“When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy.’ They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.” – Unknown
Happiness matters. Yet, for many of us, the pursuit of happiness has remained an elusive goal, despite being the central preoccupation of most of our lives.
At a time when few other Economists were seriously studying Happiness, Lord Richard Layard took up the mantle. An Emeritus Professor of Economics at London School of Economics, founder of the LSE Centre for Economic Performance and current Director of the LSE Centre for Wellbeing, Lord Layard is a leader in the academic field of Happiness research and champions its pursuit as a legitimate aim for societies and their governments. In 1980, he wrote the first empirical research paper on Happiness to offer policy implications. In 2003 he gave a seminal lecture series on Happiness and authored a book on the topic. He has been invited to share his expertise and findings with the OECD, the World Economic Forum (WEF), and from 2012, with the United Nations, as co-editor (with John Helliwell and Jeffrey Sachs) of the UN World Happiness Reports. Although he draws from the work of Psychology, Neuroscience and Philosophy, his approach to the science of Happiness is one of Economics.
TTDOG is honoured to feature Lord Richard Layard, an individual making a difference to the lives of others, with his work.
Happiness: The Overarching Goal
TTDOG interviewed Lord Layard, by telephone, about his work on Happiness.
“The goal of society should be to enable people to lead happy and fulfilling lives. Unless there’s agreement about that as the objective, discussion about what we know about causes of happiness is not that interesting.”
Layard adopted this 18th century enlightenment thinking, after reading Jeremy Bentham at University. In his book, Happiness: Lessons from a new science, Lord Layard states:
“By happiness I mean feeling good – enjoying life and wanting the feeling to be maintained. By unhappiness I mean feeling bad and wishing things were different.”
Layard outlines the Easterlin Paradox, named for USC economist Richard Easterlin: People want to increase their wealth, and societies have operated under the assumption that an increase in wealth must result in an increase in welfare. At any given point in time, the richest in a society will be happier than their poorer counterparts, but surprisingly, across society, any increases in income result in only minimal changes to happiness.
In response to Easterlin’s findings, Economists Ruut Veenhoven and Michael Haggerty published their own analysis, using different data sets and arguing against the paradox. Economists Bestsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers conducted a time series analysis in which they showed that happiness rises with incomes, but at a slower rate. Easterlin maintains his original position and Layard agrees.
The Easterlin paradox, Layard argues, demonstrates that it is our level of income, relative to our peers, that impacts our happiness. In order for person A to be happy, person B must be less well off. Overall, this produces what mathematicians call a ‘zero sum game.’
Layard confirms Easterlin’s findings that over the past 60 years, societal happiness levels have remained constant, despite rising wealth. In any given population, changes in income account for only about 1% of the variance in happiness for rich countries, and, in no country does it account for more than 2%.
Layard also points to what Economists call the ‘declining marginal utility of income.’ TTDOG offers an example of the law of diminishing returns: When a person has nothing, £1 adds happiness because it helps us to obtain our basic needs, but as income rises, each successive £1 provides less and less additional happiness. An extra £1 means more to the poor than it does to the rich.
As Layard notes in his book:
“One thing is clear: Once subsistence income is guaranteed, making people happier is not easy.”
Why should we bother with happiness at all, then?
“I’ve always reasoned in the following sort of way: there are many goods that people like Amartya Sen spell out: health, wealth, freedom, agency, and so on, and happiness. One can ask: ‘Why are these goods good?’
If you ask: ‘Why is wealth good?’ It helps people to feel better about their lives and lead more satisfying lives. Why is health good? Because being sick makes you feel bad, and so on. You can go through all the other things other than happiness, and you can give reasons why they’re important. In many cases, it’s because they make people feel better.
But, ask: ‘Why does it matter if people feel better?’ You can’t give an answer. That is just the overarching thing that is felt to be true. I’m very keen to get across the idea that happiness is the overarching good by which we should judge our societies.
Now that’s not the same as saying that we should judge one person against another by how happy that person’s life is, because it is also very important how they contribute happiness to other people. You have to look at it as a proposition that the best state of life for a group of people is one in which they are enjoying their lives.”
But can Economics, renowned as ‘the dismal science’ really measure and contribute to the pursuit of Happiness?
Happiness is a feeling, and feelings fluctuate constantly. Is there really a way to measure and compare something that changes from moment to moment and is inherently subjective? Lord Layard argues that we should not shy away from feelings because it is how a people feel that really matters and is how we can judge society. Further, he argues that it is possible to do sensible research into the levels and causes of happiness by looking at an individual’s long term average happiness.
