Just a Thought
What this series is about … As we age, keeping physically active is essential. It not only improves the appearance of the body, it also prevents the occurrence of health complications in the future. Join the discussion in this series as we research the various programs that can help maintain a healthy mind and body.
Staying Young: Engagement with life (c)
What makes us flourish - and what does not?
Economic growth has been a central policy objective of most governments over the last fifty or so years. Part of their overt rationale has been that by increasing national and individual incomes, people have more choice and the ability to pursue that choice. However, the relationship between growing economic prosperity and both individual happiness and social wellbeing that may have existed in more “developed countries” appears to have broken down.
Research suggests that depression has increased significantly in developed countries over the last 50 years. The UK has almost doubled its economic output in the last 30 years, but life satisfaction still remains resolutely flat. For people to lead truly contended and flourishing lives they need to feel they are personally satisfied and developing and functioning positively in society. Instead, too many people are languishing–living unhappy, unfulfilled lives as well as lacking social and community engagement.Happiness
Many contemporary explorations of happiness in everyday life are based upon a subjective reading of wellbeing. Investigators ask people about their current feelings, whether they are hopeful about future prospects, and from this establish some measure of happiness in a particular time and place. Such an approach is based on the hypothesis that people can identify and talk about their “feeling good” or “feeling bad” status.
There are countless sources of happiness but only personal experience can describe a corresponding dimension of pain and misery. Layard (2005) identifies one starting point: happiness is feeling good—enjoying life and wanting the feeling to be maintained; and unhappiness is feeling bad and wishing that things were different.
In addition, there is a normative dimension to feeling good. This dimension is better understood in the context of the philosophy of Aristotle and of other classical thinkers, Plato and Socrates, who defined happiness in a way that makes it independent of health, wealth, and the ups and downs of everyday life. Happiness for them was something that referred to the whole of life span. It was not episodic. But, central to Aristotle’s efforts is the question what is the good life for woman or man? This human good or eudemonia is sometimes translated as human flourishing or wellbeing, and is commonly referred to as happiness.
Developments in brain and gene research—and more broadly in psychology and biology—allow us to talk with more certainty in the area of happiness. Further, how people feel as they live their lives is constantly fluctuating. These factors influence the extent to which they engage in intentional activities that would facilitate “flourishing”.
In terms of the pursuit of happiness, the problem is that people have only limited control over both subjective and objective factors. People do not choose the conditions into which they are born nor the contingencies of human life that face them. There is also a limit to which people can “act on” their genetic inheritance.
According to Putnam (2000) there has been a startling and steady decline in civic engagement in the second half of the 20th Century. Civil society has become one of the "hottest" concepts in all of the social sciences that touch on political life. Much attention is focused on the declining levels of civic engagement as a symptom of a wide range of social ills.
The conflicts over religion, ethnicity and race, and clashes over identity and values, together with their personal and cultural meanings, often prove more intransigent than conflicts over resources. These conflicts are arising as much within countries as between them. Democracy, economic development and peace now hang in the balance. Society must, therefore, look for ways in which citizens may work effectively across these divides.
Some claim that people’s tendency to endorse individualistic thinking, to the exclusion of a collective or societal interest, accounts for declining levels of civic engagement. The findings of a study support the view that human behaviour is influenced by multiple motives including a desire to have noble ideals. Multiple motives have real consequences for behaviour.
Civic engagement refers to the ways in which citizens participate in the life of a community in order to improve conditions for others or to help shape the community’s future. In other words, behaviour (both political and non-political) that promotes wellbeing of individuals and quality of life in the community.
The key element in this definition begins with a conception that civic engagement should “make a difference in the civic life of the community”. Morally and civically responsible individuals recognise themselves as members of a larger social fabric and therefore consider social problems to be at least partly their own. Such individuals are willing to see the moral and civic dimensions of issues and make more informed civic judgements to take action where possible. This definition of civic engagement focuses primarily on behaviour, but one could argue that without the underlying attitude behaviour may not necessarily follow.
In the last two decades or so we are witnessing a growing interest in strengthening civil society. There is general agreement that civil society, civic culture, and social capital are all important for strengthening democracy and enabling conflict resolution. However, some measures of engagement in community activity may predict only extended self-interest. Further, participation in an organisation of like-minded individuals, though a measure of volunteering, may not necessarily predict concern for a whole community, but only for that part of a community in which the volunteer is involved. Such volunteering is not civic-mindedness. These are networks developed by people similar in ethnicity, age, social class or language. Putnam refers to this type of engagement as “bonding”, and while important, he argues that if a nation has only bonding social capital, it would look like Bosnia.
