Perspectives on positivity


Yesterday's post has generated some interesting comments, particularly a debate between Daniel Snell and Andrew Old concerning the distinction between positive thinking, low expectations and low aspirations.

There is a link between the debate and a row today over advice to the parents of unemployed graduates being offered by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills. The advice, penned by a career coach, encourages parents to show 'tough love' (itself an idea which is becoming suspiciously fashionable); give your offspring support but discourage them from being unrealistic, and don't make life so comfortable that they become couch potatoes.    

The Conservatives are no doubt echoing a wider public response when they say that Lord Mandelson's department ought to be putting its energies into getting the economy on track rather than paying consultants to provide trite advice on parenting.  

The point is not whether the advice is correct, but whether this is the appropriate role of Government. I suspect that Barbara Ehrenreich might see this as another example of trying to pin the blame for socio-economic problems (ie the recession and graduate unemployment) on individual attitudes.    

This is an incomplete line of thought, but it occurs to me that the key dimension of the debate over positive thinking and happiness is whether the focus is on society or the individual. An interest in aggregate social happiness has been associated with left of centre thinking: On the one hand, the Layard critique of free market consumerism that rising prosperity is no long associated with greater well-being; on the other hand the Wilkinson Pickett thesis that - in developing countries - the key to well-being is not greater aggregate prosperity bu lower levels of inequality. 

But, as Ehrenreich argues, if the focus is the individual the tendency is to down play the impact of social factors like inequality or exclusion in favour of an emphasis on what every person can do to change the way they think about things, and through so doing up the chances of a material improvement in their circumstances.

This is obvious, I know.

The value of the debate lies in those who lean towards social determinism having to engage with the importance of culture and attitude while positive thinkers might usefully examine how certain social arrangements seem to have measurable impacts on well-being. This takes us back to the evidence, about which we can say; first,  that there is a lot of interesting research being published at both the individual and social level, second, that it is not nearly as conclusive as many of the debate's protagonists would have us imagine, and third, that even if the evidence was much stronger it would never resolve profound philosophical differences about what constitutes the good society and the good life.

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