« when did you last see a real market? | Main | new paper: 'Knowing the Unknowable' »

April 22, 2011



Completely agree.

Much as I feel the people behind Action for Happiness are well-intentioned and insightful, there is something about all this that makes one queasy and irritated. I think it is the divorce of the positive-psychological tips from any sense of a diagnosis of social, environmental, spiritual and economic ills; and also the implication that, like everything else in a modern consumer economy and society, happiness can be specified and optimised and maximised. This is positive psychology allied to inability or unwillingness to look beyond the neoliberal and utilitarian nature of our times. Its also politically unsound: do we want governments to steer us towards an officially approved model of happiness, or to tackle and reduce avoidable evils and ill-being, which at least tends to be a lot easier to agree about than the nature of wellbeing?
I will end with the wildly unfashionable point that AfH etc should pay more attention to the vast accumulated experience of religious traditions and communities. You don't achieve the 'life more abundant' by trying to get happy, that is for sure.

Will Davies

Thanks, Ian. Similar arguments have also been made - rather more aggressively (!) - over at the Open Democracy article page itself. And I agree that isolating the psychological from the social and economic is both unnecessary and unhelpful. But there's no automatic reason why this outcome has to predominate. I think sociologists and political economists can and should occupy some of this territory.


Thanks Will. Agreed.
Time to revisit the political economists and sociologists who were on this terrain in the 60s and 70s, perhaps, eg Illich, Scitovsky, Hirsch; and to go back to Erich Fromm, who was a remarkable thinker; and to look again at Robert Lane.
PS In 1998 I edited the Demos collection The Good Life, which felt ahead of its time then and is just about coming into its own now. I am hoping that a new version of this for the 2010s will be produced and have encouraged another think-tank to do it. We went out of our way to connect the psychological, social and economic dimensions and also to identify policy implications, and I think it could be done still better now.

Dick Pountain

Could I venture to recommend a book called "On Deep History and the Brain" by Daniel Lord Smail
(University of California Press 2007). He takes a viewpoint of human society as providing the means by which people seek to alter their own and others emotional states: through violence, ritual, art, food, drugs etc etc etc. It's a very compelling case,escapes from naive rationalism without descending into irrationalism, integrates latest findings from neuroscience and evolutionary biology with Weberian institutionalism.

Poetry got there a long time ago:

"A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy."

(Wallace Stevens - Of Mere Being)

The comments to this entry are closed.