This blog will explore the pros (mainly) and the cons (within reason) of adopting a ‘happiness lens’ in social research, moral debates, planning, and practice. Two assumptions lie behind this initiative:
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.
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 friends 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.
This blog will emphasise ‘social happiness’ because we are social beings, therefore 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.
Uncontroversial though this might seem, it doesn’t always get the attention it deserves 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 predominates among 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 title ‘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.
Finally, some of you may be wondering why it’s labeled ‘happiness’ and not ‘wellbeing’. The easiest answer, if you can grasp it, is that people sing about happiness, but they don’t tend to sing about wellbeing. Though often used as a synonym for pleasure or enjoyment, happiness has much broader meanings that mean much the same as wellbeing. But the word ‘happiness’ tickles the heart-strings much more effectively. If happiness and wellbeing were to run a race, happiness would be half-way around the world before wellbeing had pulled on its running shorts.