Using the ‘happiness lens’: a tool for positivity, empathy, and life integration

Why bother making happiness an explicit theme?

There are plenty of people who are sceptical or suspicious of happiness research or about ‘positivity’ or ‘positive psychology’. We’ll explore some good reasons for scepticism here. But let’s be sensible: there’s nothing wrong, is there, in wanting to foster intelligent, well-informed, multi-disciplinary and crosscultural conversations about how to live well? At worst, you might find the overall concept of the ‘happiness lens’ just too vague or a bit truistic and bland.

Fear of vagueness and of truism are, I suspect, the two most common reasons why happiness tends not to be an explicit theme in most social science and social policy discourse. This neglect is now being addressed both within and beyond academia. I hope to persuade you that a) happiness conversations needn’t be vague or truistic, and b) in any case some important features of our lives are highly uncertain and can only be discussed imprecisely, and some truisms are so important that they’re worth stating and restating.

This blog will explore the pros (mainly) and the cons (within reason) of adopting a ‘happiness lens’ in social research; in moral debate and evaluations; in planning and business management; and in personal decision-making and practice. Two assumptions lie behind this initiative:

  1. Happiness thinking refocuses our attention on what matters: Too many of our conversations about social quality zoom in on harms and injustices (crime, human rights abuses, inequalities), or on instrumental goods (income, schooling, medical services). We really need to look beyond these issues, to explore the roles of society and culture in facilitating the happiness that we ultimately value. In other words, a ‘happiness lens’ can make us more conscious of ultimate values and goods, and save us from being too distracted by pathologies and instrumental goods.
  2. Happiness thinking can sometimes be radically disruptive: A ‘happiness lens’ can radically alter our understandings, our analysis, and our motivations to transform society for the better. It can be a genuinely disruptive analytical framework for rethinking social priorities. It can also, of course, be abused by conservatives as a deliberate distraction from social injustices and pathologies.

I (and hopefully lots of other contributors too) will offer short thinkpieces and links relating to social goods and how they make people’s lives go better. Some will be moderately challenging analytical pieces looking at concepts, theories, and evidence on how happiness happens, and how people talk and think about it in different cultural settings and professional disciplines. Some will offer more practical information on examples of how evidence-based social interventions can enhance people’s lives.

Using the ‘happiness lens’

The ‘happiness lens’ is just a general reminder to make sure that our thoughts, our conversations, our plans, or our evaluations of people or of states of affairs, pay due heed to the universal human preference for living well – as opposed to simply avoiding harms or possessing goods that have instrumental value. And although we could talk forever about the implications of that, it should be pretty easy to agree on three main kinds of difference that the happiness lens should make:

  • Positivity: it makes us think and talk about strengths and enjoyments, i.e. about what people ultimately value
  • Empathy: it makes us consider all aspects of planning from the perspective of the experiencing subject – what does x feel like or how is it perceived and understood?
  • Integration: it makes us consider the whole of someone’s life, thinking about their various life domains, roles, and relationships over time

ethical transparency

We also need to ask what kinds of conversation or thinking process the happiness lens might influence. Happiness conversations can be conceptual (how we think about various aspects of living well); evaluative (what we ultimately value, why, and hence how valuable particular processes and outcomes are); descriptive (how we communicate about observable manifestations of the many aspects of wellbeing); analytic (how we understand the many kinds of interaction that enable or inhibit wellbeing); and normative (moral discourse about what we ought to do about wellbeing, for ourselves or for others). So the happiness lens can make a difference to how we think and talk, how we evaluate, how we describe, how we analyse and understand, and how we believe people should act.

Implications of a wellbeing lens for research and planning