Background to the book

Our mis-guided assumptions

The implication of our misguided assumptions about human nature is that we, as individuals, and as a society, have evolved a whole infrastructure of organisations and systems that are mal-adaptive to our needs, and in some cases actually perverse.  This isn’t to say that there are no good and effective organisations and structures – it’s just that there are still many that are based on old models and are therefore mal-adaptive and in need of change.  This includes many public services such as the healthcare system, the legal system, the system of financial regulation, and the education system, as well as systems of employment and business. And while we are about it, we might also include political reform.

Healthcare – We treat people in terms of distinct specialised diagnoses and conditions rather than as ‘whole’ people. We prioritise physical over mental health

Finance – We have a system that tends towards inequality and division, undervalues altruism and cooperation and makes it easy to evade accountability and responsibility

Legal system = We treat people unfairly. People who are already disadvantaged by their backgrounds are often punished for it, and the punishments often just make matters worse

Educational system – we are teaching young people knowledge and skills that are inappropriate for the age of the internet, robots and artificial intelligence

Employment – we fail to capitalise on peoples’ knowledge, skills and motivations because the job market is distorted to the needs of current employers, products and services and the markets they create through advertising and other manipulations

Business – we are increasingly controlled by large global corporations that capitalise on automation and economies of scale to create a standardised and impersonal world

Politics – Are our leaders and governments really being elected through democratic processes or are those with power able to unfairly influence the system to their advantage?

Even as our understandings about human nature improve, we are using much of our new knowledge in fragmentary and inappropriate ways to the disadvantage of many and society generally. For example, new understandings about cognitive limitations and biases are being used by big business to present us with ‘terms and conditions’ we cannot possibly read or understand, and to offer services (e.g. banking and telecommunications services) with default conditions that can be easily infringed, and incur prohibitive costs if the terms of service are not strictly adhered to. This is no accident – it is the way in which many companies make profits. The marketing and advertising industry is also notorious for playing on our fears and our basic instincts to sell products and services.

Is this just a rant?

Whilst a lot of these ideas presented are based on the work of many others and commentators, and form what might be termed ‘the zeitgeist’, some are motivated by my own experiences, and can to some extent be seen as a rant. Nevertheless, I hope that you will stay with my argument and my own account or ‘story’ about what is going on.  Although it is partly my attempt to reconcile the dissonance between my own experience and the way I naively thought things ought to be, I believe it reveals and evidences some more general truths.  Also, I claim that the approach based on a personal attempt to seek coherence does something that science rarely does – which is put it all together into a single picture.

So while I use my own experience as motivation, the argument I make is much more general.  Just as one (amongst many) simple illustration of this, consider for a moment, our changing views on the relationship between money and happiness.  Increasingly, in the developed world, we are accumulating evidence that above a certain level of wealth, money doesn’t make us any happier, and that whatever a person’s financial circumstances, their wellbeing is more dependent on a sense of orientation, meaning, purpose and control. 

A subtle confusion has arisen between value in financial terms and other forms of value. This is partly because money can not only be used to satisfy unmet needs but also to effect control. Many people believe that money will make you happy and that others that have more money are happier, are more independent, have more choice, and can exercise more control over their destiny.  But this is only partly true.  There is a correlation with wellbeing at low levels of wealth but almost none at high levels. As a result of the confusion, a universal and probably mainly unconscious myth has grown up that equates financial success with wellbeing, as if these were perfectly correlated. Unfortunately, much of economic theory that drives the design of systems of remuneration, is based on this flawed assumption. This is just one illustration of how we need to update our theories of human nature to reflect the realities of what we now know from much experimentation and theorising in psychology.

NPR Radio Broadcast, The Money Paradox, December 2014, 1 hour

Doing our best

To answer the question ‘what makes for wellbeing and good mental health?’ we might just as well ask ‘What brings out the best in people?’

  • Do our institutions as they currently operate bring out the best?
  • Do we as individuals bring out the best in each other?
  • Do we bring out the best in ourselves?

My own observations, and those of many others who want to effect change, provide these answers:

  • No, our institutions and social organisations do not always bring out the best.
  • Only occasionally do individuals bring out the best in each other, and

Only you can answer whether you bring out the best in yourself, but you are not being helped much by our institutions or other people.

However, this is no cause for despair.  If we work a little harder perhaps we can find some better answers, and if we do, we can design better ways of working, better institutions, better laws and better individual strategies that enhance wellbeing.  One key to this may be an improved understanding of how and why people behave towards each other as they do – digging deep into the psyche from multiple perspectives – psychology, economics, philosophy, politics as well as introspection and common sense.  If we were to really understand people’s needs and give them control to satisfy them, could we formulate a new approach to bringing out the best?

Improving on History

Such questions have, of course, been a concern throughout history including all those in the professions mentioned above.  So, what can yet another account bring to the show?  My answer is that it is contemporary, informed, intelligible, integrated, detailed and to some extent open to being tested. It achieves this by providing links into current multi-media sources for the arguments, evidence and detail, and by gradually moving from a general, narrative, high level account into a more detailed, structured and potentially computational model.

