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A British Psychological Society Community Psychology Section Response to 'The Origins of Happiness'



In The Origins of Happiness, the authors use statistical analyses to explore factors that influence ‘life-satisfaction’ across the lifespan (e.g. ‘income’, ‘education’, ‘work and employment’). The authors make a series of recommendations for policy-makers based on these analyses. As community psychologists, we are in broad agreement with improving population level well-being through improved social and economic policies. However, we argue that The Origins of Happiness presents conceptual misunderstandings about ‘happiness’ and ‘misery’ and the ways in which these might be measured. In this paper, we present some of our concerns regarding the validity of key concepts underpinning the data presented in the book. We also highlight some relevant areas of research that are missing from The Origins of Happiness and comment on the proposed policy implications of the research from a psychological perspective.
A Community Psychology Section Response to
'The Origins of Happiness'
1. Key points
Complex psychological concepts regarding life-satisfaction and well-being have been
simplified, leading to policy recommendations that are misleadingly straightforward and
Important social context and structural inequalities
are not adequately acknowledged. This
leads to policy recommendations which focus on individual change (such as talking
therapy) which the authors promote as key to increasing well-being overall.
A public health approach
to wellbeing-led policies is required to target structural
inequalities, using research approaches that are community-led and utilise a range of
contextualised research methods.
Community psychology is a discipline well-suited to intervening at the social-level to
support this work. It would be further supported by other key disciplines such as community
development, sociology, social work as well as feminist and critical race theory and
2. Authors main message
In The Origins of Happiness, the authors use statistical analyses to explore factors that influence
life-satisfaction’ across the lifespan (e.g. ‘income’, ‘education’, ‘work and employment’). The
authors make a series of recommendations for policy-makers based on these analyses. As
community psychologists, we are in broad agreement with improving population level well-being
through improved social and economic policies. However, we argue that The Origins of Happiness
presents conceptual misunderstandings about ‘happiness’ and ‘misery’ and the ways in which
these might be measured.
In this paper, we present some of our concerns regarding the validity of key concepts underpinning
the data presented in the book. We also highlight some relevant areas of research that are missing
By structural inequalities, we refer to the cultural norms, organisational policies and legal systems that are
biased towards the improved interests of more powerful groups in society, and disadvantages other groups.
Harper (2016) presents a public health approach to well-being via primary prevention through structural
changes like social policy and legislation, and uses the 2007 UK smoking ban as an example from physical
health research and intervention.
The fallacy of ‘new science’ and its worrying influence on government policy.
Response to:
Clark, A.E., Fleche, S., Layard, R., Powdthavee, N., & Ward, G. (2018). The Origins of
Happiness. The Science of Well-Being over the Life Course. Oxfordshire: Princeton
University Press.
Written by the Community Psychology Section, British Psychological Society (BPS).
Key words: life-satisfaction, well-being, structural inequalities, government policy, happiness
from The Origins of Happiness and comment on the proposed policy implications of the research
from a psychological perspective.
3. Scope of the response paper
This response paper relates to The Origins of Happiness book; although it is worth noting the wider
agenda of Layard and colleagues research, which has focused on well-being, employment and
increasing the provision of individual therapy
. This previous research and the political agenda it
supports has been critiqued elsewhere
; so this publication is responding specifically to the recent
publication of The Origins of Happiness.
4. Key concerns with The Origins of Happiness
4.1 Problematic research methods
4.1.1 Concepts and definitions
The authors have adopted a specific way of measuring well-being throughout the book by asking a
single question on life-satisfaction; “Overall how satisfied are you with your life, these days?”,
measured on a scale of 0 to 10 (from “extremely dissatisfied” to “extremely satisfied”.) In their view
this approach allows people to evaluate their own well-being rather than have policymakers do it
for them.
However, this assumes that wellbeing is a solely personal and subjective experience, which people
can measure by marking on a scale from zero to ten. Instead, these personal experiences are
often multi-faceted, constantly changing and sometimes contradictory, and the way in which they
are assessed and measured has been critiqued for never meaningfully capturing this changing
The statistical method used in The Origins of Happiness is therefore problematic. The
authors use simple regression modelling, in which a relationship is presented between two
variables. The key variable of interest in The Origins of Happiness, is life-satisfaction’, which
based on their definition is problematic because it is not based on a psychologically plausible
account of people’s lived experiences.
