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:


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

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)
Recommended readings
Exploring Happiness

If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.” At first glance, the nursery song appears to stipulate a redundant condition. Happiness is a feeling: isn’t being happy the same as knowing you’re happy?

Marek Kohn, Financial Times, 22 August 2010

The secret of happiness: Family, friends and your environment

How do you find contentment in an acquisitive society? By changing the things you spend your money on, says a US academic

Rachel Shields, Indpendent, 16 August 2010

Why a movement for happiness

Samuel Beckett said that the tears of the world are a constant quantity. But what if the tears of the world are not so constant? What if it really is possible for individuals and whole societies to shape and boost their happiness? This simple but extraordinarily powerful idea lies behind the Movement for Happiness that is launched later this year.

Lord Richard Layard, Anthony Seldon, Geoff Mulgan, Movement for Happiness, 2010

The Rap on Happiness

Smart people often talk trash about happiness, and worse than trash about books on happiness, and they have been doing so for centuries — just as long as other people have been pursuing happiness and writing books about it.

Amy Bloom, New York Times, 30 January 2010

Get happy, and get on with it

Projects to boost staff wellbeing are all the rage, but some people wonder if the interest in workers' psychological health belies a rather less altruistic agenda

Melanie Newman, Times Higher Education, 22 January 2010

Festival Buzz

Barriers to Science

"I was stunned at the incisive level of debate, the packed venues, the calibre of the panellists and audience... getting out for face-to-face intelligent, gritty and gloves-off exchanges of views."
Humphrey Hawksley, BBC World Affairs Correspondent

in association with