Rediscovering the Heart of Wellbeing

Jonathan Rowson
Oct 25th, 2020

If there was a spokesperson asked to convey the general public’s wavering attitude to personal growth I imagine they would sound something like this:

‘So lifelong learning is fine. Maturing is good. Being conscious is necessary. The unconscious is a thing, yes. Doing therapy is normal but not exactly encouraged. Meditating is cool but only really as an antidote to stress. Wisdom is good. We all need to grow up. Becoming more virtuous is a bonus, but sounds a bit pretentious. Childhood development is normal. Adult development sounds plausible but we’d need to talk about it. Emotional intelligence is definitely ok. I’ve heard the brain is plastic, so yes, some changes might be possible in later years. Transformation is encouraged, yes, though to be honest we don’t really know what it means. Self knowledge and self awareness are an important part of our ethos. It’s good to work on your ego, yes, because it can cause a lot of trouble. Better relationships — we’re all for that. We’re easily manipulated to buy stuff so it’s good to be aware of how that happens. Self esteem is very important. Personal development is generally a good thing, but we like to know what’s going on. Social skills? Of course. You grow into new things, and you grow out of other things. Ethical training is sometimes necessary, but it’s human judgment that really matters. Common sense, you know. And goodness, sometimes just basic goodness. Some people have more life experience than others, I suppose. Mindfulness can really help with, you know, the mind. I’ve noticed empathy is fashionable, but I wonder what it really feels like. Willpower matters a lot, but it’s hard. It’s always good to question your assumptions if you can, so anything that helps with that is welcome. Wellbeing? Absolutely! Happiness is even better. Flourishing, yes, we’ll have some of that too. Spirituality might be ok, but I’ll need to check. More generally we just need to get things in perspective’.

There is something weird going on. This imagined statement is just a way to reflect that people generally ‘get’ the idea of human growth and the value of it, but it remains somehow nebulous and peripheral.

Perhaps that’s because it seems to be too many things. People notice the particular features of what it might mean to grow as a human being, but there is no collective consciousness of an overall pattern, or why it might matter in any social or political sense.

The point of Perspectiva’s emphasis on human development is this: we urgently need to understand what we are all ‘subject to’ at a perceptual and epistemological level and how that constrains our sense of what is politically necessary and possible. At a political level we are subject to economic growth and at a societal level we are subject to consumerism — they have us, we don’t have them. That’s what has to change. And there are many layers to this idea, for instance to grasp climate change in all its multi-faceted complexity you need a complex mind, and if you don’t grasp it, it’s hard to know what to do about it or even feel why it matters. So a focus on human growth — in addition to its intrinsic value — is a bulwark against the fetishisation of economic growth as a solution to all problems. and therefore timely and perhaps even essential.

Nobody really flinches when you say wellbeing should be the overall aim of the economy, and many organisations and countries have been working towards that goal. For instance the UK Office of National Statistics asks these four questions every year:

Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?

Overall, to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?

Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?

Overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?

A great deal of thought went in to those questions and I even played a small part in the process at the time (from 08.15). But they are all about how people feel. This matters greatly, and according to some reflections from Gallup it may even have helped the UK predict Brexit if we’d been paying attention. But still, it’s not the whole story, or even the best part of it.

‘Human growth’ doesn’t compute in the same way as wellbeing, but it is a significant element of wellbeing, and — here’s the neglected point — the element of wellbeing most closely connected to the kinds of capabilities called for to address our social and political challenges. (Bildung is perhaps the concept most precisely relevant here, because it connects human growth to political context, but that discussion is for another time).

People have an intuitive feeling for ‘hedonic wellbeing’ which is basically about pleasurable experiences, mostly measured through self-reports.

Granted, more sophisticated thinkers like Paul Dolan go beyond this simplicity — he defines happiness as ‘the experience of pleasure and purpose over time’. But it’s not just about purpose. Eudaimonic wellbeing is a much more complex notion tied to a vision of the good life. Perhaps the ostentatiously Greek name puts some off, but for those who know it, it’s an inspiring notion. It literally means good (eu) spirit (daimonia) and it has many implicitly spiritual aspects. One of the main models by the psychologist C. D. Ryff includes the following six elements. Note that the first two link very directly to ‘human growth’ while the others are indirectly related.


