About The Project

Note: for questions about the RFP, see the RFP FAQ

About Well-Being Research


Questions and Answers:

The project is primarily a field-building endeavor aimed at promoting well-being research by fostering dialogue and collaboration among well-being researchers across a wide range of disciplines, including the sciences, philosophy, and theology and religious studies. To this end we will sponsor a variety of activities, including sub-grants, conferences, publications, and public outreach efforts. We also aim to promote public understanding of well-being research. Click here for an overview of the project.

 

At this time the main opportunities are aimed at researchers, in the form of sub-grants and conferences. But we expect to add further components of interest to the general public. You can learn about future developments by subscribing to the project mailing list and following the News page on this site. Project news along with other well-being related items, will be posted on our Facebook and Twitter feeds. 

 

Absolutely not. The project leader’s own research is done from a secular perspective. But a great deal of the most important and insightful thinking about well-being has taken place within various religious and spiritual traditions, and we believe it is important that such perspectives be an integral part of well-being research.

 

We need not define it precisely, but roughly, well-being research includes any research concerned with happiness, well-being, flourishing and the like, at least insofar as it focuses on quality of life. Well-being research is diverse, spanning many fields and approaches including mental health research, economics, development, urban planning, social work, medicine, and so on. One of the largest threads of well-being research is positive psychology, which emphasizes positive states and strengths, in response to a historical tendency to focus on the negatives. 

 

Most researchers use ‘happiness’ to mean nothing more than a state of mind, like being satisfied with your life or having a positive emotional condition. By contrast, ‘well-being’ normally refers to a kind of value, concerning what benefits or harms you, or makes you better or worse off. Depending on what ultimately benefits people, this might include things beyond happiness, such as achievement. Other words for well-being include ‘flourishing’ and ‘welfare’. ‘Eudaimonia’ was the ancient Greek term for well-being. Much confusion results from the fact that ‘happiness’ is often used, not for a state of mind, but as a synonym for ‘well-being’. This is especially common in texts discussing ancient and medieval thought. For more information, see this brief guide to happiness and well-being

 

If we are talking about the state of mind, there are three basic theories of happiness: hedonism, emotional state theories, and life satisfaction theories. Roughly, hedonism identifies happiness with experiences of pleasure, versus suffering. Emotional state theories take happiness to be a positive emotional condition, roughly the opposite of anxiety and depression. Life satisfaction theories identify happiness with something more like a judgment than a feeling: being satisfied with your life as a whole. For instance, judging that your life is going well enough by your standards. Many well-being researchers identify happiness with "subjective well-being," which spans some combination of these mental states, such as life satisfaction and emotional well-being.

 

Happiness is frequently caricatured as a simple “smiley-face” emotion: feeling happy. Yet no major theory of happiness regards it that way: at most, feeling happy is just one aspect of a much broader, more complex psychological condition. 

 

Because well-being is a value, what you think of well-being will depend on your views about what matters in life and what is worth seeking: what ultimately benefits a person? What does it mean for a person to thrive or flourish? What should we want for ourselves, and for our children? On the most common way of dividing things up, there are three basic theories of well-being:

  1. Hedonism: what ultimately benefits you is pleasure and freedom from suffering (Bentham and Mill…)
  2. Desire theories: what ultimately benefits you is getting what you want (most economists…)
  3. Objective list theories: what ultimately benefits you is leading an objectively worthwhile life (Aristotle…)

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Philosophy addresses some of the most fundamental questions in well-being research: what ultimately matters in life? What is happiness? How should we go about pursuing it, if at all? What distinguishes good science from bad? On some of the oldest questions, philosophers notoriously disagree; for instance, there is no expert consensus about what the right theories of happiness or well-being are. This means that we cannot simply assume any such theory as if were obviously correct, as many of the experts on the matter will disagree with us. But philosophers also agree on a great deal, and in practice the different theories usually give similar verdicts. As well, philosophy can help improve our views even when it doesn't give us the answers: ordinary thinking about the good life is often simplistic or deeply confused. Reasonable people will come to different views about how best to live. But philosophical reflection enables us us to think more clearly and intelligently about such matters.

