Good, wise and happy - RSA

Good, wise and happy


  • Social brain

Reader, if I say that West Brom’s 5-1 weekend victory over Wolves cheered me up only briefly, you will know the slough of despond through which I am now doggedly crawling. Still, life goes on, blogging is a welcome distraction and the comments posted to the previous posts on human development deserve some kind of response.

I earlier suggested that the biggest challenge for advocates of a human development approach (by which I mean the attempt to help more people attain a ‘higher’ level of thinking) is to demonstrate it is possible to bring about a sustained shift in consciousness through a deliberate intervention. Various bits of evidence have been suggested, ranging from specific educational initiatives to a whole community programme in Curacao (although this was forty years ago). Perhaps the most robust evidence comes from research into organisations where, for example, the correlation between more open-minded, collaborative ‘strategic’ leadership styles and success was identified in an influential HBR piece by Rooke and Torbert.

However, there are a number of difficulties with relying on organisational research, particularly in private sector firms. First, researchers tend to focus on leaders and as ‘Junius’ pointed out in his comments this tends to assume that leaders’ interests are the same as the led and as society’s as a whole. Second, research into organisational success factors is renowned for extolling the virtues of successful firms just before they go over a cliff, and – more tellingly – we have to ask why, in a free market, if this style of leadership works, it hasn’t swept all before it.

But given the massive challenges (and costs) involved in undertaking a major process of adult development and then evaluating its long term impact, I have been thinking of another approach.

After a tip off from Number Ten (they really are interested in this stuff) I got hold of a fascinating paper by Felicia Huppert and Timothy So. Here is the abstract:

Governments around the world are recognising the importance of measuring subjective well-being as an indicator of progress. But how should well-being be measured? A conceptual framework is offered which equates high well-being with positive mental health. Well-being is seen as lying at the opposite end of a spectrum to the common mental disorders…. we identify ten features of positive well-being. These combine feeling and functioning, i.e. hedonic and eudaimonic aspects of well-being: competence, emotional stability, engagement, meaning, optimism, positive emotion, positive relationships, resilience, self-esteem, and vitality. An operational definition of flourishing is developed, based on psychometric analysis of indicators of these ten features, using data from a representative sample of 43,000 Europeans. Application of this definition to respondents from the 23 countries….reveals a four-fold difference in flourishing rate, from 41% in Denmark to less than 10% in Slovakia, Russia and Portugal. There are also striking differences in country profiles across the 10 features. These profiles offer fresh insight into cultural differences in well-being, and indicate which features may provide the most promising targets for policies to improve well-being. Comparison with a life satisfaction measure shows that valuable information would be lost if well-being was measured by life satisfaction. Taken together, our findings reinforce the need to measure subjective well-being as a multi-dimensional construct in future


By including aspects like meaning, self-esteem and vitality, Huppert and So’s definition can be seen to be edging towards criteria of higher order functioning. But while high scoring individuals may have better thoughts and better lives does this mean they are good citizens in the demanding sense I have linked to closing the social aspiration gap (citizens who are engaged, resourceful and pro-social)?

A manageable piece of research might involve an in depth survey which explored the correspondence between measures of well-being/flourishing, higher order thinking/consciousness and good citizenship.

It is as well to embark on research with at least some idea of what might represent powerful results. Assuming there is some pattern, there are three possible outcomes, all of which are interesting:

* The factors are strongly correlated with each other but also with another key characteristic, say, for example level of education. This would call into question the value of an adult development programme as distinct from the existing consensus behind raising educational attainment.

* The factors are unevenly correlated with, say, good and happy citizens not exhibiting higher order thinking or – more intriguingly – higher order thinkers being good citizens but not very satisfied with life. Apart from shedding light on the meaning of life (yes please) such findings would suggest which attributes are most important to target through social and political interventions.

* The factors are strongly correlated with each other but not with another confounding variable. The intriguing question then would be: if people with higher order cognitive capacity are also happier and more virtuous why is this not an unstoppable meme which is leading inexorably to a social tipping point past which we enter a wonderful new world? Removing the barriers could provide the core purpose for an emerging policy programme.

So, two questions: has the research already been done (comprehensively – I know there are bits of evidence, for example, of volunteers having higher well-being)? And if it has not, has anyone out there got about £40k so the RSA can do an initial 1,000 person study? Unquestionably the kind benefactor would immediately be overwhelmed by an immense feeling of well-being.

Come to think of it, maybe that’s the answer for poor old maudlin me. Unfortunately, I’m a bit short right now, will £35 be enough to be going on with?


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