Good, wise and happy

February 13, 2012 by
Filed under: Social brain, The RSA 

Reader, if I say that West Brom’s 5-1 weekend victory over Wolves cheered me up only briefly, you will know the slough of despond through which I am now doggedly crawling. Still, life goes on, blogging is a welcome distraction and the comments posted to the previous posts on human development deserve some kind of response.

I earlier suggested that the biggest challenge for advocates of a human development approach (by which I mean the attempt to help more people attain a ‘higher’ level of thinking) is to demonstrate it is possible to bring about a sustained shift in consciousness through a deliberate intervention. Various bits of evidence have been suggested, ranging from specific educational initiatives to a whole community programme in Curacao (although this was forty years ago). Perhaps the most robust evidence comes from research into organisations where, for example, the correlation between more open-minded, collaborative ‘strategic’ leadership styles and success was identified in an influential HBR piece by Rooke and Torbert.

However, there are a number of difficulties with relying on organisational research, particularly in private sector firms. First, researchers tend to focus on leaders and as ‘Junius’ pointed out in his comments this tends to assume that leaders’ interests are the same as the led and as society’s as a whole. Second, research into organisational success factors is renowned for extolling the virtues of successful firms just before they go over a cliff, and – more tellingly – we have to ask why, in a free market, if this style of leadership works, it hasn’t swept all before it.

But given the massive challenges (and costs) involved in undertaking a major process of adult development and then evaluating its long term impact, I have been thinking of another approach.

After a tip off from Number Ten (they really are interested in this stuff) I got hold of a fascinating paper by Felicia Huppert and Timothy So. Here is the abstract:

Governments around the world are recognising the importance of measuring subjective well-being as an indicator of progress. But how should well-being be measured? A conceptual framework is offered which equates high well-being with positive mental health. Well-being is seen as lying at the opposite end of a spectrum to the common mental disorders…. we identify ten features of positive well-being. These combine feeling and functioning, i.e. hedonic and eudaimonic aspects of well-being: competence, emotional stability, engagement, meaning, optimism, positive emotion, positive relationships, resilience, self-esteem, and vitality. An operational definition of flourishing is developed, based on psychometric analysis of indicators of these ten features, using data from a representative sample of 43,000 Europeans. Application of this definition to respondents from the 23 countries….reveals a four-fold difference in flourishing rate, from 41% in Denmark to less than 10% in Slovakia, Russia and Portugal. There are also striking differences in country profiles across the 10 features. These profiles offer fresh insight into cultural differences in well-being, and indicate which features may provide the most promising targets for policies to improve well-being. Comparison with a life satisfaction measure shows that valuable information would be lost if well-being was measured by life satisfaction. Taken together, our findings reinforce the need to measure subjective well-being as a multi-dimensional construct in future

By including aspects like meaning, self-esteem and vitality, Huppert and So’s definition can be seen to be edging towards criteria of higher order functioning. But while high scoring individuals may have better thoughts and better lives does this mean they are good citizens in the demanding sense I have linked to closing the social aspiration gap (citizens who are engaged, resourceful and pro-social)?

A manageable piece of research might involve an in depth survey which explored the correspondence between measures of well-being/flourishing, higher order thinking/consciousness and good citizenship.

It is as well to embark on research with at least some idea of what might represent powerful results. Assuming there is some pattern, there are three possible outcomes, all of which are interesting:

* The factors are strongly correlated with each other but also with another key characteristic, say, for example level of education. This would call into question the value of an adult development programme as distinct from the existing consensus behind raising educational attainment.

* The factors are unevenly correlated with, say, good and happy citizens not exhibiting higher order thinking or – more intriguingly – higher order thinkers being good citizens but not very satisfied with life. Apart from shedding light on the meaning of life (yes please) such findings would suggest which attributes are most important to target through social and political interventions.

* The factors are strongly correlated with each other but not with another confounding variable. The intriguing question then would be: if people with higher order cognitive capacity are also happier and more virtuous why is this not an unstoppable meme which is leading inexorably to a social tipping point past which we enter a wonderful new world? Removing the barriers could provide the core purpose for an emerging policy programme.

So, two questions: has the research already been done (comprehensively – I know there are bits of evidence, for example, of volunteers having higher well-being)? And if it has not, has anyone out there got about £40k so the RSA can do an initial 1,000 person study? Unquestionably the kind benefactor would immediately be overwhelmed by an immense feeling of well-being.

Come to think of it, maybe that’s the answer for poor old maudlin me. Unfortunately, I’m a bit short right now, will £35 be enough to be going on with?