Throughout his career, Layard has argued that economic theory and policy must always be based on facts and points to four advances in measurement of life satisfaction:
- A person’s subjective assessment of their own wellbeing can be verified by third party assessment, with a high level of correlation;
- Factors we expect to impact on wellbeing do, in fact, impact on people’s life satisfaction scores;
- Things people say they will do correlate with what they actually do; and
- Research from Neuroscience shows that when a person reports their subjective wellbeing, measurable electrical activity is observed in the centres of the brain associated with the emotions being reported.
Since electrical impulses in the brain are an objective measure, and subjective wellbeing responses coincide with these, then, Layard reasons, the subjective responses must contain “objective content.”
“Economists and psychologists are both looking at the facts. Psychologists have tended to look at small surveys that they’ve done with groups. Economists have tended to look at big population surveys and what both of these enables you to do is to look at the huge variation in any population in the happiness levels of the different people in society and then look at possible causes.
That’s the essential method of research and then of course it can go on to looking at individual lives over time to see what makes the same person become more or less happy as different experiences occur to them.”
Large data sets like those collected by Gallop and the OECD allow Economists to make comparisons both within and across populations. Controlled experiments are also undertaken in Happiness studies.
“Until recently it was not that easy to implement this idea. We now know what produces happy lives. We have a huge amount of evidence that makes it possible to argue that it should be, for policy makers, their goal.
And of course it also enables us to inform people about what would be a good way for them to lead their own lives as individuals and citizens.”
The Pursuit of Happiness:
So what is it that does contribute to happiness and what would be a good way for us to lead our lives in order to be happy?
In the 2012 UN World Happiness Report, Lord Layard argues that there are several internal and external factors which co-vary with income. It is these co-variables, not income alone, that are responsible for changes in levels of happiness.
Broadly speaking, external factors include income, but also include the quality of our relationship to work and our community and the existence of good governance that allows trust and security to flourish. Those countries which emphasised cooperation and mutual respect scored far higher on happiness ratings than did those societies emphasising individualism and competition. Shared values and engagement with religious experience also impacted on subjective wellbeing.
Internal factors such as gender and age, family relationships and educational attainment were predictors of happiness, as was current physical health and one’s history of mental health.
By far, Layard says, the biggest contributors to happiness are our relationships: with family, work and community.
Knowing what causes happiness, is Richard Layard a happy person?
“I think it’s a very good question because sometimes people ask you: ‘Are you always happy?’ Of course a happy person isn’t always happy. A happy person is normally somebody who is trying to do something useful with their life which means that you’re bound to be frustrated sometimes. But, are you a happy person? Yes!
There’s always things which I’m trying to do which I think are useful and exciting and rewarding. I’m very very lucky in having a wonderful wife. We just enjoy being together and doing things together and being on holiday together and all of that. And also, some social life is important. I play tennis twice a week and we play bridge once a fortnight. I wouldn’t be quite the same person at all without socialising and keeping my body and mind fresh.
A good work life, a good family life and a good social life. This is the basis.”
What Then Must We Do?
Following the publication of the first UN World Happiness Report, policy makers in a number of countries have included happiness and wellbeing in policy discussions.
“The most important thing is that each country does attempt to measure the happiness of its people and try to improve it. I think the power of the World Happiness Report is that it has data for every country and that just raises so many questions in people’s minds, they begin to address the issue of ‘Why are we so much lower than somewhere else?’ and ‘Is there something we can do about it?'”
Might a focus on the pursuit of happiness simply provide justification for social injustice, individual and political self interest?
“Altruism is incredibly important. I think that part of the happiness movement, including some of the people associated with Positive Psychology do focus far too heavily on helping the individual to pursue their own happiness, whereas, of course, if we are saying that the goal that we want to see is happiness spread across the population, that is absolutely not the way to bring that about. If each person is seeking their own happiness only, it’s not likely to be a very happy population because we’re so affected by how other people behave toward us.”
Lord Layard argues that society has moved away from times when religious belief or the secular belief in socialism provided the foundation for value systems that included a concept of something greater than oneself and a strong sense of duty to others. Modern society has retained a sense of individual rights but seems to fall short on the other side of the social contract: responsibility to one another.
In the 2016 Update to the World Happiness Report, Layard offers an alternative to the competitive individualism that has replaced faith based values. He proposes the development and promotion of a set of Secular Ethics based on a return to virtue morality and strength of character.
