Deborah Orr: If it makes people happy, don't knock it

After a certain point, increased personal wealth stops having any impact on our happiness
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The Independent Online

It's the sucker-punch of capitalism's triumph - the fact that money really doesn't buy happiness. It was once quite reasonably assumed that a population able to meet its basic needs would be a contented one. But since the 1950s, in the US, Europe and Japan, it has become clear this is far from the case. The alleviation of poverty does alleviate misery. But after a certain point, increased personal wealth stops having an impact on happiness. On the contrary, it appears that in a more leisured society, we have more time to spend pondering our own navels and deciding that Beyonce's is much nicer.

It is not just Beyonce's navel that promotes dissatisfaction. It's the entire conspicuous-consumption, celebrity lifestyle ethos that drives the most profitable swaths of our consumer economy. Vast disparities in income, of the kind that free-market capitalism promotes, cause people to be far less satisfied with their lot than they might otherwise be.

While such sulky keeping-up-with-the-Joneses attitudes might sound childish and trivial, there is evidence that they are not. The dramatic increase in the prescription of anti-depressants in the past decade, the recent Mental Health Foundation report suggesting that alcohol abuse is becoming a key form of "self medication", the disturbing epidemic of self-harming among teenagers - all these signs and many more speak of a society deeply embroiled in a damaging psychodrama that it does not understand. Which is why the news that a leading private school is about to introduce compulsory classes in happiness for its pupils is not quite as cranky as it sounds.

Wellington College is about to launch weekly classes for its 14 to 16-year-old children that aim to help them to become "fulfilled" human beings. Lessons will be given by the school's head of religion, Ian Morris, and will "look at pupils' relationships with those around them, and help them work out how to avoid situations which make them unhappy".

If this all sounds like the hippy-dippy, power-of-positive-thinking-style nonsense that has launched a hundred-thousand unworthy bestsellers, then think again. The school's headmaster, Dr Anthony Seldon, was persuaded to pilot the course by Dr Nick Baylis of Cambridge University, who is one of the country's most avid promoters of the science of positive psychology. This new branch of psychology, which has been going since the late Nineties, concentrates on the study not of mental illness but of mental wellness, with the aim of understanding what happens in the human mind when things go right.

What's more, the kids at Wellington are not the first to benefit from the doctor's approach. He also set up Trailblazers - using similar ideas - at the young offenders institution, Feltham, some years ago (with one launching more recently at Aylesbury). Young people who have been helped by the scheme - which relies heavily on mentoring - have, it is claimed, been reoffending at a rate of 17 per cent, a considerable decrease on the expected rate of recidivism.

Nor will Wellington's pupils be among the most privileged to have benefited from classes in positive psychology. It is perhaps testament to just how unhappy people consider themselves to be, that the subject has swept America since its launch in 1998. Positive psychology has been taught on hundreds of US campuses and this term became the most popular course at Harvard, even beating the course that had topped the college's list for years - introductory economics.

Academic standards, it has to be said, are not high. Any response to essay topics, which are set by email, is considered to be a pass. In this much at least, it seems to chime with the opinions of Dr Seldon at Wellington, who says that: "This obsession with exams is making our education system profoundly lopsided. The most important thing is to make children happy and to turn out well-rounded 18-year-olds at the end of their school education."

Dr Seldon, who is an unofficial biographer of Tony Blair, echoes a widely held opinion when he takes a pop at the examined life. The idea that Harvard students are combining introductory economics with positive psychology may simply sound like another tranche of "me time" for a world elite who continue to believe that they can have it all. But some intellectual heavyweights do appear, cautiously at least, to believe that the tenets of the discipline should not be jeered at too quickly.

Lord Layard, the LSE economist, has long advocated that the Government should promote happiness as much as it does economic growth. Though in this particular area his ideas don't seem to have had too much purchase thus far, he remains influential.

What positive psychologists dream of, of course, is a society in which all the self-destructive patterns that lead to mental illness could be somehow headed off at the pass.

Dr Martin Seligman, who adopted the phrase positive psychology to launch his new psychological discipline in 1998, runs the positive psychology department of Pennsylvania University. Among publications, his most aggressive move was to publish an alternative to the DSM-IV, the diagnostic bible of pretty much all serious therapists. Known as the un-DSM, it is a manual of strengths and virtues that people can identify and focus on as traits that can help them to feel happy and fulfilled.

A quick check of those traits suggests that they are the ones that have been recognised as valuable and positive since time-immemorial. Indeed much of the wisdom of this nascent science reads like common sense.

Dr Seligman, at the heart of his philosophy, identifies three ways in which people try to pursue happiness. The first is the Pleasant Life, which centres on the pursuit of sensual pleasures from good food to wild partying and is considered shallow and destructive. the second is the Good life, which focuses on commitment to work and family and trying to be responsible in life. This self-evidently, is far preferable to the first, but still is susceptible to being subsumed by the demands of work in the manner that so dogged 20th-century middle-class family life.

The third is the Meaningful Life, which focuses on altruism and good works - doing things selflessly for others. This is the way to true fulfillment, says Dr Seligman.

Which is the point where positive psychology starts to look like a movement dedicated to placing the Christian values that have fallen out of Western favour into the scientific context that so many of us hardened rationalists crave. If it makes people happy though, what's the point in knocking it?