  • Eugenie Teasley

    Fascinating! This is exactly the framework we’re using for our pilot Star Track programme, encouraging flourishing in young people from less privileged backgrounds. But after working through it, and creating discussion topics/activities around each of the components, we as a team have made some slight adjustments… A video of our approach can be seen here, and a note on our approach and our revisions can be seen on a blog post here:

  • Bernard

    Matthew I always really like your blogs because they get me thinking, I even enjoyed the third in your series on entitlement – although I got the feeling of the three blogs the third was the one you were least sure about. Anyway the only thing I have to say is the difference between thinking and feeling. My understanding of your piece is that by improving the ability to think one might achieve higher consciousness and feel better. But I would put forward that it is by attending to ones inner feelings that one feels better.

    Anyway if the Baggies beating Wolves 5-1 isn’t enough, improving your thinking isn’t going to help.

  • andy bradley

    Thank you for your discipline and care.
    Adult development is reliably happening in the NHS trust I am working with to ‘create and sustain consistently compassionate care’.
    We focus on learning, practising and applying three habits in care giving interactions, team meetings, supervision sessions and recruitment.
    Listening (with a quiet mind)
    Asking (questions that matter)
    Thanking (with sincerity and precision)

    For this I am seen as a radical – one of 50 in Britain. I suspect you will know about the partnership between The Observer and Nesta.

    My vision is to build up capacity in our schools, communities, and hospitals…

    For spacious listening
    For curiosity
    For appreciation

    Maybe these increased capacities will make space for a gentle respectful growth.

    Happy to share more if that would be welcome.

    I am nominated as FRSA – need to get on with that!


  • junius

    In the context of the appalling ravages of austerity on living standards (and the tendency of populations to riot) throughout Europe, the apparent priority placed by governments on ‘subjective’ measures of well-being may be something of a deliberate distraction and consequently produce a rather skewed canvas of variables to analyze for overall well-being, good citizenship and so on.

    I am not sure where you are going with this one, Mr Taylor, or why you want to go there. Still, I am intrigued so will await forthcoming instalments with interest.

  • Francesca

    Are you familiar with the work of Bauer & McAdams on narrative themes of growth? The reason I ask is that they reference a body of work (with which I’m not familiar) which suggests that measures of well-being do not correlate with measures of “ego development”, which is a rough approximation of the kind of complexity of thinking that you describe here. I’ll dig out more if you’re interested.

  • Francesca

    A more general answer is that I don’t think this has been done comprehensively, for a range of reasons, of which the central reason (in my view) is that the kind of flourishing you describe is very hard to define and measure. There are a few studies that look at aspects of this but their results are mixed and it’s hard to aggregate the work because the range of measures is wide.

  • junius

    ‘But while high scoring individuals may have better thoughts and better lives does this mean they are good citizens in the demanding sense I have linked to closing the social aspiration gap’.

    Here is an example of very high scoring individuals in the higher thinking capacity echelons who are definitely not ‘good citizens’ when it comes to closing ‘social aspiration’ gaps. Perhaps these individuals, who no doubt score very highly on their own well-being, would benefit from a policy intervention to better acquaint them with such ‘good citizen’ basics as not ruining the lives of countless others for stellar short term profits.,1518,811295,00.html

  • Tom Brookes FRSA


    Another thought-provoking entry. Something doesn’t quite sit right with me about the notion of a ‘sustained shift in consciousness through a deliberate intervention’ – because wonderfully lofty and idealistic as it sounds, that may be part of the problem with efforts at increasing well being & closing the aspiration gap. We can’t legislate people into living better lives – I know that’s not entirely the thrust of the idea, it’s based on improving those metrics the study discusses – but how else do we propose to intervene, lest it be with law or, say, happiness therapy? Banning things which are bad for our vitality, like alcohol? It sounds a little Zen, but I’m starting to think it’s true that happiness comes from life balance.

    I’d suggest the ‘trick’ to this can come from capitalist ideas and a bit of basic Maslow – if your access to the resources you need to survive isn’t limited by a minimum wage, people would be far more capable of self-actualisation. As for the capitalist bit, some genuine free market choice – if we accept that most of the market differentiation is false: electricity, water, phones, computers, supermarkets – all sell / do the same thing. It is wasteful for one and makes people think autonomy is an iPhone, and progress is your gadgets getting lighter. Lofty oversimplifications I grant you – but I’m in a hurry, I hope the point comes across despite my belligerent writing style!

    I saw a book in Waterstones yesterday, it drew my attention because the title was ‘Liberal Fascism’, which I thought was surely a ridiculous notion, but on reading the synopsis & using the place as a library for 10 minutes, I see his point. Those of us who are academic & serious about improving the world mustn’t fall into the trap of telling people how best to live – that’s how authoritarianism starts. Show people, & let them decide for themselves – use dramatic examples if necessary, but people… you can’t coerce them to live differently and have it stick. It’s almost as basic a principle as trying to get a child to go to bed – if it doesn’t want to, you have a fight on your hands.

    Enough metaphorical philosophy for today. Thanks for keeping up the blogging Matthew.

