The gaps in ‘The Origins of Happiness’: an endorsement of the BPS Community Psychology Section response

Tonight at the London School of Ecomonics, Lord Layard and Andrew Marr will discuss Layard and colleagues’ latest book ‘The Origins of Happiness’. This post is a comment on the British Psychological Society Community Psychology Section response to ‘The Origin’s of Happiness’. The original BPS response can be accessed here.

About the book

The book ‘The Origins of Happiness’ (Clark, Fleche, Layard, Powdthavee & Ward, 2018) released earlier this month explores a series of statistical analyses to suggest connections between life satisfaction and a series of factors such as income, education, work and employment. The authors, primarily economists, make policy recommendations based on these analyses. Such recommendations, the authors of the book believe will improve life satisfaction across the lifecourse.

Looking at the books premise as a social and community psychologist, on the surface of it, arguments may appear fair and just. It is encouraging to see mental health receive increasing attention. Community psychologists call for greater attention to be paid to mental health and those wider social factors which shape individual and community wellbeing. At a glance, The Origins of Happiness may appear to do that in its presentation of correlations between life satisfaction and social aspects such as education and work. Disappointingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly (given that economics are at the forefront of the agenda), The Origins of Happiness is conceptually flawed in its presentation of ‘happiness’, ‘misery’ and how such concepts should be measured. In addition, it minimises the influence of social context and structural inequalities on wellbeing. This is the crux of the argument put forward by the BPS Community Psychology Section in their  response to the book.

The BPS Community Psychology Section

The BPS Community Psychology Section have several aims. These include to:

  • dismantle disabling societal barriers and construct psychologically enabling contexts and practices;
  • strive for social justice; and
  • work in solidarity and mutual respect alongside people experiencing marginalisation, disempowerment and oppression.

The BPS response to the book

In their response to The Origins of Happiness the BPS Community Psychology Section highlight several key concerns with the book, namely problematic research methods and important areas of research which are missing. The response draws much needed attention to the reductionist manner in which life satisfaction has been measured. It also critiques the books approach to ‘misery’ and misery reduction. In my own work as a community psychologist, I work to adopt asset or strengths based approaches to health and wellbeing and I am disheartened to see yet another example of a deficit or problem driven approach to tackling mental health.

The BPS response also draws vital attention to the books lack of research on structural inequalities and social context. Although the book includes a chapter considering social norms and institutions, the BPS response notes that these are absent elsewhere in the book. Such issues are therefore treated in isolation, as potential additional variables to be either factored in or excluded. Furthermore, the response comments on how there is little exploration of wider factors such as political ideologies and how these interact with other social norms and influences.

The concluding paragraph of The Origins of Happiness outlines a worrying series of proposals to policy-makers to which the BPS have responded with concern and criticism.

Call to action

The aim of the BPS response is to highlight the gaps in The Origins of Happiness. I whole-heartedly support the BPS response to the book and would encourage others working in community psychology, social work, critical health psychology and other disciplines to respond to the calls and recommendations put forward by Lord Layard and colleagues in The Origins of Happiness.

What can I do?

  • If you are a member of the BPS, could you call on the BPS president to support the response?
  • In preparation for the event tonight, you can tweet Andrew marr  who will be interviewing Layard at 6.30pm on Monday 22nd January 2018.  #marr
  • You can join the BPS Community Psychology Section
  • You can join Psychologists for Social Change, who have previously responded critically to Layard’s work



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