I was pleased to read an editorial encouraging more reason based political process in the September 2012 edition of ‘The Open Society’. At the same time, I was a little perplexed by assertions in the same article, and in an article critiquing Sam Harris’ book “The Moral Landscape”, that would appear to undermine this endeavour. These articles argued that science cannot inform questions around values or wellbeing, though apparently justifying this assertion upon philosophical rather than empirical grounds.

Such assertions are somewhat surprising to me. Clinical psychologists like myself use scientific models of wellbeing and values in our work helping patients on a daily basis. We would argue that due to the empirical basis, the truth claims we make about wellbeing and values are objective facts about the world. A large international ‘Public Policy and Wellbeing’ conference was also held at Victoria University in Wellington in June 2012, to discuss the current state of science on wellbeing, and progress in policy implementation based upon such research. At least those arguing that what we are doing is philosophically impossible, don’t stop us doing it.

Many of the objections to Sam Harris’ book come from a certain philosophical perspective – illustrated by thought experiments such as “Imagine for a moment if we changed the definition to wellbeing of sharks”. Imagine maybe, but why not also “imagine if we changed the definition of physics to voodoo magic”, and “imagine if creationism is true”. The list of such imaginings is potentially endless, and apparently interesting to philosophers. Science however, is based upon empiricism – refining models of what is and what works. Scientists (and people generally) do not entertain every possibility, only the most parsimonious and likely ones, testing them against the evidence of observations. Put succinctly, an important point of Sam Harris’s book is that if you hold to philosophical arguments that undermine a science of wellbeing and values, on the basis that such science cannot be supported by reason alone, then you also undermine all of science, not just wellbeing and values claims. As Hume noted we have no rational grounds for believing reality exists, but we also have no choice but to act as if it does. Stephen Hawking argues in his 2010 book “The Grand Design”, that science short-circuits this philosophical problem (or philosophical fallacy as some might term it) via the use of model dependent realism (see chapter 2: “What is Reality?”).

These philosophical issues are only part of the problem however, and I believe many people probably also find this philosophising somewhat arcane and impenetrable. There are other obstacles to acceptance of a science of wellbeing and values. Perhaps a more important one is that much of the actual science of wellbeing is relatively novel and unfamiliar (2012 was the first New Zealand conference on the subject after all), though it has built upon decades of cumulative empirical research. Nor has this research been effectively disseminated as yet. There are some useful and necessary books, talks, and popular articles that need to be created. In this article I will provide a modest introduction to the science of wellbeing and values, in the hope that it generates some further discussion and interest on the subject. Much material is drawn from other articles I have written for the New Zealand Skeptics Society and the New Zealand College of Clinical Psychologists.

R.A.T. ing Wellbeing?


What is a useful way of understanding wellbeing then? The science is complex, but some generalisations can be made. I often use a model with patients, where I explain human wellbeing as the balancing of three core neural motivational systems, focused respectively upon Resource, Affiliation, and Threat, as shown below. These are evolutionarily old systems, but elaborated in humans (Deci & Ryan, 2000; Gilbert, 2006). The model is of course a simplification, but a useful one.

The resource and competence system motivates us to be involved in activities such as play, learning and work, perceiving the world adaptively, and being able to achieve in it. It is a development of the foraging instinct present in all animals, a drive to acquire knowledge of the environment, food and other resources. Dopamine is an important chemical involved in the physiology of this system. It creates the striving emotions of feeling driven, vital, energetic (and often competitive) that motivate us to pursue these goals.

The affiliation and belonging system motivates us to have sharing and caring relationships with other people, and to care for ourselves also. It is an evolutionary development of the care-giving and fellowship instincts present in other social mammals, encouraging the seeking of social support and co-operation. Oxytocin and opioids are chemicals that create soothing emotions of feeling content, safe and connected, that motivate us to maintain these social bonds.