One thing is abundantly clear.  We need innovation in our public institutions. Look at the degree of innovation in other aspects of our lives – in technology, in manufacture, and in science, but the way in which our public and commercial organisations view and treat individuals are as resistant to change as ever.

Take just a few examples of technological breakthroughs:

If we can design as well as this in the physical world then why are we still in the dark ages when it comes to the world of the mind and of society.  We seem to be strangely capable when it comes to the design of the physical world and strangely deficient when it comes to the design of our lives, the lives of others we influence and the ways in which our organisations and institutions impact on peoples’ wellbeing.

Isn’t it obvious

Some reviewers of ‘Wellbeing and Control’ have said that all I am doing is stating the obvious. I have a defence against this. If it is so obvious then why do the structures in society that affect wellbeing do so little to deliberately enhance it – including, in some cases, the mental health services that you might have thought would have the inside track. Although some of it might be obvious to some people, I doubt that it is obvious to many, and even if it is, then only a few people do much about it in terms of changing anything.

Achieving wellbeing

This is partly an appeal to do something about that – to become involved in a venture of working out answers to the important questions about wellbeing.  Wellbeing is something that everybody knows about, at least from personal experience, and it is something we are all interested in whatever our state of mind.  But just having an opinion is not enough.

Although neither you, nor I, are the first people to think about this (perhaps it was some distant ancestor sitting on a rock in the sun outside his or her cave who first reflected on ‘what makes me happy?’, and then perhaps ‘what makes her or him happy?’), we do have the advantage of history.  We stand on the shoulders of giants, and now much of the thinking of these giants is only a click away, re-packaged in easily digestible multi-media format on the internet. For example,  a good account of the history of our attempts to understand happiness and wellbeing can be found in:

Felicity Huppert, Nick Baylis and Barry Keverne, The Science of Wellbeing, Oxford University Press, 2005

It’s not about self-help

In fact, so concerned are we with happiness that there is a large market in self-help and self-improvement books, £50m per annum in the UK and amounting to about 10% of the entire book market. The main part of this is popular psychology – change on the inside, as opposed to, for example, dieting, appearance and body image.

BBC Radio 4, The Bottom Line, Self-Improvement, First broadcast: Thursday 27 February 2014

Recent criticism leveled at the ‘self-help’ industry points to the underlying assumption that improvement can be made by changing the self, whereas many of the problems of society are a function of circumstances that are beyond the control of the individual. Also, self-help tends to promote cultural norms rather than accepting and capitalising on variation. Listen, for example, to what sociologist Laurie Taylor has to say about the subject of self-help and self-improvement:

BBC Radio 4, Thinking Allowed, Self-Help and Self-Improvement, January 2015, 29:01 minutes

And it is not as if mental health issues are not widespread.  BBC Radio 4, The Life Scientific, Vikram Patel believes mental health conditions affect a billion people worldwide (more than 10%) and that for many conditions the causes (often poverty and circumstances) and remedies are much the same across cultures:

We must do better

But somehow, despite us living now, at the current pinnacle of evolution, the best we can do is use money and power as the primary organisational motivators, even though our personal needs and incentives range extensively from basic requirements like food and sleep, to security, social validation, self esteem and ‘bringing out the best’.

The problem is that even if some individuals operate on empathy, compassion, love and caring, our social structures certainly don’t.  In fact our institutions, organisations and other social structures frequently do the opposite, treating individuals impersonally with little regard for our needs or our feelings.  If you doubt this, think of bankers’ bonuses, debt collection agencies, utilities and sales call-centres, no-reply-emails, confusion marketing and the insurance industry.  But it doesn’t stop there. Even the mental health services, for whom this is a professional concern, are often more pre-occupied with meeting regulatory requirements, and having to balance the books, than they are with providing care (although this is not necessarily the fault of the practitioners).

Much of what society does acts as an inhibitor of thoughts and behaviours, whereas if it was concerned with wellbeing, it would be a facilitator.

We must do better than this.  And we can.  We know much more now about ‘what makes people tick’ than we did when the world started to trade and industrialise.  When Adam Smith described the benefits of specialisation of labour’ he opened the door to not only mass production but also vast fields of specialist knowledge.  But do we yet understand how to design our social structures so that they are not riddled with perverse incentives that detract from our overall wellbeing?  I don’t think we do.  We are still stuck in the rut of traditional forms of economic and political thought.

And the answer is …

But we are getting there, in a roundabout sort of way.  Philosophy, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and education all provide some clues.  And now all this knowledge is a fingertip away with the advent of the internet. However we are also in a rut with our methods.  We continue to drive towards specialisation rather than synthesis.  Old models of thought run away with themselves before we get the chance to rethink from the perspective of what we know now.  We keep on ‘designing’ our social structures on outdated ideas about how people ‘tick’.

How can we recruit all that is known in these subjects to the topic of wellbeing and the design of our structures and systems accordingly?  My answer is to take on the stupendous task of trying to integrate this knowledge into the ‘grand theory of wellbeing’.  This crazy idea, and my own delusions in even contemplating it, contribute to the motivation for this book. And, while it would be nice to change the world, the reality is that just getting it straight in my own mind would be both enough and entirely consistent with the theory of mind and dissonance expressed in the book.