  • Ian Christie

    Fascinating and intriguing, but I’d sooner see research money spent on deep understanding of cultures of ‘good citizenship’, ie communities where there is a striking level of solidarity, volunteering, civic association etc, and on what these capacities seem to be correlated with.
    The problem with measuring subjective well-being is that it is so variable over short timespans and hard to pin down in quantifiable terms. We need the perspective afforded by quite long stretches of time to assess whether we can say we are thriving or not. Self-reports on short-term wellbeing say little about the resilience, capabiities and virtues needed to sustain a life that one can say is a flourishing one overall despite all the slings and arrows.

  • Matthew Kalman Mezey


    A belated reply…

    Hi Matthew,

    You mention that great ‘Harvard Business Review’ article by Prof Bill Torbert and David Rooke – ‘Seven Transformations of Leadership’ – which applies Jane Loevinger’s model of individual psychological maturation to help us understand how leaders grow.

    (People can read the paper here: – it will help you understand stage labels like ‘Diplomat’ and ‘Strategist’, used below).

    You raises some very pertinent criticisms:

    1. “Research into organisational success factors is renowned for extolling the virtues of successful firms just before they go over a cliff”.

    2. “And – more tellingly – we have to ask why, in a free market, if this style of leadership works, it hasn’t swept all before it.”

    3. “Researchers tend to focus on leaders and as ‘Junius’ pointed out in his comments this tends to assume that leaders’ interests are the same as the led and as society’s as a whole.”

    I got in touch with Prof Torbert to see how he would response to these criticisms. Here are some of the highlights from his reply:

    1. “Research into organisational success factors is renowned for extolling the virtues of successful firms just before they go over a cliff”.

    In relation to his study on the impact of leader developmental stage (aka ‘Action Logic’) on organisational transformation in 10 organisations, he writes “four of the five who did well allegedly because the CEO was operating at the [rare/late stage] ‘Strategist’ or ‘Alchemist’ action-logic continued to do well for the following ten years with the same leadership.”

    “In the fifth case, the success continued through the leader’s retirement and the first two-year-succession by another leader measured as ‘Strategist’. When that leader died suddenly, an interim leader measured at [conventional and not especially complex] ‘Diplomat’ generously stepped in, continued beyond the initial year, and presided over an ethics crisis that injured the organization.”

    Prof Torbert concludes: “What these data suggest to me is that, for enterprises of 1,000 employees or less, the CEO’s action-logic is critical to the organisation’s ability to transform successfully in competitive, rapidly changing environments, unlike the variables cited in many studies of temporary success.”

    2. “And – more tellingly – we have to ask why, in a free market, if this style of leadership works, it hasn’t swept all before it.”

    Prof Torbert says that he showed in his book ‘The Power of Balance – Transforming Self, Society and Scientific Inquiry’ (1991) – with later evidence broadly supporting its conclusions – “that our surveys of the action-logics [ie develomental stage levels] of persons at different managerial levels find 80% of ‘Diplomats’ at levels no later than supervisor or junior management, while they find 80% of ‘Strategists’ in senior management.”

    “Hence, it appears that late action-logics are more successful in this sense in market/organisational terms.”

    “However, there are still few ‘Strategists’ (probably no more than 5%) in senior management overall, and this is both because no call for more ‘Strategists’ has yet been widely sent out and because sending out a call for more ‘Strategists’ can’t generate more ‘Strategists’ immediately. Developmental transformation is a painful giving birth that can only be accomplished voluntarily and with the support of still later action-logic mentors.”

    “Moreover, late action-logic leaders care about much more than market incentives, and balancing their more complex visions and time horizons, with a market pace and lingo that by-and-large represents ‘Expert’ and ‘Achiever’ action-logic blinders against complexity, is by nature a difficult task. I contend that they are attempting to birth a new, third age of society that learns the trick of co-creative, inter-independent, mutually-transforming power.”

    [MKM: Is this 21st century enlightenment?]

    “Put differently, most societal/tribal/institutional/scientific action-logics are antagonistic to the efforts of a late action-logic leader.”

    Prof Torbert mentions hearing a ‘famous British businessman’ estimate that he had to bring in $50 million per year to his company to legitimise his late action-logic initiatives and activities.

    Prof Torbert adds: “we don’t yet have a publicly-available articulation of how to peacefully and co-creatively reconstruct organisations based on liberating disciplines that support both employee development and the organisation’s development to the late action-logics, where efficacy, integrity, mutuality, and sustainability are valued along with wealth. This can only be accomplished via the exercise of mutually-transforming power in preference to unilateral power, in day-to-day, real-time meetings.”

    3. “Researchers tend to focus on leaders and as ‘Junius’ pointed out in his comments this tends to assume that leaders’ interests are the same as the led and as society’s as a whole.”