When successful functioning of resource or affiliation systems are endangered, the threat and autonomy system activates to defend against threats and transcend them, so that free action may continue. It does this using strategies of attacking and overcoming (fight), avoiding and escaping (flight), analysing and problem solving (freeze), or accepting and tolerating the threat (forbearance). Stressing emotions of anger, fear, worry, and sadness motivate these respective responses, and chemicals such as adrenaline, cortisol and serotonin are involved physiologically. Common threats include change, loss, injury, relationship disputes and so on. Stressing emotions are painful, but that is the evolutionary point – they make you pay attention to problems and deal with them.

It is not possible or desirable to completely deactivate the stressing system, because this is necessary for survival. The important factor is whether or not stress response patterns of attack, avoidance, analysis, or acceptance are well matched to the life challenges one faces. Many wellbeing difficulties occur when people become fixed in a mismatched strategy. They might be fighting a lost cause (e.g. unable to accept a loss), avoiding a challenge they must face (e.g. too afraid of making a mistake or feeling an unpleasant emotion or sensation), over analysing an intractable problem (e.g. requiring certainty in an uncertain world), or accepting something that is unacceptable (e.g. like an abusive situation). Intense and chronic activation of the stress system can cause a range of problems, including immune deficiencies, cognitive impairment, damage to limbic brain regions, increased pain, and general maladjustment (Schneiderman, Ironson, & Siegel, 2005). Individuals with a lack of social affiliation also suffer increased pain and health problems (Heinrich & Gullone, 2006). Other common wellbeing problems might occur when people focus too much upon striving for achievement at the expense of affiliation and self-care (e.g. a workaholic) or when they lack sufficiently meaningful competence related activities (e.g. a lack of personal growth). These systems are also vulnerable to chemical hijacking, with drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine intensely stimulating the dopamine system, and ecstasy and heroin stimulating the oxytonic and opiate systems, often leading to dependence and seeking of these drugs rather than more sustainable paths to wellbeing.

We need a balance of all three systems for optimal wellbeing, with evidence suggesting a ratio of 3:1 or greater of striving and soothing versus stressing emotions is an adaptive homeostatic state (Fredrickson & Losada, 2005). While pharmacological intervention has a place in improving wellbeing, teaching adaptive skills and creating adaptive public policy and culture are perhaps the most effective means of nurturing wellbeing.


I.T.E.A.C.H. Values?


Considerable evidence suggests that humankind has attended to the development of a small number of fundamental capacities or valued ‘character strengths’ over the history of our species, that might be described as ultimate, universal and unavoidable. Ultimate, meaning they are suspected to have ancient and pre-human evolutionary origins, and be coded genetically and neurophysiologically (Musek, 2007). Universal, meaning that valuing of such capacities seems to be implicitly embedded in the structure of all languages and cultures studied thus far (Dahlsgaard, Peterson, & Seligman, 2005; Lee & Ashton, 2008). Unavoidable, meaning that a minimum level of development of these character strengths is necessary to survive, and a higher level of development is necessary to thrive (Deary, Weiss, & Batty, 2010).

Researchers debate the best system of classification, but there is still much agreement about the broad divisions and content of these strengths. As an example of differences in interpretation, the currently dominant system of classification combines the the capacity for empathy (kindness) and the capacity for reciprocity (fairness), as a single capacity representing adaptive function of the affiliation system (McCrae & John, 1992). However, other recent research suggests that these two capacities might be more usefully considered separately (Ashton & Lee, 2005). Clinically I find this second model more helpful with patients, and suspect it will prevail longer term, though it is arguably a somewhat academic distinction.

Debate also exists over terminology, and historically some researchers have even insisted upon describing these capacities with numbers rather than words. However, as a clinician I need something more practical and memorable. Therefore with patients I sometimes use the mnemonic I.T.E.A.C.H. and a “guiding star” symbol as a reminder, as well as a question to reflect upon: “What am I teaching myself and others in my life?” This star figure, and a Humanist variant, are shown below.