Yet, where is the line that distinguishes one’s own interest from broader community interests? After all, when individuals engage in overt political activity, they often do so from a narrow focus on their own partisan interests. The range of civic engagement indicators usually offers little distinction between the different types or nature of activity. A person can report volunteering, and yet only be reporting the volunteering done to support a narrow, local and self-interest cause, while the same report of volunteering from another individual may reflect working with many others, in a large-scale and civically important initiative. Putnam calls this “bridging” social capital.
So, the distinction between bonding and bridging indicates that civic engagement needs to focus also on the moral issues.
Some acts of civic-mindedness are selfless. Some people reach out to those who are unlike themselves (poor, disadvantaged, or socially and psychologically deprived). Bridging social capital involves engagement with people somewhat different from themselves involving links that cut across the various lines of social cleavage.
Community engagement through social networks adds value to civic engagement both for the individual and for communities, such as, getting involved in a neighbourhood centre or a local government activity. Putnam's path-breaking book Bowling Alone (1993) has provided an important breakthrough in this thinking. Citing his experience of the 1950s, Putnam recalls that when he went bowling people bowled in teams. In the late 1990s, people went bowling just as often as they did in his youth, but they bowled with friends or family and not in leagues. For Putnam, "bowling alone" is one of dozens of indicators that people were becoming less inclined to engage in social networks which he found from his earlier research in Italy to be vital for health and wellbeing (as well as for democracy). Putnam adds that “Just as our bodies need both vitamin A and vitamin C, so too social health requires adequate stores of both bonding and bridging social capital. If you get sick, the people who care for you are likely to represent your bonding social capital, but a society that has only bonding and no bridging is in serious danger of coming apart”.
Civic engagement is vital not only for community building in democracy but also for health and wellbeing. Conflict resolution diminishes prejudices and promotes values of reciprocity , reconciliation, trust and tolerance. It enhances social capital, social cohesion and contributes to building of democracy. Ideologically, the ideas of social capital and social cohesion belong neither to the left nor to the right.
Part (d) of the next issue will offer a selection of book reviews on this subject.
Adler RP and Goggin J, 2005. What do we mean by civic engagement? Journal of Transformative Education, 3:3, 236-253 2005, Sage Publications.
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics, London: Penguin.
Aristotle. Politics (A treatise on government), London: Penguin.
Clinton WJ, 2003. "Remarks to the 49 th General Assembly of the United Nations”, 26 September 1994. In Joseph Nye, Understanding International Conflict, 4 th ed. ( New York: Longman, 2003), 48.
Ehrlich T, 2000 in: Civic responsibility and higher education. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Phoenix: Oryx Press, 2000. http://www.carnegiefoundation.org/publications/
Frey BS and Stutzer A, 2002. What can economists learn from happiness research? American Economic Association, 40: 2, pp. 402-425, June 2002.
Frey BS and Stutzer A, 2002. Happiness and Economics: How the economy and institutions affect human wellbeing, Princeton NJ.: Princeton University Press.
Funk C, 1998. Practicing what we preach? The influence of a societal interest value on civic engagement, Political Psychology: 19:3; 601-614.
Going Out . The Ottawa Citizen, Ottawa (August 23, 2003), pp. K1-K3,
Gould H, 2001. Culture and Social Capital: Recognising culture - A series of briefing papers on culture and development. (ed. François Matarasso). London: Comedia, Department of Canadian Heritage and UNESCO, 2001, pp. 85-92.
Hauss Charles (Chip), 2003. "Civil Society" - An Agreed Definition (2003) available from http://pages.britishlibrary.net/blwww3/3way/civilsoc.htm; Internet.
Layard R, 2005. Happiness: Lessons from a new science , 2005: 12-3.
Leets L, 2001. Interrupting the Cycle of Moral Exclusion: A communication contribution to social justice research. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 31:9, 1859-1883.
Lykken D, 1999. Happiness: The nature and nurture of joy and contentment, New York: St Martin’s Press.
Martin P, 2005. Making Happy People: The nature of happiness and its origins in childhood, London: Fourth Estate.
Noddings N, 2003. Caring: A feminine approach to ethics and moral education, 2e. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Noddings N, 2005. Caring in Education: The Encyclopaedia of informal education, www.infed.org/biblio/noddings_caring_in_education.htm
Putnam RD , 1993. Making Democracy Work: Civic traditions in modern Italy. Princeton University Press.
Putnam RD, 2000. Bowling Alone : The collapse and revival of American community. Simon & Schuster, New York.
Shah H and Marks N, 2004. A wellbeing manifesto for a flourishing society, London: New Economics Foundation. http://www.neweconomics.org/
Project Manager and Editor, Quality4life
3 November 2006