Encouraging the Good Life
Doing my job I am lucky to get to go to the launch of some of the excellent publications produced by members of the clinical team at the Tavistock and Portman. A book I have just finished reading is “The Good Life” by Graham Music, a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist who has spent a career working with troubled children and adults. As well as being a tour de force of the current evidence on the psychology of altruism, the book reinforces the moral case for doing what we can to create the conditions for happiness and wellbeing and for supporting those individuals whose early life experiences are traumatic and destructive.
Graham’s argument is that empathy and altruism are natural instincts of the human species, which emerge at an early stage in human development and are reinforced by the development of secure attachment with parents and other caregivers. He also demonstrates, as Aristotle concluded centuries ago, when we feel good we are likely to do good and, by contrast, stress in our own lives can reduce our propensity to help others.
Our instincts towards “goodness” are not exclusive. We are also programmed to act selfishly to protect our interests and those of our group. Those instincts are not always bad and have served the human species well over our evolution but there is a question of balance and for recognising the importance of the conditions which promote our better side.
All in all Graham’s book and the science he explains are powerful arguments for policy makers and others giving more attention to issues of child development and adult wellbeing. From time to time this has registered in the public debate but without leading, despite the rhetoric to many fundamental shifts in approach.
Amongst many there are three particular areas of public policy which are worth looking at in the light of this analysis.
The first, and probably most significant, is what we do to support children’s’ early years to encourage the healthy development of the greatest number of children and reduce the level of harm incurred by those children who are victims of abuse or maltreatment.
The focus should be both on parents and children. Parenthood, despite all the other social and economic advantages I enjoyed, was the one of the tasks in life I was personally least prepared for. I learnt on the job and it took me years to feel confident in the role. I was lucky with the support our received from my family and social networks. Others are not so well placed.
You cannot necessarily teach parenthood in the classroom but you can do more to support parents whether through generous provision for parental leave, targeted evidence based programmes such as the Family Nurse Partnership which support young mothers or the wider provision of parenting programmes and advice. Support for when couples experience difficulties in their relationships is also crucial given the immensely negative impact which parental separation or dysfunctional parental relationships can have on children. While I have no desire to return to a past where many, particularly women, were trapped in lives with loveless or cruel partners I also believe that we underestimate the value of support for those who wish to mend their relationships.
We also need to have an honest debate, led by young people themselves, about what constitutes a good childhood. Every age has its myths about childhood and, whatever society does, children can have happy or unhappy lives depending on their own individual circumstances. Nonetheless there seems no doubt that there is greater pressure on the current generation of young people, whether in relation to academic achievement, body image or peer pressure. This in it is turn is leading to an undeniable increase in the incidence of mental health problems in children and adolescents.
The second area is the ongoing need to look at the overrepresentation in the criminal justice system of people with a history of stunted emotional development, especially as a result of childhood abuse or trauma. Despite occasional rhetoric to the contrary we are still happy to be tough on crime but not on the causes of crime. As well as supporting parenting and healthy child development there is a case for interventions to address mental health problems with their roots in problems with attachment and other issues with childhood attachment. While I recognise the case for strengthening the formal evidence base, practitioners like Graham see the impact which long term psychotherapy can have in helping people with significantly troubled pasts to improve their social functioning and reintegrate with society.
The final area is the wider appreciation of wellbeing as a dimension of public policy. This has its critics amongst those who are wary of those who pretend that teaching people the techniques of mindfulness can be an effective substitute for resolving more fundamental issues of deprivation or providing effective and appropriate mental health services for those in distress. Increasingly I believe, however that wellbeing does matter for public policy alongside strategies for economic growth and that there is a roll for national and local government to measure wellbeing and develop strategies for increasing it.
A role for the state however does not take away responsibility for individuals or wider civil society. The decline of organised religion, at least in some parts of our society, has created a space which other forms of philosophy, belief and community must be encouraged to fill. As individuals we need to give more priority to understanding ourselves and promoting our positive mental health and wellbeing.
The Greek philosophers saw the good life as the central tenet of human knowledge and enquiry. Graham’s book reinforced, from a scientific perspective, my belief that everyone is born with some potential for good and that there are interventions we can make, most especially in childhood to give individual the best chance to realise that potential. We must make this a central tenet of debate and priorities in our own society.
The Good Life – Well-being and the new science of altruism, selfishness and immorality by Graham Music is available at http://www.karnacbooks.com/Product.asp?PID=35203