Other problematic definitions occur with the authors’ separation of ‘misery’ and ‘mental illness’,
which are conceptualised meaningfully as independent from each other;
“if we could abolish depression and anxiety, it would reduce misery by as much as if we
could abolish all of poverty, unemployment and the worst physical illness”.
The separation of ‘misery’ and ‘mental illness’ is deeply problematic as misery (defined in The
Origins of Happiness as the lowest 10% of peoples’ life-satisfaction scores) relates to the same
experiences of suffering present in ‘mental illness’. Psychologists
have highlighted the rich
literatures dealing with issues of suffering in philosophy, psychology and sociology; yet The Origins
of Happiness takes a conceptually naive approach to ‘misery’ leading to equally simplistic policy
Layard and Clark (2014).
Barrett (2009); Lewis (2012); Pilgrim (2009); Rizq (2012); Watts (2016)
Cromby & Willis (2013)
Psychologists for Social Change (2016)
4.1.2 The way ‘life-satisfaction’ has been measured
If we accept that ‘life-satisfaction’ exists in the first place, does the key question
asked in The
Origins of Happiness capture the complexity of the conceptual idea? The researchers in The
Origins of Happiness have argued that rating scale measures are typically and consistently
declared to be scientifically acceptable. However, in this case, one question is used to
operationalise the entire concept of well-being which, as we have argued above, is multiply
defined. On this basis, one might question whether ‘life-satisfaction’ or ‘well-being’ can be
understood as quantitative and measurable.
There are many problems with the processes undertaken when using a rating scale; respondents
are assumed to have direct access to their personal and stable meanings of the given scale
attribute (in this case life-satisfaction), accept the assumption of a continuous measure between
two points, assume that all respondents understand the scale questions and that their answers
mean the same thing. However, we suggest that none of these assumptions hold in practice. Other
research shows that both statements and the scale ratings used are actively interpreted by the
respondents, they don’t signal a true ‘state of affairs’ and statements do not elicit a consistent
response either when the same person repeatedly answers the same question, or when the same
question is presented to different people
To best understand the impact of these complex and intersecting variables, a genuinely
interdisciplinary approach to public health research is required. There are very real challenges to
working across disciplines, but also opportunities for a revitalised approach to articulating a vision
of how we might organise society to take more account of the social factors of psychological health
and ‘well-being’
4.2 Important areas of research which are missing
4.2.1 Structural inequalities
The Origins of Happiness should include more explicit consideration of structural inequalities,
reflected at personal, family and community levels. There is an increasing evidence-base regarding
the effect of inequality on physical and mental health.
Yet differences in power, and the way
societal structures maintain these differences, are obscured by the data and analyses presented in
the book, and there is no consideration of the policy implications of this.
We have chosen gender as an example of how The Origins of Happiness has ignored structural
inequality, and in doing so, neglected the potential for change in this area within resulting policy
recommendations. Essentially, the same analysis must be applied to race, poverty, disability and
many other structural factors which have not been considered, to the detriment of the book.
For example, The Origins of Happiness focuses upon ‘the mental health of mothers’:
“Mother’s mental health matters relatively little for academic performance but greatly for
behaviour and for emotional health”.
Attachment, firmness and involvement are mentioned as important contributory factors in child
rearing. However, these factors all take place in the relationship between the child and parent,
“Overall how satisfied are you with your life, these days?”, measured on a scale of 0 to 10 (from “extremely
dissatisfied” to “extremely satisfied”).
Rosenbaum & Vaisner (2011)
Rosenbaum & Vaisner (2011)
Psychologists for Social Change (2016)
Friedli, 2009; Marmot, 2010; Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009
without consideration of wider societal factors which would influence these. It is important to
consider the role of disadvantage or the particular position of women within the family on these
factors. Gender has a clear role in experiences of inequality
and there is a need to incorporate
these factors within policy development, rather than continue to accept the limited decision-making
power of many women.
It is positive that a mother’s mental health “deserves high policy priority”. However, the Origins of
Happiness does not adequately address the implications of domestic violence in its analysis.
