Friday, 19 November 2010

Walking Back to Happiness

[I contributed today’s ‘Connecting with Culture’, a weekly email service provided by London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, where I seek to be gainfully employed.]

‘It's time we admitted that there’s more to life than money, and it’s time we focused not just on GDP, but on GWB – general well-being... Improving our society’s sense of well-being is, I believe, the central political challenge of our times.’

So said David Cameron back in 2006, and so it is that starting next week the Office of National Statistics will be producing measures to assess citizens’ happiness, yielding data which will inform government policy.

To some extent, this has been inspired by economists, but it’s also part of a larger trend to broaden our understanding of wellbeing beyond economic growth to embrace a number of domains – health, family, work, community, environment – all supported by a blossoming literature in ‘happiness studies’.

Inevitably, not everyone will hold these factors to be of equal value, and it’s not entirely clear how one measures and compares largely subjective indicators of happiness. Even so, this feels like a significant path to pursue, not least because all indications are that healthy relationships are a vital factor in human flourishing.

And that will come as no surprise to Christians. After all, we worship the perfect-in-communion Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; we understand that humans were created for relationship with one another and their surrounding environment; we serve the one who summed up God’s design for life in terms of love of God and neighbour. And – lest that becomes a measurement of performance – we know the call to love comes only because God himself has restored the most fractured relationship of all, that between himself and humanity, with all the implications for renewed relationships with each other that come about as a result.

Happiness too, in the sense of wholeness and wellbeing, goes back to God’s original intention for creation – not, perhaps, as the end of a search but as the by-product of a yet higher end. As Christian philosopher David Naugle points out, happiness ultimately comes down to what we love. Our problem is that left to ourselves we attach love to things in disordered ways, leaving God out of the reckoning. When God acts to save us, he reorders our loves and affections, such that true happiness – far from being a pursuit of self-fulfilment – is rooted in a restored relationship with God and others.


See the BBC News report from 22 May 2006 – ‘Make people happier, says Cameron’.

Read The Guardian article from 14 November 2010 – ‘Happiness index to gauge Britain’s national mood’.

Explore more about happiness here.

‘Wholly Living: A New Perspective on International Development’ is the title of a report published by Theos in partnership with CAFOD and Tearfund, contending that our obsession with money, freedom and choice ‘has resulted in a radical devaluation of the social, cultural and environmental relationships that form us and that enable us to flourish as human beings’. Click here for a copy of the report.

The following books explore this topic in more detail from different perspectives:

Derek Bok, The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).

Mark Vernon, Wellbeing, The Art of Living Series (Stocksfield: Acumen, 2008).

David K. Naugle, Reordered Love, Reordered Lives: Learning the Deep Meaning of Happiness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

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