From religious bliss to well-being: what does happiness mean today?

Sunday 31 October, 5.30pm until 6.30pm, Café

Concern about the poor state of people’s well-being is growing globally. Well-being has been enshrined as a human right by the World Health Organisation, and there is widespread support for government-sponsored interventions claiming to develop well-being in education, legal systems and humanitarian aid. But what does well-being actually mean, and is it best understood in terms of philosophy, religion and morality, or psychology and neuroscience?

From advertisements for herbal teas or a day at the spa, to philosophy classes at the University of Oxford, ‘well-being’ seems to mean anything to anyone. For some, it’s simply a faddish word for happiness. For others, it’s a bland euphemism that includes everything from clean air and a good social life, to decent living conditions, equality and more ‘me time’. But it’s psychologists who dominate the policy debates about well-being, presenting it as a set of psychological ‘constructs’ or ‘skills’ that can be diagnosed, developed and assessed, including stoicism, resilience, optimism, altruism, emotional regulation, being in the moment and mindfulness. Claims that well-being can be turned into ‘skills’ which produce educational, social and life success have fuelled a massive rise in interventions in British and American schools. A new ‘happiness movement’, launched in September 2010, puts a special focus on children and their emotional environment, arguing for free psychological help, and citing the case of an eleven year-old child in Liverpool who was taught reconciliation techniques at school and then managed to get his warring parents to talk to one another. According to supporters, ‘Schools are our great opportunity as a society: the audience is (nearly) captive. Children want to be happy and to learn the secrets of happy living’.

But while today’s discussion is dominated by psychology and neuroscience, history tells us that these so-called skills are rooted in older philosophical, religious and spiritual interpretations. In British Victorian schools, psychological constructs of ‘well-being’ were the focus of moral education. In America, these constructs were integral to ‘character education’. So would it be more honest if governments and psychologists hoping to enhance our well-being admitted their moral and spiritual concerns? Are those who object simply in denial about the benefits of positive psychology and neuroscience? If stoicism, resilience, optimism and altruism have such a positive effect on our lives, does it really matter if they are spiritual dispositions or psychological skills? Or do we need to retrieve ideas about well-being from psychologists? Is intervention in well-being an intrusive attempt to instil good behaviour and develop character? Is a psychological interpretation the only way to talk about well-being in a diverse, fragmented society reluctant to adopt religious ideas or moral education?

Listen to session audio:

 

Speakers
Beverley Clack
professor of philosophy of religion, Oxford Brookes University; author, The Philosophy of Religion: a critical introduction and Sex and Death

Kathryn Ecclestone
professor of education, University of Sheffield; author, Governing Vulnerable Subjects in a Therapeutic Age (forthcoming)

Ruth Gledhill
religion correspondent, The Times; journalism tutor, City University

Hilly Janes
managing and acting deputy editor, Prospect magazine

Chair:
Professor Sir Simon Wessely
president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists; head of the Department of Psychological Medicine at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King's College London

Produced by
Kathryn Ecclestone professor of education, University of Sheffield; author, Governing Vulnerable Subjects in a Therapeutic Age (forthcoming)
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