“Family conflict” is briefly referred to, but it is included within the context of unemployed fathers, as
a cursory piece. Elsewhere in the literature, there are strong arguments concerning the lack of
focus on inequitable allocation of resources, particularly in relation to violence against women.
Considering that domestic violence is an endemic concern and identified by the Home Office as a
priority, it is essential to include this aspect of analysis, and consider implications for policy when
exploring themes of well-being.
4.2.2 Social Context
The Origins of Happiness contains a chapter that does consider the ‘social norms and institutions’
that impact upon social context and life-satisfaction, listing the important ones as:
trust, equality, openness, tolerance, networks of social support, personal freedom, quality
of government
Additionally, social norms (such as openness and tolerance), personal freedom and equality are
presented as some of the factors which explain variance in life-satisfaction between countries.
Indeed, there is an acknowledgement that up to 76% of life-satisfaction, measured at national
level, can be explained by factors that are part of the social fabric and not the quality of any one
individual. Furthermore, The Origins of Happiness goes on to suggest that ethical movements have
an important role to play in society, and that distrust, social dislocations, oppression and inequality
impact on social relationships and mental and physical health; a perspective that aligns with
community psychology principles.
However, these significant social issues are omitted from the rest of the book, as the authors argue
that: “these are public goods and we can only study their effects by comparing societies”
This excludes consideration of how different groups within the UK experience these factors. For
example, marginalised, disempowered and resource-poor groups within the UK are likely to relate
differently to concepts such as ‘trust’, ‘equality’ and ‘openness’, impacting their ‘life-satisfaction’ as
a result. Moreover, there are no investigations of how wider political ideologies, such as
neoliberalism and materialism, interact with the social norms and influences that the authors
Despite the cross-country comparisons of social context, we are asked to accept the final
conclusions of the book; that the most common cause of deprivation is ‘mental illness’ (i.e.
diagnoses of anxiety, or depression). The resulting recommendations to ‘treat’ these disorders
through individual psychological therapy, or in the case of children, ‘school-based resilience
training’, neglects the social context presented as important elsewhere in The Origins of
Happiness. Psychologists have highlighted that talking therapies do little to impact on the broader
Perrons (2015)
Smyth and Sweetman (2015)
social fabric in which individuals exist or to change the structural inequalities which create
oppression and exclusion
The WHO’s Mental Health Action Plan 2013-2020 includes as one of four major objectives the
implementation of strategies for promotion and prevention”. With this in mind, the recommendation
of The Origins of Happiness to ‘treat’ our way out of the pronounced ‘endemic’ of depression and
anxiety through one to one therapy, as opposed to moving towards prevention is both unrealistic
and out of kilter with contemporary expert thinking.
This pattern of acknowledging social influences but then focusing on individual ‘causes’ and
resulting recommendations is a pattern which emerges throughout the book. Another example, is
the way in which the authors present criminality in relation to academic performance and
behavioural problems. However, these issues, in addition to being related to offending, are highly
correlated with experiences of community level violence and abuse. Across the life course,
childhood experiences of adversity and trauma are related to offending behaviour. This is apparent
within prisons
and endemic, in relation to vulnerability and structural inequalities within the
Criminal Justice system.
Yet the relationship between offending and experiences of violence and
abuse in childhood and adulthood has been omitted from The Origins of Happiness. Once more,
individualistic policy-focused solutions are proposed, when policies targeting societal distrust,
social dislocations, oppression and inequality are required.
5. Responding to policy advice
The over-arching aim of The Origins of Happiness is to encourage policy-makers to consider
societal wellbeing when proposing or analysing the impact of policy implementation. Drawing upon
psychological research literature, brief responses to the proposals outlined by the authors in the
concluding paragraph of the book are outlined below;
5.1 “The goal of governments should be to increase the happiness of the people and,
especially, to reduce misery.”
Psychological research has not come to a general agreement on how ‘happiness’ should
be defined; with varying emphasis placed on affect, cognition, conscious and unconscious
processing and biological responses.
If one were to instead focus on ‘misery’ it has been
argued that
“If there are to be social and political solutions to the problems which cause misery,
then the first step must be to stop viewing those problems in purely psychological
On this basis, it has been argued that disempowerment is an integral part of how misery
arises, and this occurs because of social, political and economic institutions and strategies,
not neural or behavioural errors, which might be targeted by the individual therapy
proposed in The Origins of Happiness. Government time, research and funding would be
better placed on targeting structural inequalities, some of which have been outlined in this
response, rather than focusing on the individualistically-constructed, poorly defined
concept of ‘well-being or ‘life-satisfaction’ which the research in The Origins of Happiness
is based upon.
Albee (1999), Smail (2005)
Corston (2007)
Lammy (2017)
Cromby (2011)
Davies (2015)
5.2 “Where willingness to pay is not a feasible measure of benefit, governments should
develop new methods of policy analysis based on point-years of happiness as the
measure of benefit.”
The psychological-value of individual self-report questionnaires in measuring ‘happiness’
has been criticised, as well as the abstraction process which takes place when this data is
averaged across populations
. The scientific language used in the Origins of Happiness
when referring to the importance of controlled trials, and scientific and economic research-
evidence, downplays this averaging process which reduces the incredibly complex, rich,
detailed flow of lived experience to concrete data in which the individual existence is no
longer recognisable.
The prioritisation of ‘point-years of happiness’ when measuring
policy-benefit, maintains the focus on individual responsibility and distracts from the impact
of societal disempowerment and its effect. The impact of policies is therefore constructed
as an internal individual response (happiness) as opposed to a collective and shared
experience, which might open greater opportunity for change at a societal-level.
5.3 “All policy change should be evaluated through controlled experiments in which the
impact on happiness is routinely measured.”
We welcome the emphasis on evaluating the impact of policies, but would go further and
recommend that a broad based psychological impact assessment is completed prior to the
introduction of policies across the board. If ideas of ‘happiness’ continue to be centralised in
policy-making, research data obtained by methods other than randomised controlled trials
should be prioritised when discussing issues of ‘happiness’ or ‘misery’ at a societal level.
Different questions are best responded to by different methodological approaches and
techniques, with qualitative and community-led research approaches well suited to
adequately acknowledge the interplay between political, economic, discursive and material
factors which impact ‘misery’.
5.4 “A major objective of social science (and of its funders) should be to throw light on the
causes of happiness, and how it can be enhanced - and at what cost.”
This should not be restricted to constructions in which individuals are responsible for their
own health and happiness. Public health approaches to mental health, which acknowledge
and work with systemic barriers and resources will be a vital resource in thinking about
these areas from a preventative angle.
6. Summary
This document seeks to highlight the gaps in The Origins of Happiness. The explicit aim of the
book is to measure wellbeing and produce policy recommendations, based upon a brief, self-
report, measure of life-satisfaction. Although the authors present the methods, assumptions and
limitations of their analyses, we are concerned about the political implications of the
recommendations of The Origins of Happiness.
As community psychologists, our research and values suggest that greater attendance to structural
inequalities and varying social contexts is required. This is in response to the reality of significantly
worse outcomes within unequal societies. It has been argued in this report that complex issues
such as participation (or not) in community and political systems, levels of violence within
communities, materialism and diversity within and between communities cannot be brushed over
using the sampling, measurement and statistical approaches outlined in The Origins of Happiness.
The well-being agenda must not replicate and reinforce the economic framing that disempowers
Cromby (2011)
Tolman (1994)
and oppresses marginalised groups and communities whose ‘misery’ is then constructed as
‘mental illness’.
A public health approach to the prevention of ‘mental distress’, which targets policies to reduce
structural inequalities would be central to this. Examples might include redistributive policies to
target financial inequalities at a population-level or housing policies which seek to provide high
quality housing that enables community and social support at a country-wide level. Policies such
as these would go some way to impact the social dislocation and societal distrust which are
highlighted in The Origins of Happiness as important factors in societal ‘wellbeing’. Policies for
enhancing and maintaining wellbeing should be co-produced with communities, in particular those
groups whose wellbeing is threatened by current policies and practices. From a community
psychology perspective, collaborative work across different disciplines and within different, diverse
groups would seek to encourage and enable this to occur.
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