Detail from book cover.
Detail from book cover.

The Origins of Happiness, with Richard Layard

Mar 21, 2018

Today we can accurately measure happiness and we know much more about its causes, says Professor Layard. It turns out that getting richer is often not enough for real happiness. So now, instead of just looking at GDP, many policymakers around the world are focusing on how to raise the level of people's satisfaction with their lives, including their mental and physical health, for example.

JOANNE MYERS: Welcome to this podcast, which is coming to you from the Carnegie Council in New York City. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs programs here at the Council.

Today I have the pleasure of speaking with Richard Layard. Lord Richard is a director of the Wellbeing Program at the Center for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics (LSE) and a member of Parliament. He is best known for his contributions to happiness economics. Accordingly, his book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science redefines the simplistic economic link between income and happiness. He is also the co-founder of the Action for Happiness Movement, now counting over 30,000 members.

In both 2012 and 2013, Professor Layard co-edited the United Nations World Happiness reports. He is also a contributor to an interesting new book entitled The Origins of Happiness: The Science of Well-Being Over the Life Course.

Sir Richard, thank you for joining us.

RICHARD LAYARD: It's a great pleasure.

JOANNE MYERS: From the time of Aristotle, the importance of happiness in one’s life has been recognized, and here in the United States the concept of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" is a well-known phrase embedded in the United States Declaration of Independence. The question is: Why the renewed interest in happiness now?

RICHARD LAYARD: I think there are many reasons. I think one reason is that the goal that many individuals had and many countries had of becoming richer doesn't seem to have produced as much satisfaction in life as people expected, and people are wondering why they're feeling even more stressed when they're richer. So I think they’re looking for something that is more satisfying than the present, maybe excessively materialistic, objectives of society that exist.

Second, we now know so much more about what causes happiness than we used to. I always go back to Thomas Jefferson and the time in the early Enlightenment, the 17th- and 18th-century Enlightenment. People thought happiness was the way we should judge whether our society is doing well. Somehow we never really fully applied it, but now we can because we’ve got the science of happiness. I think that is the other reason why this is coming to take root.

I think the first and most important reason that people are not as happy as they feel they ought to be is they are looking for a different way of thinking about their goals in life. Bully for them.

JOANNE MYERS: Yes. So what do you mean then by happiness? You said a different way of looking at their life, so what are the ways that you look at what happiness means?

RICHARD LAYARD: I mean that we should judge our society by how much people are enjoying their lives. Are they feeling good? Are they feeling good about themselves? Are they feeling fulfilled? Are they satisfied?

The actual question that we use for the World Happiness Report is, overall how satisfied are you with your life these days? That seems to get very meaningful answers.

I think that’s a good objective, certainly when we’re thinking about public policy. Policymakers seem to find that a perfectly practicable and sensible thing to be aiming at because, after all, when we are organizing public services and we are trying to give people satisfaction, we often ask questions like, "How satisfied are you with this service or that service?" When we are organizing the whole of our life or thinking about the aim of our society, why wouldn’t we think about satisfaction with everything?

I think it’s a democratic concept, in the sense that we are not saying what we think is important to people, we are letting people themselves feel what is important to them, and are they receiving it. I would like to go back to the 18th-century vision where they say: "As an impartial spectator, we are looking at a society and judging how well it was doing, what would that spectator look to?" I think it is a very strong and a plausible argument that the spectator would say, "Are these people enjoying their lives?"

JOANNE MYERS: What are the measurements that you use? You said that science now tells us a great deal about what actually can be done to increase well-being. You ask them, to begin with, "Are you generally satisfied with your life?" That is a rather general, vague concept. Are there certain measurements that you tick off or encourage them to talk about?

RICHARD LAYARD: Yes, you ask exactly that question, and you offer them a scale running from naught to 10. You tell them that naught means extremely dissatisfied and 10 means extremely satisfied. You let people choose their numbers, and those essentially are the numbers that come in the World Happiness Report. Those are the same numbers that we used in the book you referred to, The Origins of Happiness.

