A happy place needn't be fluffy

The Science of Well-Being
March 23, 2007

There is a modern myth in the "science of happiness" circles that holds that about a decade ago the typical psychology section in the local university library held hundreds of books on anxiety, depression and suicide but less than half a dozen on happiness. Psychology, like economics, was a gloomy science.

Psychologists were in "repair" mode. Some thought that the study of problems would provide an insight into happiness. It was as if one defined wellbeing and happiness simply by an absence of problems. We all had strengths and weaknesses and were encouraged not to celebrate and work on our strengths but rather to concentrate efforts into correcting our shortcomings.

But the science of happiness and wellbeing has taken off over the past 15 to 20 years. There are television programmes and newspaper columns dedicated to it. Happiness or wellbeing as a research area has come of age. It is even "sexy".

One reason for the growth of this area is the scientific standing, energy and contribution of the "founding fathers" in psychology in the UK and the US. They include a Nobel prizewinner (but for economics), a president of the American Psychological Association who has secured a very generous grant from the Gallup Foundation, and numerous high-profile, empirical researchers in cognitive, personality and social psychology. In Britain, various well-known academics have written books on the topic. And a new generation of researchers has made the area their speciality. There are at least two journals in the area. This all signifies the emergence of a real sub-discipline, in this case a cross-disciplinary one.

The message is that studying happiness or wellbeing is not "pink and fluffy" quasi-moralistic counselling. It can and should be studied empirically. No room for the enemies of the Enlightenment and their verbose relativism here. We can investigate the physiological, thinking and lifestyle characteristics of the happy and the unhappy. And we can intervene and genuinely help individuals, groups and the society at large to be more happy through the science of wellbeing.

So there has been an unusual and very welcome rapprochement between psychologists and economists, psychiatrists and zoologists, educationists and physiologists as they try to understand the causes and manifestations of stable, long-term human health and happiness. As a result, one can now find a dozen or so good books on the topic and a few excellent popular books written by serious scientists to foster "public understanding of science".

And so to this nicely produced 550-page tome with the alluring "Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B" logo to get extra scientific kudos and blessing. We are told on the back cover that the book is a "landmark volume" that takes on a "dynamic cross-disciplinary approach" and is "designed for a general readership". It certainly covers the ground; and it has many of the big names and an appropriate air of gravitas.

It is, however, seriously uneven. There is a great deal of variation in the style and apparent objective of the writers, and in the length to which they write. Chapter ten - Jwhich is written by three authors, among them perhaps the leading thinker in the area - is nine pages long; while chapter seven extends over more than 40 pages with 12 pages of references. Some chapters are speculative, others grounded in data. Some describe studies in technical detail and present novel ideas and studies, while others offer only relatively brief and uncritical reviews of the literature.

This book has been assembled rather than edited. It is a conference book, the result of a meeting in London in 2003. It is not clear why the people were chosen, who did not or would not attend and whether all the papers presented ended up in the book. Certainly it is an attractive proposition for presenters; I am not so sure it is as good for readers.

One thing is certain: this is not a book for general readers. The editors make no attempt to top and tail the volume with an aperitif or digestif that would give a hint of the reader's journey through the chapters or of the lessons learnt. Each of the three editors contributed a chapter, but they do not appear to have done much else.

The book has 20 chapters relatively equally divided into five sections. It starts with an evolutionary and developmental perspective. Two chapters (the first and the third) are excellent, but others feel tangential, presenting research that is "sort of related" to successful adaptation, wellbeing or happiness. There are only three chapters in the second section, "Physiology and neuroscience", no doubt a reflection of the paucity of research from this perspective. Its first chapter is cutting-edge stuff, but the others feature sports psychologists and nutritionists offering us insights from their perspective.

The third section is titled "Psychology of wellbeing". Note that the science of wellbeing is multidisciplinary. I found these chapters uneven and some lightweight. Some consisted of a quick overview of what was known; others spelt out a theory - much bullet-pointed but weakly supported by empirical data.

The fourth section, "Cultural perspectives", has contributions from two well-known researchers in the world of multiple intelligence, neither of whom appears to have researched, written about or extensively considered happiness. None of the contributors to this section is an anthropologist or a cross-culturalist. This section seemed incoherent and peripheral to the book. I could nominate half a dozen researchers whose work is about cultural factors and differences that affect wellbeing.

Equally, the final section, "Social and economic considerations", seems a bit of a hotchpotch even though the chapters it contained were, in my view, some of the most interesting.

This is a good book to dip into. Many chapters give a good account of thinking and research from a particular perspective or discipline. Some fizz with ideas and theories, while others rather laboriously describe and discuss experiments.

What the book lacks is editorial discipline and voice. I would have liked at the beginning and at the end a map of where we have come from and, perhaps, where we are going in this new science. I would have liked to know what the editors and contributors to this funded discussion meeting thought were the central issues. I would have liked a conceptual meta-analysis as well as a critique of the field.

I shall return to a few chapters I found particularly interesting in the book. But beware the lightly edited conference books - they really are flea markets for the academic treasure-seeker.

Adrian Furnham is professor of psychology, University College London.

The Science of Well-Being

Editor - Felicia A. Huppert, Nick Baylis and Barry Keverne
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 546
Price - £80.00 and £35.00
ISBN - 0 19 856751 0 and 856752 9

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