Understanding Well-being Data

chapter 4 Discovering ‘the new science of happiness’ and subjective well-being

Positive Psychology

At this juncture, psychology can play an enormously important role. We can articulate a vision of the good life that is empirically sound and, at the same time, understandable and attractive. We can show the world what actions lead to well-being, to positive individuals, to flourishing communities, and to a just society.

(Seligman 1998)

In his speech to the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1998, its new president outlined his hope for a ‘positive psychology’: a psychology which could help everyone as ‘a new science of human strengths’ [1]. Positive psychology was more formally launched some two years later in a special issue of the American Psychologist. The editors: Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi framed it as a ‘new science’ for the new millennium [2].

The authors proposed a move away from psychology’s pathologising tendencies, by which they meant that the academic discipline and practice of psychology typically concentrate on the negative and the abnormal, to instead focus on the ‘positive features that make life worth living’ [3]. Subsequently, Peterson and Seligman developed a formal classification handbook,[4] Character Strengths and Virtues [5]. There were six virtues: wisdom and knowledge, courage, humanity, temperance, transcendence and a series of ‘character strengths’ (perhaps more traditionally called a trait) that fell under each category. Each of these character strengths is defined behaviourally, and it is recommended that it is measured using psychometric tests.

Having established a person’s strengths, a range of ‘empirically validated interventions’ were proposed to make the most of their positive traits, rather than address their weaknesses [6]. This was seen to assist lasting happiness [6]. The authors attempted to ‘present a measure of humanist ideals of virtue in an empirical, rigorously scientific manner’ [7]. These claims were echoed in reviews at the time in publications such as the American Journal of Psychiatry [8].

Positive psychology has been lauded (by Seligman and his co-authors) as uniting the dispersed and disparate lines of theory and research about what makes life most worth living [9]. In 2000, Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi recognised that ‘positive psychology is not a new idea … and [they] make no claim of originality’ [10], instead arguing that they were able to present a ‘cumulative, empirical body of research to ground’ the ideas of ‘distinguished ancestors’.

It is interesting that positive psychology is presented as a ‘new science’ and ‘a cumulative body of research’, as these are also Layard’s claims in his book. These new, but linked, sciences, then, work on several levels as a valuable body of knowledge to claim that happiness can be a new science. The new science asserts that we now know the causes of happiness; that we now know the actions we have undertaken in the name of science, which are wrong; that these can now be measured; and that these measures can overcome philosophical queries via claims to science.

The happiness message here is that knowledge that is both policy-ready and accessible (popular, even ‘pop’) rests on clear and encouraging messaging (positive), innovation (new), authority (science) and morality (philosophy). It also, of course, must be measurable on an individual level that can be aggregated to population level.[11] It is, therefore, entirely dependent on well-being data, in particular the newer subjective well-being data that emerge from developments in positive psychology and economics’ interest in happiness, as an idea that has appeal for policy-makers and the public.


  1. Seligman 1998[]
  2. 2000, 8[]
  3. Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi 2000, 5[]
  4. These classifcations include hope; wisdom; purpose; creativity; future mindedness; courage; emotional intelligence; spirituality or purpose; perseverance; and being an active citizen, socially responsible, loyal, and a team member (Peterson and Seligman 2004).[]
  5. 2004[]
  6. Seligman et al. 2005[][]
  7. Peterson and Seligman 2004, back cover[]
  8. e.g. Cloninger 2005 – Cloninger’s review stated that ‘the major accomplishment of this book is in showing that empirically minded humanists can measure character strengths and virtues in a rigorous scientifc manner’ – 821[]
  9. Seligman et al. 2005[]
  10. Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi 2000, 13[]
  11. There is a tension in this mode of measuring happiness at individual level, aggregating data, and analysing patterns at population level. Many of the world’s societies act as collectives, with this idea of the individual and the nation being specific to a particular way that western societies work, which some consider to be bad for well-being (as described at the end of the previous section). This is also interlinked with the concerns of Chap. 2: that measurement and management of populations have developed in tandem and structured the ways societies work. In Chap. 6, we discuss the Bhutanese context of well-being measures which retain culture, community, values and understanding in their approach.[]