If you wonder whether the answers that people would give to these questions are properly comparable between people, I can tell you three reasons for thinking they are. One, they are quite well-correlated with biological measurements of brain function, the function of the immune system, and so on in individuals.

Secondly, they are quite good at predicting things. They are quite good at predicting, for example, how long a person will live. They are quite good at predicting how people will vote. For example, if you compare countries, in the United States the Trump vote is better predicted by how satisfied people are in the country than by any of the economic variables like income or employment. It is a good predictor. It predicts many other things.

And then, of course, what is much more important, is we can explain it to an important extent, and that enables us to think what we can do to improve it.

JOANNE MYERS: Right. But you are saying for a long time people were led to believe that if they had more money that they would be happier. But you are saying that is not necessarily so. Yet, the Trump voters are unhappy with their economic situation, and they thought in Trump they would find somebody who would address their economic ills.

RICHARD LAYARD: I am saying that is not actually correct, because if we do an equation where we have the Trump vote and we explain it by all those economic things and by how satisfied people are with their lives, it seems that how satisfied they are with their lives is more influential, even holding constant their economic position, than vice versa. I think it is a more general dissatisfaction.

JOANNE MYERS: What were they most dissatisfied with?

RICHARD LAYARD: We don't know, but they are dissatisfied.

I am only mentioning this because people often say, "Are these numbers that people are saying when they answer these questions meaningful?" I’m trying to point out that they are predicting many forms of behavior quite well.

JOANNE MYERS: Can happiness be measured, then?

RICHARD LAYARD: I think that is a way of measuring it. Of course, you can ask lots and lots of questions, and it is perfectly reasonable to ask very many questions.

But I think if we are thinking about the use of happiness as a goal for policymakers, it is going to be more persuasive if we have a very simple question and everybody can understand what the question meant. It is one where we don't have to impose our own weights, we don't say one thing is more important than another. We let the individual decide, so it's a kind of democratic criteria.

I am wanting policymakers to go back to Thomas Jefferson. He said the sole legitimate objective of government is the life and happiness of the people. I think that is absolutely right, and I think this is quite a good democratic way of measuring it.

We can now come nearer to being able to think about what is the "bang for the buck," for example in public expenditure, by saying, "What do we want out of it? What we want out of it is happiness. We can measure it by the satisfaction of the people." That is my approach to policy.

I think there is now a wave of interest in this across the world. I just came back from two big international conferences on happiness, one part of the World Government Summit at Dubai, the other a conference also of policymakers in Miami. There is a great deal of interest a number of countries have incorporated. They tend to use the word "well-being" as either the objective of government policy or a major objective of government policy. That includes my own country. This is the wave of the future.

JOANNE MYERS: Right. Bhutan was the original country that adopted the Gross National Happiness as their central index of government policy. Has any other country used this as the central index of government policy?

RICHARD LAYARD: Yes. The United Arab Emirates has adopted it as the central—the only—guiding principle, and it is implemented from the prime minister's office that policies need to be judged entirely by their impact on the happiness of the people. Our little group has been helping them set up the methodology for this.

JOANNE MYERS: So what do you say to those who would argue that happiness is just a vague, subjective concept?

RICHARD LAYARD: I would say that the subjective life of the individual is the thing for the individual which in the end is the most important, how they feel. It is more important than lots of separate things. What is important is not the things but what we feel about the things.

This is a very longstanding philosophic position going back to the Stoics in ancient Rome and Greece. Of course, it is embodied, in a way, in most of the religions, that the inner life of the person is ultimately more important than the externals; the externals are only important insofar as they affect the inner life of the person.

I think it is absolutely time we began to take the inner life as the ultimate criterion. But it doesn’t mean that, as I've said before, we can't measure it just because it is inner.

We find that the things that people say are well correlated with not only physical measurements on the brain and on the immune system but also well correlated, for example, with what people's friends say. If you ask people's friends, "Do you think this person is happy?" there are very similar answers to what the individuals gives themselves. It is an objective phenomenon.

It has actually always been central to how human beings have interacted with each other. They have always been aware of how happy other people are and how happy they are themselves.