    Prof Torbert writes: “With regard to whether executives have society’s interests at heart, the evidence to date is that earlier action-logic executives take conventional values for granted, and conventional market values in the Friedman tradition are precisely contrary to taking society’s interests into account unless required to. By contrast, late action-logics interweave personal, organisational, and societal as well as short-, middle-, and long-term.”

    All in all, I think Prof Torbert’s developmental approach comes out of this rather well – and merits our further attention. (But you can probably guess that I think that).

    You also raises a concern over “the massive challenges (and costs) involved in undertaking a major process of adult development and then evaluating its long term impact”.

    The only point I would make here is that it seems likely that a Robert Kegan-style developmental assessment – with proper nationally representative samples – of up to 70-80 nations around the world could be done for little more than a couple of thousand pounds in total…!

    I think such near-global research could well grab the attention of politicians and thought-leaders.

    (This wouldn’t use Kegan’s time-consuming developmental interview method but the inexpensive ‘Values Modes’/Maslow assessment already being used in one or two RSA projects. Prof Kegan shows how Maslow’s stages parallel his own, in a table on page 86 of ‘The Evolving Self’, which you have sitting on your shelf. It would then piggy-back on Prof Shalom Schwartz’s published international values research, to measure 70 or 80 countries in total – without the need for extra surveys. Values Modes have been successfullly data-merged with Schwartz’s global surveys.)

    Of course, the kind of wide-scale developmental training within organisations etc tried in Curacao wouldn’t be particularly cheap – though an RSA version of the ‘Alpha Course’ could be far cheaper, and more scalable.

    It’s interesting to read that Huppert and So paper that the No. 10 people told you about – with its new approach to the assessment of well-being/Happiness/flourishing levels across Europe.
    (Their paper is here: )

    In the comments on this blog post Francesca highlights the wellbeing/flourishing research of Jack Bauer/Dan McAdams – who have been writing about and researching the nexus between (Kegan-esque) higher orders of consciousness and wellbeing (as well as looking at deliberate training interventions).

    (Many thanks to Francesca for sharing 3 of their papers with me!)

    Bauer and McAdams’ research makes clear that ego stage development (including Kegan?) and well-being have rather different natures but that a combination of the two is vital for optimal human development.

    They represent “two separate paths toward contemporary psychological notions of the good life.”

    Bauer/McAdams also talk about that successful Australian ego development 10-week course (metioned in our RSA report ‘Beyond the Big Society’) and about what kind of training programs might work, and what research still remains to be done about training program impact.

    Here’s a quote from Bauer (from a very good chapter I only just remembered that I’ve got, in the recent-ish book ‘The Postconventional Personality – assessing, researching and theorising higher development’):

    “Ego maturity, that is, high capacities and concerns for meaningful growth and integrative human systems, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for optimal or well-rounded development, just as happiness is necessary but not sufficient.”

    Bauer also talks about research that found that ‘self-concordant’ – ie internally motivated – goals predicted later greater goal attainment as well as increases in psychosocial maturity. Might this relate to closing the ‘social aspiration gap’ that you talk about?

    Hope some of this helps.

    Matthew Kalman Mezey

    Matthew Kalman Mezey
    Senior Networks Manager – Online & International

    Tel 020 7451 6825
    Live dashboard webpage showing RSA online activity: (online community)

  • Francesca

    @MKM & MT:

    The other thing you need to take into account here is how your system (organisation, community, society) is set up, and in particular the extent to which it supports or obstructs ego development. I’m not familiar with the theory behind Loevinger’s developmental stages so do not know to what extent she attributes development to qualities of the individual vs the environment. But it seems to me that the action has got to be in understanding what environmental qualities lead to the individual qualities that are sought, and then focusing attention and resources building those environmental qualities. See also Zimbardo quote in MT’s last post.

  • Matthew Kalman Mezey

    Hi Francesca,

    Is anyone setting up organisations or communities or societies and checking the extent to which they support or obstruct ego development….?

    I wish they would. And I think they should do the same with political policies.

    I’m sure the environment plays a huge role – but given the ‘situationist’ cul-de-sac that Mischel took everyone down in 1968 and after, I think we have to be wary. Even Mischel recanted, I think – and all researchers take more balanced approaches to personality and behaviour these days.

    Having said that, you probably know loads more about that stuff than I do…

    Efforts to go with the zeitgeist and instil EQ in people don’t always seem to work out very well. Didn’t they finally do impact research on SEAL, and found it had a negative impact on schoolchildren?

    I’d encourage any such work to include an adult development element in it too, such as outlined in Ellie Drago-Severson’s book ‘Leading Adult Learning: Supporting Adult Development in Our Schools’.


  • Francesca

    I don’t know more about this than you do. I know very little about it and I suspect that not a lot is known. Agree that it’s a both-and not an either-or, and I think you have to think very carefully indeed about research methods and validity here.