The Science of Well-being

How much do we know about what makes people thrive and societies flourish? We know remarkably little about the positive aspects of living. Felicia Huppert takes us on a tour of...
17 May 2006


How much do we know about what makes people thrive and societies flourish? While a vast body of research has been dedicated to understanding social problems and psychological disorders, we know remarkably little about the positive aspects of living - about what makes our life happy and meaningful. Felicia Huppert takes us on a tour of her new book, The Science of Well-being, in which she and her co-writers search for the answers to these questions... Science_of_well_being_cover Understanding well-being requires an integrated approach, one that embraces mind, body, society and the environment. Taking a dynamic cross-disciplinary approach, this book sets out to explore the most promising routes to well-being, derived from the latest research in psychology, biomedical science, social science, economics and peace studies. Contributions come from some of the world's leading researchers, practitioners and policy advisors.

The book is divided into five sections. In Part 1: Evolution and Development, Randolph Nesse, founder of the new field of Darwinian medicine, argues that negative emotions such as fear and anger, which had survival value during our evolutionary history, may become maladaptive in modern society where the threats are less immediate and less tangible. Positive emotions appear to have evolved in response to opportunities rather than threats, and they provide information that our environment is benign and that our goals and relationships are worth pursuing. Other chapters in this section address the question of how it is that individuals develop marked differences in their level of emotional well-being. Neurobiologist Barry Keverne points to the extraordinarily protracted period of human brain development, with major brain reorganization continuing until puberty and beyond, as the key to understanding individual differences in levels of happiness and emotional reactivity. The early post-natal environment plays a crucial role in determining later stress reactions as well as mental capability (e.g. learning and memory), but the evidence from animal research shows that compensation for early adversity is possible if advantageous circumstances prevail around puberty. This life-course perspective is explored in two further chapters by David Barker and by Sonia Lupien & Natalie Wan which examine the well-being of older adults. David Barker's seminal research in Epidemiology shows that many of the diseases of later life are strongly associated with birth weight, a marker of foetal development. For example, babies born at full-term but with low birth weight are seven times more likely than large babies to develop diabetes after age 65. The rate at which small babies grow in the early years can also have substantial effects on their health in later life. Lupien and Wan focus on the concept of 'successful ageing', and examine the factors earlier in life that predict the maintenance of mental capabilities and psychological well-being. A striking conclusion from a series of experimental studies is that negative stereotypes of ageing are associated with impaired learning and memory, lack of confidence and an adverse physiological response to stress, whereas positive attitudes towards ageing are associated with enhanced performance, confidence and stress resilience.

Part 2: Physiology and Neuroscience begins with ground-breaking contribution from Richard Davidson who shows that specific patterns of brain activation are associated with different emotional states. Individuals in positive emotional states (happiness, contentment) or those whose typical emotional style is positive, show greater activation in the left frontal cortex than in the right. In contrast, individuals in negative emotional states or those whose typical emotional style tends to be negative, show greater activation in the right frontal cortex than in the left. Understanding the brain's emotional circuitry has profound implications for treating emotional disorders and for enhancing well-being.

The chapter by Stuart Biddle & Panteleimon Ekkekakis examines the physiological and neurochemical mechanisms that underlie the known benefits of physical activity onour mental and social well-being, while the chapter by Bernard Gesch provides a fascinating evolutionary and historical account of the way in which specific types of food enhance or impair our well-being and behaviour. For instance, Gesch provides an insight into why fish oils can be regarded as 'brain food'. In addition, a remarkable study of young prisoners being given a comprehensive range of dietary supplements shows dramatic improvements in their social behaviour compared to a control group who received only a normal prison diet.

In Part 3: Psychology of well-being, award-winning researcher, Barbara Fredrickson, presents striking evidence that positive emotions broaden and build our mental capability and our coping resources. In an elegant series of experiments, Fredrickson uses video clips to induce positive, negative or neutral mood states in her subjects and examines the effect of different moods on attention and decision making. The results show that when individuals are in a positive emotional state, their focus of attention is broader, and decision-making is more flexible and creative than when they are in a negative or neutral state. Similarly, people in positive moods cope better in stressful situations and show a more rapid physiological recovery from stress. Nick Baylis explores how a person's relationship with reality, such as the nature of their fantasies and daydreams, affects the well-being of young adults. For instance, while some forms of fantasy and daydreaming may be associated with creative thinking and goal oriented behaviour, and can improve one's real life, young adults who engage in large amounts of purely escapist fantasy often have undeveloped and unrewarding lives.

A chapter by the founder of the positive psychology movement, Martin Seligman and his colleagues, advocates "a balanced psychology" that focuses not only on remediation of weakness or disorder, but on building and nurturing our strengths and our happiness. To Seligman, happiness is the combination of pleasure, of being engaged in what we do, and of feeling that our life has meaning. He suggests a variety of mental exercises that can enhance each of these components, leading to "a Full Life". Preliminary data show that such exercises not only increase happiness, but also buffer individuals against distress. This theme is further elaborated in neuropsychologist Felicia Huppert's chapter on positive mental health. She discusses how our knowledge may be utilized to improve mental health not only in those who actively seek interventions, but in the population as a whole. Epidemiological studies show that individual levels of happiness are directly related to the average levels of happiness in the group or population, so Huppert argues that there is a strong case for interventions at the population level. For example, providing opportunities for prospective parents as well as children and adolescents to learn positive attitudes and coping skills, could lead to major improvements in health and behavioural outcomes later in life. Moreover, the evidence suggests that improving average levels of mental health in the population will have the direct result of reducing the number of people with common mental disorders. Therefore a positive mental health agenda represents a win-win situation in which individuals can flourish and society is the beneficiary.

A very different perspective on the psychology of well-being is propounded in the chapter by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Jason Riis. They highlight the difference between the way in which we experience emotions and the way in which we remember emotions, describing why it is important to obtain measures of both, since these can have very different effects on our health and behaviour, and on how we make decisions.

Part 4 deals with Cultural perspectives. The chapter by renowned educator and neuropsychologist Howard Gardner, together with colleague Susan Verducci, investigates the relationship between work and well-being. They introduce the concept of 'Good Work', which is both fulfilling to the individual and socially desirable. In-depth interviews with practitioners of good work reveal the qualities that foster it, and suggest how more of us can participate in this desirable activity. Robert Sternberg & Elena Grigorenko review a wealth of material showing that the way we define intelligence is strongly related to cultural norms, while Antonella delle Fave & Fausto Massimini explore the qualities of optimal experience across diverse groups, including street children in Nepal and disabled young adults. The potential for the natural environment to be both healing and uplifting is investigated by George Burns in the final chapter of this section.

Part 5: Social and economic considerations, begins with a comprehensive account of the important role played by the social context, particularly 'social capital' in our well-being and is written by two renowned scholars in the field: Robert Putnam & John Helliwell. Economist Robert Frank's lively chapter challenges the widespread view that money makes us happy. He shows that in groups or nations where poverty is high, increasing money is associated with increasing happiness, but once people or nations reach a modest standard of living, increases in income or wealth make very little difference to our happiness. International peace negotiator, Johan Galtung discusses well-being, peace and development on a global scale. The concluding chapter by Nic Marks and Hetan Shah is an inspirational 'Well-Being Manifesto', which poses and answers the question "What would politics look like if promoting people's well-being was one of government's main aims?". They make specific, if sometimes controversial, proposals for how to promote a flourishing society - one in which people are happier, healthier, more productive, entrepreneurial, creative and engaged.


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