To briefly summarise these character strengths then, Intelligence is the strength of perceiving and recognising important patterns in the world. Temperance is the strength of achieving goals by moderating and regulating behaviour. Equality is the strength of sharing and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships. Altruism is the central strength as it involves caring for wellbeing, both self and others, so that other values can be pursued. Courage is the strength of tolerating distress and defending against threats. Holism involves growing in character and transcending past limits.

The skills taught by psychologists and other teachers might be regarded as means to develop these character strengths. For example, questioning beliefs and assumptions (e.g. “What’s the evidence? What’s the effect?”), assists development of more intelligent perceptions of the world. Temperance involves developing clarity about values and goals, and recognising and overcoming patterns that lead to unhelpful procrastination, constraint, or impetuousness. Developing mutually beneficial relationships means learning how to be assertive, rather than aggressive and driving people away, or passive and suffering inner resentment. Developing altruism and empathy means a capacity to understand your mind and that of others, and recognising that we all just find ourselves here and aware, trying to make sense of it all, with a difficult brain in the difficult world that forms it. Courage means developing the ability to tolerate distress, often in small steps of ‘graduated exposure’ (e.g. being able to make speeches before successively larger groups of people to build confidence at public speaking). Holism involves “seeking beyond self” and growing in all of these character virtues, and ultimately impacting positively upon a larger circle of influence.

The relationship between altruism and selfishness is important to clarify. As I have just claimed, altruism is central, and involves tending wellbeing of self and others, related to ultimate drive of life which is genetic reproduction. We must first look after ourselves to look after others, but our motivational systems are also predisposed to become increasingly ‘other’ rather than ‘self’ oriented as we grow older. This occurs especially through parenting and ‘allo-parenting’ towards children and grandchildren, but also via a need for contribution or ‘generativity’ in a more general sense (Kenrick, Griskevicius, Neuberg, & Schaller, 2010). Genetic selfishness can and does code for high levels of individual self-sacrifice and altruism. If it did not, none of us would be here given the enormous amount of investment human infants require to reach maturity. Altruism is often nepotistic, meaning we tend to be kinder to those we perceive as ‘our kind’ – but we are still kind. Nepotistic altruism is still altruism. It is also the case that strengths of the heart (e.g. altruism, gratitude) appear to be more strongly associated with wellbeing than strengths of the head (e.g. intelligence, creativity), though curiosity also has a strong positive association with wellbeing. (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2004).

In biology all of this altruism and selfishness might be labeled ‘genetically selfish’, but it is very important to distinguish between ultimate motivations at a genetic level, and the proximate motivations exhibited between individuals. Richard Dawkins also clarified this point in the foreword to the most recent edition of ‘The Selfish Gene’ (2006), noting that a few passages of the first edition conflated ultimate and proximate levels of explanation.

From an empirical perspective then, evidence suggests that the deepest human values are far from arbitrary or freely determined. Rather a rather precisely small set forms the psychological unity of humankind (and unity even with pre-human kind for that matter). Development of these core values is the prerequisite to being able to value anything else at all. Simplified even further – head seeing (I) heart guiding (A), standing together (E), standing strong (C) taking action (T), and growing all the time (H).

Public Policy and Wellbeing


Research has long shown the limitations of attempting to improve wellbeing via purely financial means (Easterlin, 1974), with benefits appearing to plateau once a fairly minimal level of income is reached (approximately $15,000 US dollars). The spectrum of political discourse increasingly recognises the importance of attending to the wellbeing in an empirically supported way, and this includes recognition of many of the factors I have mentioned above.

