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July 2, 2007

Setting Happiness as a National Goal by Richard Layard

The best society is the one where the people are happiest, and the best policy is the one that produces the greatest happiness. So argued great eighteenth century thinkers like Jeremy Bentham, and their admirable views did much to inspire the social reforms of the century that followed. But in many cases it was difficult to apply the principle, because so little was known about what makes people happy. However, the last 30 years have seen a major scientific revolution, and we now know much more about what causes happiness - using the results of psychology and neuroscience.

The first thing we know is that in the last 50 years average happiness has not increased at all in Britain, nor in the United States, despite massive increases in living standards. This is because above an average income of about $19,500 per head, richer societies are no happier than poorer societies. Richer people are, of course, on average happier than poorer people in the same society, but this is largely because people compare their incomes with other people. If everyone gets richer, they feel no better off.

In rich societies, what really affects happiness is the quality of personal relationships. Always at the top comes the quality of family life or other close personal relationships. Then comes work-having it (if you want it) and enjoying the meaning and comradeship it can bring. And then comes relationships with friends and strangers in the street.

Some societies are much happier than others, and Scandinavian countries always come out near the top. This is largely because people trust each other more there than in other places. In Britain and the United States, the number of people who believe that "most other people can be trusted" has halved in the last 50 years, and this reflects the growth of an individualism that makes personal success more important than almost anything else.

These facts call for a revolution in how we think about ourselves and about how the government can help us to flourish. It becomes clear that faster economic growth is not the most important objective for a society. We should not sacrifice human relationships nor peace of mind for the sake of higher living standards, which will be growing anyway.

This insight should affect all areas of public policy. I cannot argue each proposal here, though they are argued in my book on Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. Let me just set down a few proposals rather boldly.

• The most important thing we can affect is the values that our children acquire. Schools should teach children systematically that the secret of a happy life is in giving to other people.
Evidence-based programs exist for doing this and should become a part of the core curriculum.

• The least happy people in our society are people with a record of mental illness. Three-quarters of people with depression or hyper-anxiety receive no treatment, although psychological therapies exist that can cure over half of these terrible cases. Such therapies should be available for free.

• Advertising makes people feel they need more and thus makes them less happy with what they have. One policy model is in Sweden, which bans advertising aimed at children under 12.

• We should stop apologizing about taxes: They discourage us from working even harder and sacrificing further our relationships with family and friends. We should also persist with income redistribution, since an extra pound or dollar gives more happiness to poor people than to the rich. That argument also implies redistribution to the Third World.

We are in a new situation for mankind, where further wealth creation is now unnecessary for survival. If we want to become still happier, we need a new strategy from the one pursued over the last 50 years - we need to put human relationships first.

About the Author
Richard Layard is one of Britain's best-known economists, a member of the House of Lords, and author of Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (Penguin, 2005), which may be ordered from www.wfs.org/bkshelf.htm.

From The Futurist, July - August 2007

Posted by Paul Schumann at July 2, 2007 2:22 PM


Odd that this is worded in terms of happiness. Bentham is considered a founder of utilitarianism (i.e., "the greatest good for the greatest number") as an ethical principle. Perhaps "good" and happiness, satisfaction, etc. were viewed as equivalent?

Posted by: orcmid at July 9, 2007 10:59 AM

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