Lord Layard on Happiness

Lord Layard spoke at Gresham College recently about whether governments should promote happiness. An interesting – and pretty fundamental – topic: just what is it that governments should aim to do?

Layard first answered his own question – with a strong “yes!” – and then set about explaining his view.

The eighteenth century utilitarians argued that society benefited from the greatest good for the greatest number of people, which lead to large-scale social reforms in the nineteenth century; but in the twentieth century, we have become more sceptical: how do we know if we’re happy? Economists couldn’t measure happiness; instead they measured what they could: and they substituted wealth or income – gross domestic product – for happiness. Growth of the economy has become major objective: the economy has taken precedence. The thing is, there seems to be no relationship between wealth and happiness [pdf]: since 1945, western countries (where most of the research has been done) have got steadily richer (give or take a few recent blips…) but not happier.

There are many things that make us happy: Layard listed personal freedom, democracy, relationships (with family, friends, colleagues and – dare I say it – communities) and employment – things that are fundamental and deep within our natures. These haven’t really changed over time, so their effects on society can be measured.

Intriguingly, relative income seems to be important: absolute wealth doesn’t matter, but earning more than others does: we react to others’ status, and want to do better than them. So absolute growth is not relevant – because everyone benefits. (This depresses me, actually – it really shouldn’t bother me that my neighbours are succeeding too!)

“High trust communities” with a high degree of social capital and equity, as exemplified by the Scandinavian countries, regularly rate high for “happiness”. Layard said that since the middle of the twentieth century Britons had gone from being 60% trusting to only 30%, and that the change of trust in the USA was starker. The cult of individualism – making the most of oneself at the expense of others – seemed to be a likely culprit: this assumes that life is a zero-sum game: that I can only succeed if you fail. (Fortunately, that isn’t how I perceive things!) Layard and Raj Persaud (who chaired the discussion) both said that mental health problems were correlated with inequality.

Layard laid out some policy proposals to promote happiness in society, reckoning that governments weren’t responsible for making their citizens happy, but for providing the environment in which they may be happy (this is a big difference – he wasn’t calling for an increase in “nanny state” regulation, which he saw as reducing happiness since it reduces personal freedom, but creating conditions which would favour happiness: less compelling and more enabling):

  • create a society based on trust – through developing an education system which promoted “life-skills” and values as well as knowledge
  • increase co-operation and reduce competition within society – again through education, and a reduction in management through performance league tables
  • increased support for parents to help create healthy relationships
  • reduced commercial pressures on children by increasing regulation of adverts targeted at hem

All of these things to me say one thing: education. “Education, education, education” was the mantra for the government in England in the 1997 election (education is a devolved power for Scotland), but their focus has been on an increase of measurement of schools, teachers and pupils – an increase in individualism. The purpose and benefits of education may have been forgotten – even the highly educated focus on individual success rather than learning for its own sake.

Layard hoped that through measuring happiness – not its economic proxies – policy-makers would have a tool allowing them to judge their proposals against the criterion of increased happiness.

“The pursuit of happiness” is famously enshrined in the US Declaration of Independence. Nations have instead focused on increasing economic growth as the be-all-and-end-all. Perhaps the current economic failures may allow us to refocus on what is really beneficial for society.

(Edit: after I posted this, I was directed to this article about the Harvard longitudinal study into happiness. It supports much that Layard said.)


2 thoughts on “Lord Layard on Happiness

  1. coughingbear

    I’m interested in the tension between status/relative wealth mattering, and that societies such as Sweden (where as I understand it wealth inequality is much less than in the UK or US) are happier. (And healthier, cf The Spirit Level, Wilkinson/Pickett – I’m not sure how to do a link here.) Are the rich in an unequal society in fact very happy, it’s just that the rest of us are miserable, or is it that the disadvantages (lack of trust, for example) outweigh the status benefits for those that have them?

  2. Patrick Post author

    One of the things that comes out of many of the pieces I linked to is that health is strongly related to happiness – indeed, seems to be a good proxy for happiness. (At the risk of getting caught up in semantics, it is difficult to say exactly what happiness is – except that we can all tell, and apparently our friends know when we’re happy too.)

    I think Francesca would have a lot to say about this – she’s got Layard’s book on the subject (apparently unread!).


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