JOANNE MYERS: Some of it is your DNA. Some people have a predisposition for being happy, for seeing the glass half full, and others a disposition to seeing the glass half empty. How can you reconcile these two DNAs, to change people to see things in a different way?

RICHARD LAYARD: I think you are making a very important point, that being happy is easier for some people than others. What is so hopeful nowadays is that we've got good ways in which we can help people who find it more difficult to become happier. There are two huge revolutions that have been going on, one in Western psychology and one in the arrival in the West of much of the wisdom of the East.

In Western psychology, you've got, coming from originally the University of Pennsylvania, the Mood and Anxiety Disorders Treatment and Research Program, the new treatments for depression and for anxiety, which are most commonly embodied in what is called cognitive behavioral therapy. There are other therapies as well which are also effective. These are based on the idea that you can—obviously thoughts affect feelings and feelings affect thoughts—but you can break into that vicious circle, you can turn a vicious circle into a virtuous circle. The way to break in is to break in through the thoughts.

Essentially, that is the same as the message that is coming from mindfulness practices and others that have been imported from the East, from Buddhism mainly but also to some extent from Hinduism: the idea that it is possible to stand aside from your thoughts and not be mastered by your thoughts, that you can separate yourself from your negative thoughts, and of course at the same time you can try to replace them by positive thoughts. These are incredibly important lessons that have been learned by many people over the last 40 or 50 years in the West. I think that is one of the things that is going to bring a better society.

I want to say another thing—and, of course, this is relevant, I believe, to the mission of Carnegie Council, as I’ve just been reading it just now—that it is crucial that, if we think that what matters is the happiness of everybody in the society, that is not going to be advanced if people are mainly pursuing their own happiness. It is mainly going to be advanced by people trying to increase happiness of other people, which will help the other people but also is a major way of making yourself happier.

That is one reason why we founded this movement that you mentioned, called Action for Happiness. This is people who pledge to try to lead their lives so as to create as much happiness in the world and as little misery.

I will say that again because I think it’s such an important concept. It’s what we should be teaching our children. It should be the basis for the culture of the 21st century that everybody should be trying to create as much happiness in the world as they can, particularly now.

We have 100,000 members who made that pledge and a million followers. But, of course, people can only carry out a pledge like that by a deep understanding of what is involved in it.

That is why what we are doing now is forming groups of people. Worldwide, we are aiming to have tens of thousands. We’ve got 100 groups so far who begin their existence by taking a course, which is called Exploring What Matters, where people reach some common understanding of what this way of thinking about how you should live amounts to. Then these groups continue to meet.

I think that it really is important in our society that we have a system of ethics that can be shared by people without a faith as well as people with a faith and, therefore, based on human. That is why it is focused on generating the greatest happiness that is possible in the society.

JOANNE MYERS: We at the Carnegie Council certainly would agree with that.

Before we conclude, I would just like to know what was the most surprising discovery in doing your research? In other words, what factors bring lasting happiness?

RICHARD LAYARD: Thank you for asking.

The most surprising discovery followed on a rather less amazing one. We are looking at what in childhood predicts whether the resulting adult has a happier life. What we showed was that it wasn’t mainly their academic achievements, how well they did in schoolwork, but it was their emotional health as a child.

But then we asked, "What determines the emotional health of a child?" We were astonished to find that schools make as much difference to the emotional health of their children as they do to their academic achievement. They may not be aware of it, but they can have and do have a huge effect. That then tells us that what rules need to do, of course, is to pay much more attention to that side of child development and have much more conscious policies for raising the emotional well-being of their children.

So we have been developing evidence-based programs for life skills to go right through the whole of school life. I think many people have been trying to do this positive psychology and have been offering that also. This is an important educational revolution that has to take place.

JOANNE MYERS: Professor Layard, I would like to thank you for helping us to think and to rethink what our priorities should be. You are raising the right questions. I think we should all strive for a more ethical humanity where we can be concerned about the other instead of about ourselves. Thank you once again.

RICHARD LAYARD: If I could thank you and all your listeners and say please go into the Web and look up Acton for Happiness. I hope it will give you joy and purpose. Thank you.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you very much.

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