Positive Psychology and the Science of Happiness

05.09.2019 |

Episode #3 of the course The philosophy of happiness by Dr. Will Buckingham


Hello again and welcome back. Today, we’re going to be looking at what contemporary science says about happiness.

Recently, economists, psychologists, scientists, and even governments and businesses have become interested in happiness. There has been a great deal of talk about the “new science of happiness” and what is sometimes called “positive psychology.” The idea of a science of happiness is attractive. Throughout history, philosophers have argued about happiness. But they haven’t often agreed. So, maybe we can take a scientific approach to these questions. This might help us not only resolve some of these ancient philosophical disputes but also make people happier.


What Is Positive Psychology?

Traditionally, psychology has been concerned with what goes wrong with people’s minds. Freud claimed that his job in curing people was to restore them to ordinary, everyday unhappiness. Just as medicine has focused on illness rather than health, psychology has focused on distress, mental illness, and unhappiness rather than on mental health and happiness.

The idea of positive psychology was proposed by psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “cheek-sent-me-high-ee”) and Martin Seligman in 2000. Positive psychology has been called the study of “optimal human functioning.” Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi argue that we need a psychology of positive states of mind and positive experiences, as well as a better understanding of what makes positive institutions.


Measuring Happiness

Because science is based on what is measurable, in representing itself as a science, positive psychology has needed a way of measuring happiness. The usual measure used by positive psychologists and advocates of the science of happiness is called subjective well-being. This idea was developed in the 1980s by American psychologist Ed Diener. Subjective well-being (often abbreviated to SWB) is about measuring people’s own experience of their quality of life. It has three aspects: positive experience, absence of negative experience, and overall satisfaction with life.

There are different ways of measuring SWB. Most involve giving a score on a sliding scale in response to questions about happiness and life satisfaction.

Research into subjective well-being has provided interesting results. It has shown, for example, that there are correlations between subjective well-being and particular character types. If you are neurotic, you are likely to have lower subjective well-being. If you are extroverted, you are more likely to experience higher subjective well-being than if you were introverted. If you are very poor, this seriously impacts your subjective well-being; but once you have enough money to live on, then extra money doesn’t make much of a difference. None of these results are particularly surprising. But they do show that subjective well-being follows clear patterns.


But Is It Happiness?

However, just because subjective well-being is measurable, that doesn’t mean we should throw out all other approaches to happiness. Imagine a painter who throughout their life struggles with many things because they are committed to their art and experience very little subjective well-being. Upon their death, they leave behind a body of work that everybody agrees is amazing. Now, imagine a critic, after the painter’s death, saying, “These paintings are a testimony to a flourishing life.” From the point of view of Aristotle’s ideas of aretē, the critic might be right. Objectively, this might still be a flourishing life. But subjectively, it may look like an unhappy life. Or put differently, sometimes increased flourishing involves decreased subjective well-being.

This isn’t to say that there is no value in talking about subjective well-being. It is only to say that if we choose to define happiness only in measurable terms, then we are missing out on many other ways of thinking about happiness.

In the next lesson, we will look more closely at this idea of human flourishing. If you are interested in exploring subjective well-being for yourself, have a look at the online quiz in the further reading section.

All the best,



Recommended reading

The Guardian newspaper has a short SWB quiz for you to try.


Recommended book

Richard Layard explores the science of happiness in Happiness: Lessons from a New Science.


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