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Often it matters less than one might think, but sometimes it matters a great deal. For example, some people strongly value leading lives of achievement, pursuing worthwhile and often difficult goals (think New York City). Others prefer a laid-back pace, focusing more on the enjoyment of life (think New Orleans). It is possible to defend either lifestyle using any theory of well-being: hedonists might note that lives of accomplishment can be highly pleasant and fulfilling in the long haul, while Aristotelians might observe that creating and appreciating good food and music, and enjoying the company of good friends and family, may be just another way to lead a life of human excellence. Still, it is easier to see the benefits of the "achiever" lifestyle given an Aristotelian view of well-being, just as hedonists will more likely favor the "enjoyer" lifestyle. If we find that the achievers are less happy than the enjoyers, Aristotelians might think they are still better off; while hedonists would deem the enjoyers better off.

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To put it into perspective, consider that the U.S. spends upwards of $100 billion a year on medical research. This in turn matters because it contributes to happiness and well-being. This project aims to help improve our understanding of the bigger picture: the things that make life worth living, and which we have not always wisely pursued. Indeed, perhaps few subjects are more crucial to understanding the world, and our place in it, than understanding what it means for human beings to flourish. Such knowledge is especially important in the 21st century, as a growing population and pressures on the environment make it essential that we find efficient ways to secure a good quality of life.

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Our concern is with unhappiness and ill-being as much as with the positives. Just as health care research isn’t purely about healthy people, happiness research isn’t just about happy people, and well-being research isn’t simply concerned with thriving people, or with states of bliss.

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Well-being research concerns issues of interest to everyone. For instance, some poor populations are much happier than others. If we are concerned about poverty, we should especially care about ameliorating the kinds of poverty that cause the greatest stress and misery. Human thinking about happiness and well-being is extremely diverse. But people everywhere care about the quality of their lives, and few want to pass their lives in unhappiness. Rich or poor, people want more out of life than simply to survive.

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Compare: health can’t be summed up in a number, yet that doesn’t prevent us from spending vast sums on medical research and other facets of the health sciences. Well-being research need not involve boiling happiness or well-being down to a single quantity, and most of it focuses on various aspects of well-being: the quality of our relationships, engagement at work, enjoyment of daily activities, satisfaction with life, levels of stress, and so forth. These matters can be studied scientifically, just as human health can. 

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Happiness and related states have far-reaching impacts on people’s minds, bodies, and behavior: they leave many traces that we can measure, even if we can’t know precisely what a person is feeling at a moment. For instance, consider a group of people who report feeling stressed out in a long questionnaire, have high cortisol and blood pressure levels, report stomach pain and difficulty sleeping, are said to be stressed out by their friends, and so on. We have good reason to think they are in fact more stressed than another group showing all the signs of being relaxed and unworried. We don't need to know exactly what any one of them is feeling to know that, in one respect, the first group is less happy than the second.

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Yes, with qualifications. Looking at different factors like facial expressions, gestures, stress hormones, brain imaging, the testimony of friends, life outcomes like workplace success and longevity, and self-reported feelings, we can verify that our measures are giving reasonably reliable, if imperfect, information about how people are doing. For example: by all indications, people who score badly on a depression questionnaire tend to feel a lot worse than those who score well. And unemployed people tend to report lower happiness and life satisfaction than the employed, just as we would expect. So a large body of converging findings indicates that, for the most part, the measures are giving us good information. There are of course limitations, as with measurement in any science, and one goal of this project is to help address some of those limitations.

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Answers to general questions about how happy or satisfied individuals are may indeed tend to be overstated. If so, then such measures might be like a good thermometer with incorrect labeling. The thermometer might reliably tell you it’s much hotter in Texas than Toronto, even if it always reads ten degrees too high. We care more about getting relative well-being levels right: are poor people less happy than the rich? Etc. Even if a study finds everyone claiming to be happy, it is still useful to know that the poor people are a lot lower on the scale. A second point is that much research doesn't rely on broad questions that lend themselves to overstatement. For example, a study might assess stress hormones, or ask narrow questions like, “Did you worry [smile, etc.] during a lot of the day yesterday?”

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Replication failures are an important part of healthy scientific practice; in many cases they reveal, not flaws in the original research, but inadequacies in our understanding of the results: maybe the phenomenon is more complicated than we thought. Here is a nice discussion of the current situation in psychology. Many findings in well-being research have been corroborated through multiple studies using varied methods. In general, it is wise to treat any single scientific study as a provisional result--suggestive, but not conclusive--and look for trends across multiple studies. Our measures do have limitations and must be interpreted with caution. But they are telling us a lot about human well-being, and will continue to improve.