Happiness research makes academics rather unhappy

£4.4m ESRC study of subjective wellbeing labelled 'disgraceful' and 'spooky'. Melanie Newman writes

November 19, 2009

A research project on how to make people feel happier when they are unemployed or in unfulfilling jobs has been greeted with cynicism by academics.

The £4.4 million project will look at the relationship between work and "subjective wellbeing", which is happiness or satisfaction as reported by individuals.

The scheme's findings are intended to inform policy that aims to boost contentment in the recession.

The project is led by the Economic and Social Research Council, with additional funding provided by the Medical Research Council and four government departments.

A call put out by the ESRC notes that policymakers and service providers are "increasingly recognising the importance of subjective wellbeing".

However, it adds, "current and foreseeable economic circumstances, on the one hand, and rapid scientific progress, on the other, demand a further investment in research to underpin public policy development that will enhance the wellbeing of citizens".

The research will focus on the relationship between work, health and subjective wellbeing, exploring how the nature of work - "good jobs" versus "bad jobs", different types of unemployment and job security - affects individuals' personal satisfaction.

One professor at a Russell Group university, who asked not to be named, told Times Higher Education that her department had considered answering the call but had decided that bids by researchers interested in delivering a serious critique of the evidence base for "happiness initiatives" would not be well received.

"For a supposedly independent research council, it's a disgracefully biased and loaded specification," she said of the ESRC call. She added that "a number of universities are bidding even though there is a widespread cynicism about it".

The "spooky" project was about "promoting self-delusion" in the populace, said a second professor, from a post-1992 university. Writing on an online philosophy discussion board, he contrasted subjective wellbeing with objectively assessed wellbeing.

"Objectively - as judged by rational outsiders - you may be doing badly, but you judge things differently - you are, as John Stuart Mill (nearly) said, happy as a pig in shit," he writes.

With his tongue firmly in his cheek, he adds that philosophers should answer the call to satisfy the requirement that they prove their research has "impact" in the forthcoming research excellence framework. "Forget about working on paraconsistency, the semantics of indexicals, intentionality and metaethics, and jump on the impact bandwagon," he says.

Both professors asked for their names to be withheld in case their criticism affected ESRC funding for future projects. The ESRC declined to comment on the criticism.

Academics in the US have criticised attempts to boost subjective wellbeing by referring to Aldous Huxley's novel Brave New World, in which citizens are brainwashed into considering themselves fortunate even when they are at the lowest level of a strict social and genetic hierarchy.


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