Personal growth


Purpose in life

Environmental mastery

Positive relations with others.

At a political level hedonic wellbeing is favoured over eudaimonic wellbeing for ideological and pragmatic reasons. Providing the conditions for pleasurable experiences is a relatively ‘hands off’ approach and also probably much easier (and cheaper) to measure. In short, it is a form of wellbeing that fits the prevailing imaginary and doesn’t get in the way of perpetuating consumer society. But what if ‘going beyond consumerism’ means not just changing our idea of wellbeing but proactively supporting eudaimonia through social and economic policy? Some have already touched on this idea by suggesting that the universal citizens investment (commonly and unhelpfully known as ‘universal basic income’) is about dealing with the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs so that we can freely pursue the higher levels. One of things that stops the prevailing majority buying in to this, I think, is that the implicit idea in eudaimonia, human growth, is too diffuse to be prioritised and too complex to measure with conviction. As indicated in a previous post, there are many aspects to this challenge:

The models of development are not often theoretically grounded in a broader theory about the nature of life, evolution or change so they are ignored or rejected without any sense of intellectual dissonance.

Many theories lack a broader vision of the good life against which to test their model with analytical rigour — we can’t say what ‘better’ is (eg more courageous) unless you have a prior vision of the good in more general terms (eg courage as the preeminent virtue, making possible all others).

There is little consistency in the relevant variable and/or active ingredient is when it comes to human beings getting ‘better’. The type of development in question varies: emotional, cognitive, volitional, moral, virtue, spiritual. The competing theories have different ontological and epistemological assumptions, and therefore only partially commensurate evidence bases. The unit of analysis varies; sometimes it’s the ego, the person, the self, the mind, the soul. Some theories are domain specific, applying for instance to leadership or teaching or relationships, and some are domain general.

Borrowing from Marx and Engels, you might say the problem with human development praxis is that it doesn’t have class consciousness. It is a field ‘in itself’ but not yet ‘for itself’. And this matters because there is more to human development that wellbeing.

From a more sociological angle, cultural theorist Theodor Adorno speaks of ‘the ontology of false conditions’. That sense of false consciousness, of not being able to access the world as it is partly because powerful interests don’t want us to is implicit in The Sociologist Bauman’s famous statement of our present condition: ‘Never have we been so free, never have we felt so powerless’. To hammer this point home, Political Scientist Stephen Eric Bronner puts the same point as follows (A Very Short Introduction to Critical Theory p77):

‘At stake is the substance of subjectivity and autonomy: the will and ability of the individual to resist external forces intent upon determining the meaning and experience of life’. 

Relatedly, I argued in Beyond the Big Society that there is a strong social and political case for working on the complexification of consciousness, and that case is only loosely related to wellbeing. This idea builds upon work by the OECD about core competencies we need to survive and thrive in the 21st century, all of which make hidden demands on mental complexity. As German Philosopher Metzinger has said, we risk becoming ‘failing beings’ because many of our challenges are beyond ‘the current emotional and cognitive capacities of our species’. Rather than just give in to that, why not focus on that aspect of the challenge more directly?

With this in mind, I would like Perspectiva to host, lead, curate, convene, design, create and just do an inquiry into the slippery question ‘what does it mean to grow?’. This project will have:

A research leadership side: Building coherence among models, making distinctions, sharing the evidence base and working towards a model that captures key elements of eudaimonia but also speaks to the growth of mental complexity more generally.

A policy application side: The emphasis will be on policy and politics rather than organisations or business or personal development (because so many already do that). What do we know about ‘the hidden curriculum’ of going beyond consumerism, surviving social media, addressing climate change, or safeguarding public health? What are the implicit challenges on *how* we know in such cases?

A socially reflexive side: This is the critical point that is often overlooked, and which I want to focus on here. How do we inculcate a developmental ethic across society, i.e. a society where human growth is viewed as a shared endeavour with value for the common good?

On the last of the three points — the reflexive side is the most subtle but also perhaps most important. It is easy to spend a lot of time and resources trying to figure out which adult development model is ‘right’ and all too possible to create a very persuasive evidence base that is ignored by policymakers. Both conventional approaches miss the point about the prior importance of cultural receptivity. We are reflexive creatures and that we will grow partly by reflecting on the idea of growth and how we relate to it.