Of course you will have to judge whether the approach I propose is believable and makes sense to you.  And for this, I encourage you to read the blog that is being published ahead of the book. It’s journey from epistemology to organisational architecture may not always trace a route on your own mental map but stay with it if you can, and critique it if you want, and just maybe by the end we will understand the relationship between our values, wellbeing and control just a little better than we do now.

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About This Blog

This series of blog postings takes a multi-disciplinary approach to social policy, bringing together ideas from psychology, economics, neuroscience, philosophy and related subjects to inform policy makers and other professionals about how we might think in new ways about the individual and society . There are some easy ways to read it:

• Very Easy – Just read the blog titles: Most blog title are propositions that the blog content attempts to justify. Just reading the names of the blogs in order from first to last will provide an overview of the approach.

• Quite Easy - Just read the text in bold. This brings out the main points in each posting.

• Easy - Just watch the videos. This is easy but can take a while. The running time of each video can be seen in the caption above it. Hover over the video to see the controls – play and pause, large screen, and navigate around.

• Harder – Read the whole blog. Useful if you are really interested, want to learn, or want to comment, disagree with the content, have another angle or whatever. The blog is not being publicised yet but please feel free to comment and I will try to respond if and when I can.

The blog attempts not to be a set of platitudes about what you should do to be happy. In fact, I would like to distance myself from the ‘wellbeing marketplace’ and all those websites/blogs that try and either sell you something or proffer advice. This is something quite different. It takes as its premise that there is a relationship between wellbeing, needs and control in both the individual and society. If needs are not being met and you have no control to alter the situation, then wellbeing will suffer.

While this may seem obvious, there is something to be gained by understanding the implications of this simple idea. We are quite used to thinking about wellbeing in terms of specifics like money, health, relationships, work and so on, but less familiar with dealing with the more generic and abstract concepts of need and control.

Taking a more abstract approach helps filter out much of the distraction and noise of our usual perceptions. It focuses on the central issues and their applicability across many specifics that affect how we think and feel.

The blog often questions our current models of the way we think about the human condition and society. It looks at the things we all know and talk about – decisions and choices, relationships and loss, jobs and taxes, wealth and health but in a way in which they are not usually described. It tries to develop a new account, that draws on a broadly based understanding of what we now know from science, culture and common sense.

If you are looking for simple answers you will not find them here. This is not because the answers are complex. It is because the answers are not necessarily what you expect.

If you are looking to explore in some depth the nature of wellbeing and how it is influenced by what you can control, and what others can control that may affect you, then read on. Playing through some of these ideas into the specifics of policy, at the level of society and the individual, will take time but I hope you will see the virtue of working from first principles.

When walking through any landscape different people will see different things. A geologist might see an ice-age come and go, forming undulations in its wake. A politician might see territorial boundaries. Somebody else may see a hill they have to climb together with the weight of their back-pack.

Taking a perspective of wellbeing and control is different from how we normally look at the world. It's a deeper look at why and how things happen as they do and the consequences on wellbeing. It questions the relationship between intention and outcome.

We normally see and act through the well-worn habits of our thoughts and behaviours as they have evolved to deal with things as they are now. We mainly chose the easy options that require the least resource. As a survival strategy this generally works well, but it also entrenches patterns of thought, behaviour and emotion that sometimes, for the benefit of our wellbeing, need to be changed. When considering change, people often say ‘well, I wouldn’t start from here’. And that’s the position I take. I am not starting from the ways things are or have evolved, but from the place they might have been had we known what we know now and had designed them.

The blogs argue that, in an era of specialisation, we have forgotten the big picture – we act specifically and locally within the silos of our specialised education and experience. We check process rather than outcomes. We often fail to integrate our knowledge and apply it to the design of our social and work systems (as well as our own thoughts and behaviours).

To understand society we first need to understand the individual and to this end, a psychological account of how we feel, think and behave based on notions of wellbeing and control is proposed. And not in an abstract airy-fairy kind of way, but as a more or less precise theory that forms the basis of a predictive and testable computational model. The theory is essentially about how, both as individuals and society we manage multiple (and often conflicting) intentions in real time within limited resources. I call this model 'the human operating system'. This is like a computer operating system except that it is motivated by emotions, modulated by reason and is expressed in the language of mind and its qualities of agency and intentionality.

Just as in the mathematics of fractal geometry, complex structures can emerge from simple rules. The explanation given of the interplay between emotions, physical bodily states, thoughts and behaviours shows how much of the complexity in the individual can be accounted for by a set of relatively simple rules. This can be modelled using a system of symbolic representation and manipulation involving intentions and priorities operating in a complicated and changing environment.

The language and models that we use to understand the individual can also be applied to organisations and other structures in society. Through an understanding of what makes for wellbeing in the individual we can also understand what makes for better wellbeing in society generally. The focus, therefore, is on understanding the individual and then using that understanding to inform how we might think about other structures in society and how all these structures relate to each other from the point of view of wellbeing, shifting patterns of control and the implications for social policy.