Happiness is just one among many different things we can emphasise when we look at the world around us, or engage in evaluative debates, or try to plan better futures. It’s whoppingly important, of course, but other things matter too so we do need to  ensure that talking about happiness doesn’t drown out other kinds of consideration like justice, or freedom, or beauty, or creativity.

Philosophers consider various possible abstract terms for ‘ultimate’ values. They consider things like beauty, truth, wisdom, and achievement as panhuman goals that aren’t (quite) encapsulated within the happiness catch-all. Any of these can be used as a ‘lens’ or ‘perspective’ from which to view and evaluate things. For example, you might say a building was really beautiful and valuable as such, even if it was rather cold and unconvivial and so not good for happiness. Or a person might be admired as a high achiever even if they were neither wise nor beautiful.

Similarly, in debates about moral or practical matters, we might ask what other ‘lenses’ people should use either instead of, alongside, or in combination with a ‘happiness lens’. Browsing online for documents on social planning or ethics that use the term ‘lens’ , I see texts on resilience; human rights; poverty; justice; gender; race; diversity; disability; mental health (i.e. illness); health; security.

Then there are lenses which try to steer our attention not to specific issues or target populations, but rather to particular viewpoints or levels of analysis – thus a ‘family’ or ‘community’ perspective might be contrasted with a ‘national’, ‘international’, or ‘global/cosmopolitan’ perspective. In environmental planning, people have tried (rather unsuccessfully) to propose a ‘biocentric’ alternative to the default (and in my view unavoidable) ‘anthropocentric’ perspective.

If we look for lenses that are highly contrastable to the happiness lens, the most obvious examples (though these are rarely made explicit) would the deficit lens (looking for things that are missing in people’s lives), or a pathology lens (looking for things that go wrong in people’s lives). Also contrastable are the productivity lens (or economic lens, or efficiency lens) which looks at production of instrumental goods like food and buildings, and the capabilities lens (which looks at what people are able to do, but stops short of considering whether they use those capabilities to good effect).

Another lens that might be contrasted is the therapeutic lens, which is sometimes confused with a happiness or wellbeing approach. Considering the value of something as ‘therapeutic’ is a kind of remedial lens, looking at repair or recuperation but not looking aspirationally at the pursuit or achievement of happiness.

Two other lenses commonly contrasted with the happiness perspective are the libertarian lens and the anti-authoritarian lens, both of which inspire questioning of any state or private organisations that try to tell people how they should pursue happiness.

Then there are an innumerable number of special-interest lenses that people adopt when they try to make links between any topic and those aspects of life they’re most interested in. This might be very general – for example if gender justice  is your main concern you can use the gender lens to steer just about any kind of conversation. And your particular version of that lens might be further influenced by a female or a male perspective. But your gender lens might be broader still – your main concern might be about gender segregation or gender relations, not mainly about gender justice.

An ‘aging’ or ‘age-friendly’ lens is common in people who have noticed that extended lifespans are everywhere in the world requiring us to rethink our economies, our values, and our norms. An ethnicity lens (or, unfortunately in some countries, a ‘race’ lens) is a way of steering attention towards differences in cultural heritage, and towards relationships and justice issues concerning inequalities between ethnic groups.

So when you’re trying to think your way through complex moral debates or social dilemmas, what kinds of ‘lens’ or ‘perspective’ do you deliberately try to adopt? Why do you find them useful? Can you spell out their virtues?

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5 thoughts on “What “lens” would you advocate, if not a “happiness lens”?

  • May 2, 2017 at 8:44 pm

    I like the term well-being as this suggests to me an holistic approach towards a greater cohesion between the many and varied ways quality of life is measured.

    • May 2, 2017 at 8:54 pm

      Thanks Janet, I also often find ‘wellbeing’ useful, it just doesn’t get my heart thumping with excitement the way ‘happiness’ sometimes does. Also, if I’m in a mood to quibble over terms, ‘wellbeing’ doesn’t quite capture the idea of an active life that unfolds over time – doing well, living well, finding happiness.

  • May 13, 2017 at 11:05 am

    This is not a duplicate I would like to ask Neil pt please delete my first comment as it was submitted by mistake before I had finished. If it is not possible or a bother , never mind . Best wishes Margaret

    I would advocate a Prevention lens:- A “prevention” (prevention rather than cure, or even – prevention is better than cure lens.) this lens of mine would look at how prescriptive exercise and many other ranges of Physical Education and an analysis of movement music and well being could lead to a PREVENTION oriented well being society rather than a “lets go and get a cure/tablet/medicine/pain killer prescription from our G.P. society”. My lens of Prevention would also encourage a pro active approach to local G.P. surgeries encouraging a return to the term “family doctor”. (as in the human race family which we ar all members of ….cue Desiderata! ….
    You are a child of the universe:-
    Desiderata by Max Ehrmann
    Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
    As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.
    Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others,
    even to the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.

    Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.
    If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter,
    for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
    Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

    Keep interested in YOUR OWN career, however humble;
    it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
    Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery.
    But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
    many persons strive for high ideals,
    and everywhere life is full of heroism.

    Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love;
    for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.
    Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
    Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
    But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
    Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

    Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.
    You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars;
    you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you,
    no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

    Therefore be at peace with God, WHATEVER you conceive Him to be.
    And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life,
    keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams,
    it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

    • May 18, 2017 at 7:19 pm

      Many thanks Margaret, yes a prevention lens certainly contributes a great deal, especially to health and mental health planning. It’s more ‘positive’, and cheaper and kinder, to help people avoid falling ill than to wait until they need repair. In a sense, though, it’s less positive and less aspirational than a happiness lens, because it focuses on fear of harm rather than on living well. And psychologists tell us that ‘avoidance goals’ can be less effective at motivating us than ‘approach goals’. Many thanks for introducing me to the elegant poetry of Max Ehrmann.

  • October 4, 2017 at 1:53 pm

    I like the word “flourishing” as I think it captures something of wellbeing and happiness. We cannot all be happy all the time, that is not a reasonable response to the world we live in. Wellbeing is vague and means different things to different people. Flourishing is measured both by a subjective sense in individuals and the more objective impact of the way individuals relate to one another. The lens I would like to look through is the individual experience of “flourishing” evidenced in better relationships: individuals to individuals; within families/communities; between services and service users; between humanity and the environment; between people across whatever diversity separates them. This will inevitably involve early prevention, restoration, support, empowerment, social justice, wellbeing and happiness.


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