To give an instructive analogy, in my 2011 RSA report, Transforming Behaviour Change (See 1.2, page 13 onwards) I spoke about the brain being ‘social’ in two distinct sense. First the evidence from social neuroscience, anthropology, social psychology and so forth shows that our brains evolve through and for social cooperation. But secondly, the brain is a shared object of interest and concern. Few are qualified to talk about the brain with authority, but Neuroscience gives us permission to talk about ourselves and each other in new ways through inflexion with the brain — something like the weather than we all know and share to some extent. Sometimes the connections made are wildly inaccurate, but that often matters less than the capacity to think and talk about ourselves and each other at a deeper level.

Just as thinking about the brain changes the brain, so thinking about human growth might help us to develop, and perhaps even flourish. Please forgive the long quotation from that report, which I’ve abbreviated as much as possible:

‘The brain is being co-opted as part of our individual and collective identity, while people struggle to find truth in the context of widespread misinformation…. ‘Neuromyths’ can be seen as our culture’s first attempts to grasp something of immense complexity and importance. When we mock people for forming such ideas, we may be guilty of projecting an erroneous view of how such ideas develop, rather than seeing them as a powerful illustration of precisely why our view of human nature needs updating. It should not surprise us that neuromyths spread, because we are now more aware of our cognitive frailties…A more accurate understanding of the brain may gradually become a core component of cultural literacy, but in the meantime we should perhaps show more respect for enthusiasm about the brain and the symbolic or semiotic role it seems to play in our lives…

In one of our deliberative workshops about the brain, in which we shared five key principles of decision making that were grounded in neural and behavioural sciences, a participant made a simple but profound point about the process of learning about his brain: ‘I felt it applied to me and maybe had an evolutionary basis and was shared by everyone’.

This simple line captures the link between personal identity, biological understanding and social belonging…The awareness that there are natural facts underlying our behaviour is significant because it means that when we talk about, for example, our decisions, our habits and how we pay attention, we are aware that not it is not just my brain, but the brain that is involved, and the brain is something we all share. In addition to being a biological organ that is shaped for social purposes, when viewed as a common reference point the brain is socialising too…in this context reflexivity stands for an understanding of the underlying principles of some activity that yields the power to change it. This change is achieved by using the underlying principles for a different purpose: using them in a different way than has previously been the case; or replacing them with other principles…a reflexive form of learning is learning not only about what might be done, but also why and how it is done’.

Coming back to human growth, the model of spiral dynamics for instance is analogous to neuromyths. Whole cultures or particular individuals are sometimes reduced a single colour of development and this is full of analytical and methodological flaws. Nonetheless it helps us to talk about human growth and development in a rough and ready way that more accurate models do not. That outcome has value and it’s an open question whether the model that leads to it does more harm than good.

So yes, let’s get the evidence base for human growth clearer and build methodologies that allow us to measure it with conviction — we need that for reasons of personal integrity, academic respect and policy impact. But the deeper and more hopeful question to work with is this:

How does becoming aware of the nature and value of human growth help us to grow?

Jonathan Rowson is a writer, philosopher and chess Grandmaster who was British Chess Champion from 2004-2006. He holds degrees from Oxford, Bristol, and Harvard, was the former director of the Social Brain Center at the RSA, and an Open Society Fellow. He is co-founder and director of Perspectiva, a research institute that examines the relationships between complex global challenges and the inner lives of human beings. His latest book is The Moves that Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life. Find out more here.

You can follow Perspectiva on Twitter & subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Subscribe to our newsletter via the form below to receive updates on publications, events, new videos, and more…

Perspectiva is registered in England and Wales as: Perspectives on Systems, Souls and Society (1170492​​​​). Our charitable aims are: ‘To advance the education of the public in general, particularly amongst thought leaders in the public realm on the subject of the relationships between complex global challenges and the inner lives of human beings, and how these relationships play out in society; and to promote research, activities and discourse for the public benefit in these subjects and to publish useful results’. Aside from modest income from books and events, all our income comes from donations from philanthropic trusts and foundations and further donations are therefore welcome. Please consider donating via the button below, or via Patreon.