowledge, moderation, self-control, and wisdom’. All pretty valuable stuff, I am sure you will agree.

I think we are using the wrong language.  My advice to the big players in the field of positive psychology is to stop talking about ‘happiness’. We need to rephrase the debate, talk about ‘well-being’ and stop confusing the two. I know I’ve been guilty of it but from now on I am going to choose my words more carefully.