Social progress in the Age of Happiness

Since there are already countless blogs and self-help texts on the pursuit of personal happiness, I will emphasise ‘social happiness’ here. We are social beings: both our happiness and our conversations about it always happen courtesy of social contexts and cultural processes. Happiness isn’t just a personal thing, and social goods are only good if they recognizably promote happiness.

So this blog is for anyone who has a strong personal or professional interest in joining in the growing global conversation about how to take happiness seriously, particularly in social planning and in assessments of social change.

How do you feel about the proposition that we are living in the Age of Happiness? Inspired? Puzzled? Outraged? Certainly, public happiness conversations and happiness research seem to be blossoming worldwide. Equally certain, the world has far more people alive than ever before, and we’re living much longer, and with more of the conditions and opportunities for pursuing happiness than have previously been available.

Unsurprisingly, then, happiness self-report surveys such as those summarised in the World Happiness Reports [link] show that most people say they’re at least moderately happy. If so, the total ‘happy life-years’ achieved and enjoyed by humanity must be immensely greater than ever before. Do you still doubt whether this is the Age of Happiness?

But in case you think this just means we’re living in the Age of Complacency and Delusion, you should also note that most happiness scholars believe that their research shows opportunities for even more increases in happiness, and particularly for more equal distribution of happiness worldwide. Even in the happiest countries there is plenty of room for improvement. If so, shouldn’t we all be considering ways of modifying our understanding of social progress to accommodate the idea that there’s more to life than economic growth and the removal of social injustices? The happiness lens is a crucial route towards more aspirational social planning.

An emphasis on social dimensions of happiness

Uncontroversial though it might seem to link happiness with social quality, social dimensions don’t always get the attention they deserve in psychological happiness research. Conversely, in many social sciences, social planning, and social care, there’s plenty of attention paid to social processes but little sign of systematic or balanced interest in how people’s lives go well.

So if you’re a psychologist or a life coach or a therapist, you may learn useful stuff here about how society facilitates (or inhibits) happiness. If you’re from a ‘social’ discipline of some sort, please come here to recover from the overweening miserabilism and remedialism that commands the attention of those who profess to be interested in society.

If you’re a philosopher or psychologist with an interest in the ‘extended mind’ you may want to join in to develop a stronger sense of how all aspects of our minds, including not only cognition but also emotion, evaluation and existential meaning, are ‘extended’ or ‘distributed’ through social and cultural networks, institutions, narratives, and so on.

Or if you’re a statistician working on happiness, life satisfaction, or domain satisfaction, this site might help you consider what the stats actually might mean, and recognise the many ways in which survey responses are always significantly shaped by social situations and cultural learning. Similarly if you’re a neuroscientist pondering the meanings of numerical and graphical representations of brain activity, you may find that thinking about social contexts and cultural ways of discussing happiness helps you understand both the potential and the limits of neuroscience to enrich our understanding of happiness.

The concept of ‘social happiness’, therefore, goes well beyond the simple recognition that there are lots of social influences on happiness. Happiness actually happens between people, not just in individual brains. It takes distributed forms. It is fluid, dynamic, endlessly provisional and elusive. It isn’t some substance or state that only happens inside people’s heads. This is a tricky concept to grasp, but it seems well worth considering if we are to fully appreciate the sociability of happiness, and the need for individuals to ‘self-transcend’ in order to even consider their own happiness, let alone actually experience it.

The other motivation for this site is that happiness is a great rubric for persuading academics to engage in public discourse on what matters to people, and to get outside of their own disciplinary specialism. Happiness is something everyone, in every discipline and every walk of life, knows something about.

Four main dimensions of social quality

If the positive qualities of good social life get inadequate attention from planners and evaluators, we’d better define headings under which they can be explored. This matters not just because social qualities don’t get enough attention, but also because the word ‘social’ is often pathologised as a synonym for ‘troublesome’, or else used as a residual term for goods and services that aren’t recognized as part of ‘the economy’.

I’ve found it helpful to define four main qualities that are widely recognized but rarely assessed in systematic ways: conviviality; social engagement; social justice; and security. People want to live with a sense that they belong together with other people that they love and respect; they want opportunities to participate meaningfully in social processes; they want to be treated fairly and to believe that others are also treated fairly; and they want to be able to trust other people not to do them harm. Where these social goods prevail, happiness is likely to prevail. Conversely, happier people are more likely to contribute to these social goods.

As well as identifying these four categories of social qualities, it’s also worth appreciating analytical differences between them. Two distinctions are crucial. One is between means and ends – between  instrumental and ultimate (or ‘intrinsic’) values. Conviviality and justice seem to have more ‘ultimate’ value, whereas engagement and security are more associated with instrumental processes. Another distinction is between remedial or preventive objectives (or ‘avoidance goals’ as psychologists call them) and more positive or aspirational goals. Justice and security seem to be mainly about preventing or ameliorating harms, and are in this sense less positive or aspiration than the goals of conviviality and engagement.