Two recent books (Acemoglu & Robinson, 2012; Sen, 2009) summarise some of the leading scholarship on this issue, where the ultimate goal is increasing the freedoms of individuals to lead lives they have substantive reason to choose. This work also forms the philosophical basis for the societal wellbeing framework, developed over a decade and newly implemented by the New Zealand Treasury in 2012 (Karacaoglu, 2012). This framework focuses upon five key areas: (1) economic achievement, (2) macroeconomic stability (3) sustainability of the environment, physical and human resources, (4) social trust and affiliation, and (5) equity of resource distribution. Each domain has one to three key measurement indicators, selected for their simplicity, ready availability and international comparability.

While this New Zealand framework is new and will continue to evolve, the move beyond a primary focus upon economic growth is arguably a substantive policy innovation. The framework is assessed independently of political control, but outcomes are dependent upon political policy. It is hoped the framework will create greater public understanding of factors beyond economic growth that are important to everyone’s wellbeing, and bring a more empirically verifiable dimension to politics in New Zealand.




Since 1948, the World Health Organization has defined health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” While there is still much to be learned, scientific understanding of the factors influencing wellbeing has developed a great deal over the intervening decades. The ideas I have presented here are necessarily just a brief introduction to the richness of this research and its application, but hopefully it will encourage further rational inquiry and development of these concepts. I also expect that many Humanists and rationalists will take heart from the fact that there are good empirical, in addition to purely philosophical reasons, to value what we value.


References Note: I regret that many of the references I cite are scientific papers behind publisher paywalls, and not freely accessible to the general public. This is a feature of science that is by no means ideal, but one many are trying to change.

Acemoglu, D., & Robinson, J. A. (2012). Why nations fail: The origins of power, prosperity, and poverty. New York: Crown Business.

Ashton, M. C., & Lee, K. (2005). Honesty-Humility, the Big Five, and the Five-Factor Model. Journal of Personality, 73(5), 1321-1353.

Dahlsgaard, K., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2005). Shared virtue: The convergence of valued human strengths across culture and history. Review of General Psychology, 9(3), 203-213.

Deary, I. J., Weiss, A., & Batty, G. D. (2010). Intelligence and personality as predictors of illness and death: how researchers in differential psychology and chronic disease epidemiology are collaborating to understand and address health inequalities. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 11(2), 53–79.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11(4), 227–268.

Easterlin, R. A. (1974). Does economic growth improve the human lot? Some empirical evidence. In P. A. David & M. W.

Reder (Eds.), Nations and Households in Economic Growth: Essays in Honour of Moses Abramovitz. New York: Academic Press.

Fredrickson, B. L., & Losada, M. F. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. American Psychologist, 60(7), 678–686.

Gilbert, P. (2006). Old and new ideas on the evolution of mind and psychotherapy. Clinical Neuropsychiatry, 3(2), 139-153.

Heinrich, L. M., & Gullone, E. (2006). The clinical significance of loneliness: A literature review. Clinical Psychology Review, 26, 695–718.

Karacaoglu, G. (2012). Improving the living standards of New Zealanders: Moving from a framework to implementation http://www.treasury.govt.nz/publications/media-speeches/speeches/livingstandards

Kenrick, D. T., Griskevicius, V., Neuberg, S. L., & Schaller, M. (2010). Renovating the pyramid of needs: contemporary extensions built upon ancient foundations. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(3), 292-314.

Lee, K., & Ashton, M. C. (2008). The HEXACO personality factors in the indigenous personality lexicons of English and 11 other languages. Journal of Personality, 76(5), 1001-1054.

McCrae, R. R., & John, O. P. (1992). An introduction to the Five-Factor Model and its applications. Journal of Personality, 60(2), 175–215.

Musek, J. (2007). A general factor of personality: Evidence for the Big One in the Five-Factor Model. Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 1213–1233.

Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. P. E. (2004). Strengths of character and well–being. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23(5), 603-619.

Schneiderman, N., Ironson, G., & Siegel, S. D. (2005). Stress and health: Psychological, behavioral, and biological determinants. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 1, 607–628.

Sen, A. (2009). The idea of justice. London: Penguin Books.