Do we need happiness/well-being research?

The news makes for some really depressing viewing, and in the counselling room I hear the personal accounts of people’s distress and sorrow, as well as their frustrations, achievements and hopes.


Evolutionary psychology and neuroscience have demonstrated that human beings have evolved with a negative bias in the way we think.  Without this constant assumption that there is danger around the corner, our ancestors would never have been prepared to fight sabertooth tigers or other threats throughout our timeline.  Because this way of thinking has been with us from the beginning of our species, this ‘negativity bias’ is with us today located in the most primitive part of our brain.  Of course we are not expected to come across sabertooth tigers today, and our threats now are more like emails, the way someone looked at us, or having someone tailgate us for example.  What these events have in common is that they are perceived as a threat at a neurophysiological level and this initiates a fight or flight reaction in our bodies which tenses our muscles to take action.


The negativity bias in our thinking is there to keep us safe (and not happy!)  However it also means that we are more attuned to spotting negativity in our lives rather than positivity.  Rick Hansen describes our minds as being like Velcro for negativity and Teflon for positivity.  Not surprisingly, this default setting of seeing the glass half empty can have a negative impact on our well-being and mental health.  You may remember the former Prime Minister David Cameron announcing an organisation to improve the well-being and happiness of the nation.  Senior politicians in Theresa May’s government are still interested in this due to the link between mental health and well-being, as are the other political parties.


You may be wondering why bother, or thinking that this is a waste of money which could be going into better things such as education and the NHS.  However increased well-being can lead to a range of improved health outcomes such as helping productivity and reducing absenteeism as it facilitates people working better together and reduces risk-taking behaviour and improves sociability.  Well-being research has found that having a job is good for well-being and that having a ’high quality job’ is even better.  In countries with more interpersonal connection, and less loneliness its citizens experience greater well-being.


It is clear to see how this well-being/happiness research may inform policy such as rewarding the creation of high-quality jobs or promoting community designs which encourage people to walk and get to know their neighbours.  Evidence also shows that investing more in the support of children in their early years saves money on health care longer term.


I certainly see the utility and value of well-being/happiness research, particularly in informing social policy.  However I am sure that the intervention is required would need time to reap their rewards.  As we know governments chop and change things around very quickly as I’m sure those working in health care and education can testify; and my concern is that this type of threat research becomes more tokenistic and therefore loses its value.