“I very much believe that we should be trying to create as much happiness in the world, in the way that we live, and especially as little misery. This is the basic principle behind all detailed moral rules. But it’s not just moral rules which tell you what you shouldn’t do. It’s particularly moral rules of what you should do. You should be going out and creating happiness. The sins of omission are as important as the sins of commission.”
As for how each individual can make a difference in the world, Layard suggests that each person must assess for themselves how they can best use their skills and personality to bring about these aims. Each of us can do it differently, he says, whether it is through our work, or the way in which we live in our families and communities. He notes that it is important that each individual develop inner strength and “a certain emotional disposition to keep at it.”
TTDOG asked Lord Layard to share with readers how he maintains his own resilience:
“One does have to remember that many people are feeling a lot worse than oneself at any point in time. That’s important. But I think equally important is to remember what you’re trying to do. If you’re trying to create more happiness in the world that’s quite an inspiring thing to do and if things are not going very well at the moment in one way or another, including your own efforts not being very successful, I think you should take a slightly heroic view of these things. You can’t expect to win every time. Feel inspired by whatever you’re trying to do.
I also think that we should all have mechanisms for raising our spirits. When I was in Bhutan I asked one of the high Llamas that I’ve visited 3 times now: ‘If you want to lift your spirits how do you do it?’ So he taught me. You can almost call it a trick but it works extremely well. I’m sure every great tennis player has some device for cheering himself up when things are going badly. We all need internal sort of tricks that we can play with our spirits to lift them and there’s nothing wrong with that at all.”
“Matthieu Ricard talks about ‘unconditional benevolence’ and that we should try to develop within ourselves an unconditional benevolence so that when someone is threatening or doesn’t seem very friendly, we are determined not to react negatively; We are going to reach out to everybody.
Then the question is how can we inspire people to hang on to this principle in all the vicissitudes of life? I think you can’t do it without associating with other people. You just can’t lead a good life in isolation. You have to be associated with other people who have the same values and remind you of something bigger. And this is what I think that churches do. I think most of us, even if we’re not believers, when we go into a church, feel that there’s something bigger than ourselves and we need institutions that keep reminding us of that.”
“That’s why we founded Action for Happiness as an organisation where people would meet in groups to discuss the things which really matter, what they were going to do about them, and get some uplift at regular intervals. And we wrote this course called ‘Exploring What Matters’ to help these groups get started. These groups are now spreading like wildfire in Britain, the Netherlands and Australia and hopefully world wide.”
Action For Happiness is a UK Not for Profit Organisation, founded in 2011 by Lord Richard Layard, Sir Anthony Seldon and Geoff Mulgan. The Director of the organisation is Dr. Mark Williamson and their Patron is His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. The organisation hosts large gatherings in London, with inspiring guest speakers. Over 70,000 members in 170 countries have taken a pledge to create as much happiness in the world as they can, and as little misery.
Lord Layard argues that individual efforts should be met with policy decisions designed to achieve society-wide happiness. But policy decisions involve tradeoffs. How might the goal of happiness be used to adjudicate decisions where, for example, two public goods associated with Happiness – Trust and Security – come into conflict?
“You’ve raised a difficult issue, the balance between security and liberty. I think that’s a difficult trade-off and I think that the only way of thinking about where along that spectrum you should strike the balance is in terms of the overall level of happiness of the population.”
TTDOG pointed out that social injustice could result from actions that achieve a high sum total of happiness in a society, but which comes at a high cost for a vulnerable minority.
“I certainly don’t think we should judge a society by the sum total of happiness. I think we should judge it by the overall distribution of happiness and in particular, how many people are below an acceptable level.
In particular, you have to aim to lift the happiness level of people who would otherwise be at an unacceptably low level. So policy should be concerned with the reduction of misery more than raising the general level of happiness. It should be concerned with both, but an extra special weight should be given to the reduction of misery.
I think that is the basis for establishing minimum standards and basic rights and all the other values within society that governments and legislators have for protecting, as you say, vulnerable groups.”
The 2016 Update to the World Happiness Report contains a chapter arguing for the importance of addressing issues of inequality in the distribution of happiness within society and for adjusting the concept of inequality to be defined by distribution of happiness, not income.
Happiness and Deprivation
When one looks at Lord Richard Layard’s body of work, policy recommendations based on Happiness may seem very far removed from his early work on poverty. Scratch the surface, however, and it would appear that he has come full circle with the application of Happiness to a wider concept of deprivation.
