The discipline of positive psychology studies what free people choose when they are not oppressed. I call these desiderata the elements of “well-being,” and when an individual or nation has them in abundance I say it is “flourishing.”
Governments continue to organize their politics and economics around the relief of suffering, and I cannot confidently predict that the planet’s future will be bright with nonoppressed peoples freely choosing the elements of well-being. But if there is to be a “positive human future,” and not just a “nonnegative human future,” it is necessary to discover what the elements of well-being are and how to build them.
Well-being has five measurable elements that count toward it:
- Positive Emotion (of which happiness and life satisfaction are aspects)
- Engagement (being in flow, being one with the music)
- Good Relationships
- Meaning and Purpose (belonging to and serving something you believe is bigger than you are)
- Accomplishment, Achievement, and Mastery
A handy acronym for these five elements is PERMA. My book Flourish1 discusses in further depth many arguments for and against different conceptions of what the elements of well-being might be.
Well-being theory is plural: it is a dashboard theory and not a final-common-path, monistic approach to human flourishing. Positive emotion alone is only a subjective variable; what you think and feel is dispositive. The other elements have both subjective and objective indicators. Engagement, meaning, relationships, and accomplishment have both subjective and objective components. The upshot of this is that well-being cannot exist just in your own head: well-being is a combination of feeling good as well as actually having meaning, engagement, good relationships, and accomplishment.
This plurality of well-being is why economist Richard Layard’s important argument that “happiness” is the final common path and the gold-standard measure for all policy decisions does not work.2 Layard’s theory sensibly departs from the typical economist’s view of wealth—that the purpose of wealth is to produce more wealth. For Layard, the rationale for increasing wealth is to increase happiness, and so he promotes happiness as the single-outcome measure that should inform public policy. While I welcome this development, I disagree with the idea that happiness is the be-all and end-all of well-being and its best measure. Happiness and life satisfaction are useful subjective measures, and they belong on the dashboard. Truly useful measurement of well-being for public policy will need to include subjective measures of life satisfaction along with both subjective and objective measures of engagement, meaning, good relationships, and positive accomplishment.
This suggests that increasing the well-being of a nation is a plausible goal of international policy, and I call this goal the “new prosperity.” Wealth contributes substantially to life satisfaction, but above providing a certain safety net it has rapidly diminishing returns on happiness and good mood. At the average income levels of the developed world there is a huge disparity between gross domestic product (GDP)—a measure of wealth—and well-being.3 Building more jails and lawyering more divorces increases GDP but subtracts from well-being. Prosperity in the traditional way of keeping score equals the volume of goods and services utilized. I want to suggest now a better goal and a better way of keeping score that tracks well-being and regards wealth only as a means to well-being.
When nations are poor, at war, in famine, in plague, or in civil discord it is natural that their first concerns should be about containing damage and building defenses. These distressing straits describe most nations through most of human history. Under these conditions, GDP has a palpable influence on how well things will turn out. In those few instances when nations are rich, at peace, well-fed, healthy, and in civic harmony something very different happens. Their eyes turn upward.
Florence of the mid-fifteenth century is a beacon. She became very rich by 1450, largely through the Medici banking genius. She was at peace, well-fed, healthy, and harmonious—at least relative to her past and to the rest of Europe. She considered and debated what to do with her wealth. The generals proposed conquest. Cosimo the Elder, however, won the day and Florence invested its surplus in beauty. She gave us what 200 years later was called the Renaissance.
Could our Renaissance be the building of international well-being?
History, in the hands of the postmodernists, is taught as “one damn thing after another.” I believe the postmodernists are misguided and misguiding. I believe that history is the account of human progress and that you have to be blinded by ideology not to see the reality of this progress. Balky, with fits and starts and gut-wrenching downturns, the moral and economic trajectory of recorded history is, nevertheless, upward. As a grandchild of the Great Depression and a child of the Holocaust, I am clear-eyed about the terrible obstacles that remain. I am clear-eyed about the fragility of prosperity, and I am clear-eyed about the billions of human beings who do not yet enjoy the fruits of human progress. But it cannot be gainsaid that even in the twentieth century, the bloodiest of all of our centuries, we defeated fascism and communism, we learned how to feed six billion people, and we created universal education and universal medical care. We raised real purchasing power more than fivefold. We almost doubled our life spans. We began to curb pollution, we began to care for the planet, and we made huge inroads into racial, sexual, and ethnic injustice. Violence decreased markedly.4 The age of the tyrant is coming to an end and the age of democracy has taken firm root.
These economic, military, and moral victories are civilization’s proud heritage of the twentieth century. What gift will the twenty-first century pass on to its posterity?
Much higher well-being across this planet.
- Seligman, M. Flourish (Free Press, New York, 2011).
- Layard, R. Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (Penguin, New York, 2005).
- Diener, E & Seligman, M. Beyond money: toward an economy of well-being. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 5, 1–31 (2004).
- Pinker, S. The Better Angels of Our Nature (Viking, New York, 2011).