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Positivity and the OK line

Positivity and the OK line
The logical starting point in explaining what difference a well-being lens makes is to consider carefully what kinds of positivity it entails. We’re assuming that by showing an interest in the well-being lens, you’re interested in the improvement of human lives. And obviously, all planning is in some sense positive. So, in what way is a well-being promoter distinctively positive? Well, one really useful starting point is to say that a well-being lens invites us to consider and to promote really good lives, not just adequate standards of living.
Imagine a set of steps leading from the worst imaginable state of affairs towards the best imaginable life. And right down at the bottom step, you have the line of mere survival. Below this level, lives are either impossible, people die, or else are so intolerable that life is not worth living. Slightly above this level, you have levels where people live in the face of extreme adversity, extreme poverty, illness. They suffer unfairness, and so on. These various pathological lines remind us of the need for urgent remedial action to remove extreme suffering. If we raise our gaze slightly further up to middle step, you have what we might call an OK line. Now, at this level, people’s lives become at least adequate.
They live moderately well. This is the level at which people’s human rights are upheld. Their health is, well, it’s OK. They have the resources that they need to live with basic dignity. And throughout most of world history, this has been the limit of the aspiration of most planners. People have tried as hard as they could to raise as many of the people as possible towards this level of adequacy. But the trouble with the OK line is it doesn’t really inspire us to lead people towards absolutely wonderful lives. And after all, that’s what we really want from this world. We want to live excellent lives, not merely adequate lives.
So what the well-being lens does is it forces us to raise our gaze above the OK line. So this OK line, this line representing the minimally decent life, provides a very simple metaphor through which we can organise our debates about our moral and our practical priorities. In the field of health, for example, should it be our moral priority to provide sanitation conditions and provide medical systems that enable people to live free from illness? Or should we be aiming higher to try to learn from people who live with really excellent health, who make the best possible use of their health, to live really excellent lives?
In the field of employment in the workplace, is it the duty of employers simply to facilitate minimally acceptable labour standards? Or should they be trying to facilitate really excellent, fun, convivial working environments in which people can actually flourish at work, rather than merely avoid injustice? Looking further down at the poverty line, is it good enough to ask poverty reduction agencies only to aim at the reduction of poverty? Or have we now perhaps reached an era in which it’s possible for the whole of the world’s population to aspire for the first time in human history to live really wonderful lives? Nonetheless, there are plenty of people who have argued strongly against aspirational forms of planning.
According to the doctrine of negative utilitarianism, what governors and planners should be aiming for is to help people meet those minimally decent standards of living. And that’s all. So it’s better perhaps to imagine the positivity inspired by the well-being lens not just as a vertical movement from bad to good, but as a diagonal line that takes us, yes, from bad to good, but also from those instrumental values towards the really good life, towards the ultimate value of happiness and the life well lived. And interestingly, in one of the most famous diagrams ever drawn, Abraham Maslow’s pyramid diagram of the hierarchy of needs, he implied both of these movements.
So he designated, for example, the lower levels of his pyramid as an area in which people pursue the basic needs that they require for a minimally adequate life. And at this level, he was talking about instrumental values, things that are good for the sake of something else. But at the higher level, he designated social goods, like love and belonging, and psychological goods, like self-esteem and self-actualization, that are intrinsically valued, as well as being instrumentally good for other reasons. And at the very pinnacle of his diagram, interestingly, in his later life, he insisted we should recognise self-transcendence, implicitly arguing for social well-being as being the ultimate good.
So in summary, the OK line is a useful metaphor for thinking about aspirational promotion of well-being and how it relates to more modest efforts to uphold minimal standards of any sort. Whether these are about health or livelihoods or peace or social justice, they promote remedial action. They don’t tend to inspire activities that would lead towards really excellent lives. The well-being lens requires us to look well beyond these minimal standards. We want people to be happy and not just to survive. We want people to love each other, to relish each other’s company, not just to recognise one another as human.
And we hope that our coworkers and our fellow citizens will be active and creative participants and enthusiastic collaborators, not just that they will tolerate us and avoid causing us harm. And so please could you share with us your thoughts on whether the organisations and the activities that you’re engaged in are achieving a sensible balance between, on the one hand, attending to pathologies below the OK line and to well-being above the line?

Positivity means looking above the minimal standards of the ‘OK line’. This metaphor is introduced as a way of structuring debates about pathological/remedial approaches versus appreciative learning and aspirational planning.

Pathological and remedial approaches focus on learning about and mitigating or removing harms (e.g. poverty, illness, crime, violence).

Appreciative learning emphasises the benefits of learning about, and savouring, the good aspects of people’s capabilities, lives, and achievements.

Aspirational planning aims to achieve positive results that take us well beyond the mere removal of harms, enabling people to live wonderful not merely adequate lives.

We invite you to comment on this film with your thoughts about whether the organisations and activities that you are engaged in are achieving a balance between attending to pathologies below the ok line and to wellbeing above the line.

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Social Wellbeing

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