“Obviously we should address all problems and I’ve spent most of my life working on poverty and unemployment but if you’re looking at what particular ways people that are least happy differ from other people, certainly a proportion of the least happy people are poor and a proportion are unemployed. But a hugely greater proportion are people living with a diagnosis: depression or anxiety disorders and that is a fact which has been overlooked when people have developed their concepts of what it is to be deprived.”
“What is deprivation? Deprivation is not just to be deprived of the means of earning a living but it’s to be deprived of the means of enjoying life. We’ve really got to have a much wider concept of deprivation.”
In his work, Lord Layard found that roughly 1 in 6 people in the UK will be diagnosed with a mental illness. Of the diagnosed population, only a meagre 25% receive any form of treatment and for the most part, this is medication, rather than psychological therapies recommended by National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).
“Can we do as much about mental illness as we can do about poverty or unemployment? There we again have something which has changed radically over the last 30 years because we’ve developed evidence based psychological therapies which have good success rates, after quite inexpensive interventions. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is one, but there are others as well.
Typically, after an average of 9 or 10 sessions with CBT costing, let’s say £1,500 pounds, 50% of the people will cease to have symptoms and will continue in the case of anxiety disorders, to be free of them for the rest of their lives. If it’s depression, their relapse rates are at least halved as a result of the treatment.”
Layard has authored several papers on mental ill health and co-authored the book Thrive with David M. Clark. With mental ill health costing the UK £60 billion per year in benefits, lost taxes and greater costs of physical care, Layard argues that spending to help the mentally ill to recover and stay well has a net benefit to the economy.
Some Psychologists criticise Layard’s Economic analysis as glossing over the complexities of mental illness. They argue that depression and anxiety are not discrete conditions that can be separated from environmental factors. Behaviour that presents as depression, for instance may be a normal response to temporary situational factors which resolve naturally, in time. If these cases are diagnosed as clinical depression, they skew success rates by their resolution. Further, critics argue that anxiety and depression cannot be treated in isolation, as they are often linked to other conditions like alcohol and drug misuse.
Layard acknowledges the complexity of mental health diagnosis and treatment and maintains that even a non-targeted programme which makes psychological therapies available to the general population has been shown to be successful. His research resulted in the creation of the Increasing Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme. An initial phase has been successfully completed, and serves as a model for countries around the world. Layard argues for further expansion.
“When you think of what it costs to relieve poverty, you can see that this is a rather cost effective way of raising a person’s wellbeing.”
Layard has also co-authored a report, with Judy Dunn: A Good Childhood: Searching for values in a competitive age. The report is based on several years of research into problems facing children today, and provides more than 2 dozen recommendations for parents and teachers.
TTDOG asked Lord Layard about the role of prevention, particularly in childhood, in helping to avoid the conditions of misery.
“Our first moral duty is of course to help people who are in trouble. It’s absolutely shocking that we don’t have good services available to help every child and young person who has a mental health problem so that’s a number one priority, but then we should be trying to prevent people from getting into that state in the first place.
There’s a range of things that we can do. We have to help parents to bring up happy children. Antenatal classes should include not just how to care for the child physically, but emotionally. We need to be addressing the issue of perinatal depression in mothers and even in fathers. This is a huge problem in terms of its impact on the children as well.”
Layard believes that schools have a vital role to play and argues against educational policy that would produce exam factories. Academic success – like income – is one of the weakest predictors of life satisfaction.
“I think that it’s really important that we change the goals in schools to include higher in their scale of priorities, the happiness of the children, and the skills which they have for leading happy lives both as children and as adults.
Schools should have a proper wellbeing code, and they should be measuring the wellbeing and happiness of their children, and should be looking at how happy the children are in school. There are many ways in which schools can do this, not just in the way they’re organised in their goals and their ethos, but also teaching life skills in a professional way, which can now be done.”
Lord Layard has promoted the 4 year, adolescent life skills programme, Healthy Minds, and his work has led to universal provision of evidence-based psychological therapies in the treatment of children’s mental health, in the UK.
Lord Layard’s vast body of work validates the wisdom of the 5 year old child who understands more than his adult teacher: Our life’s aim really is happiness.
TTDOG asked Lord Layard: For what are you most grateful and where do you find your greatest joy? He recounted those things which contribute to his happiness: a good work life, a good family life and a good social life, and went on to add:
“Music is very important and an awful lot of people probably have many of their deepest experiences through music, either listening to it, singing it to themselves or playing it. I play my clarinet to myself at various times and I find that quite inspiring.”
To learn more about Lord Richard Layard’s work: