Archive | February, 2020

Richard Layard’s Manifesto for Happiness

29 Feb

Layard at RSA

Personal success has become a major object of desire in the 21st century – and the struggle to achieve it can cause us tremendous stress. This was one of the verdicts delivered by the happiness expert Richard Layard in a talk about his latest book, Can we be happier? Evidence and Ethics, which he gave last month at the Royal Society of Arts in London.

(30 January; go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=id2PZbXHPZY  for a video recording).

In the book he offers a forceful elaboration on this theme. People wonder, he says, ‘why – if we are now so much richer than previous generations – we are not a lot happier. The answer is surely the ultra-competitive nature of the dominant culture. The objective it offers is success compared with other people. But, if I succeed, someone else has to fail. So we have set ourselves up for a zero-sum game: however hard we all try to succeed, there can be no increase in overall happiness.’ The narcissistic tendencies which encourage 31% of American school students to believe that they will one day be famous are also to be found ‘in the candidate whom American electors knowingly chose as their president in 2016. As Donald Trump elegantly put it: “Show me someone without an ego and I’ll show you a loser.” ‘  (Can we be happier?

This state of affairs, Layard believes, has come about, in part, through the collapse of religious belief in developed countries: nowadays, the default position of many of us is unadorned egotism. This is a cliché, but none the less true for that. It’s also come about, I might add, through the collapse of many aspects of communitarianism (eg. the prioritisation of public services in government spending plans), and through the rise of an ideology of individualism. 

But Layard has plans for dealing with our selfishness. Our goal, he says, shouldn’t be personal success, but the creation of as much happiness in the world as possible. This sounds desperately altruistic (not to say naïve), but that isn’t necessarily the case. Creating happiness for others, Layard maintains, inevitably means creating it for ourselves: we can’t tackle the rest of the world without working on ourselves at the same time. Or, as Anne Frank put it in her diary, ‘Whoever is happy will make others happy too … How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world’.

Some of us think that improving the world requires wholesale political transformations, rather than just an aptitude for spreading happiness. But Layard wouldn’t necessarily disagree with us: he’s well aware of the problems of poverty and disempowerment. The solutions he offers, however, may simply not be adequate to confront the scale of the world’s angst. Some of his recommendations, in brief, are as follows:

  • Schools should measure the well-being of their students, and teach life-skills.
  • Workers need to be given more control over their work organisations.
  • Mental health is a crucial factor: therapy needs to be much more widely available, especially for children.
  • We need better town planning and public services to tackle, among other things, the great problem of loneliness.

Layard knows that implementing these measures takes money; but he believes that in richer countries (like ours) this should be achievable through a shift in government priorities, rather than a radical redistribution of wealth. As an illustration of the kind of policy changes he has in mind, he points out that in October 2019 the European Council called on its members ‘to put people and their wellbeing at the centre of policy design.’  (https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2019/10/24/economy-of-wellbeing-the-council-adopts-conclusions/ ). New Zealand, Sweden and Iceland are among the countries which now have wellbeing budgets prioritising social and environmental factors rather than GDP (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/iceland-gdp-wellbeing-budget-climate-change-new-zealand-arden-sturgeon-a9232626.html)

‘We’re at the beginning of a happiness revolution,’ Layard breezily announced to his audience at the RSA. If only, I thought. The UK is by no means the only country which is a long way from introducing measures such as these. And in the meantime we’re on the brink of climate disaster.

I’m not convinced that Layard has any real understanding of the philosophical complexities of the happiness question – or indeed any desire to get to grips with them. As far as he is concerned, addressing a list of objective criteria – life expectancy, town planning, generosity and so on – is what’s at issue here. He could be right – the ‘objective list’ may well be the way forward when it comes to spreading happiness (see this blog, 20 October 2016). I don’t feel personally that we can really knock his approach, which is nothing if not pragmatic. It’s just that it could be a lot more radical – and as a nation we’re a million miles from even making a start on the kind of programme which Layard is advocating.

 

 

 

 

 

Carpe diem … or the devil in the clock

3 Feb

another angry clock

 

AS far as I know the acronym FOWT – Fear of Wasting Time – is one I invented myself (this blog, 3 September 2018). But it does seem to encapsulate a common anxiety.

On the Psychology Today website (https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/happiness-in-world/201308/time-anxiety)  U.S. doctor Alex Lickerman writes that of all the things that have made him anxious in life, time is probably the most pervasive. One of the examples he cites is certainly familiar to me. During college vacations – a time when he should have been more relaxed – he found that he was increasingly experiencing feelings of dread. The reason, he realised, was that he’d always wanted to be a writer, and the breaks from a busy college schedule seemed like an excellent opportunity to start writing. But somehow or other he never did.  ‘Which, sadly, often made my vacations feel to me like wasted time.’

Years later, and his time anxiety now seems to him to have become extreme. The conclusion he draws is that it stems not just from a fear of death (that is, of running out of time) but also from a fear of wasting his life. ‘My anxiety about time, it turns out, is really anxiety about meaning. That is, I worry constantly that I’m spending my time on things that are meaningless. Or, perhaps I should say, not meaningful enough’.

It isn’t, Lickerman says, that he believes some outside power has assigned a meaning to his life which he’s striving to fulfil.  ‘It’s that I recognize my well-being is largely determined by the importance of the value I feel I’m creating with my life. I want—I need—what I do with my life to matter.’

This makes absolute sense to me. I can certainly empathise with Lickerman when he tells us that as he grows older he becomes ever more convinced that he doesn’t want his life to seem like one long wasted opportunity. Presumably a lot of people feel the same way – it must be the reason why one of the questions included in the annual UK happiness survey is, ‘Overall, to what extent do you feel that the things you do in your life are worthwhile?’

As mentioned in my earlier blog, immortality probably wouldn’t be the answer, even if we were capable of achieving it.  We’d still be fretting about meaning, and not spending enough time creating it.  The alternative solution offered by Lickerman is to work out what it is you want to do, and then do it.

‘If you also suffer from time anxiety, I’d encourage you to stop and ask yourself if you aren’t really more anxious about what your life means. About what you’re doing with it. And if it turns out you’re worried that what you’re doing isn’t meaningful enough, then figure out what is meaningful enough and start doing that.

If the contribution you’ve decided to spend your life making in fact feels like the most meaningful contribution you could make, and like me you’re anxious because you’re not always spending your time doing it, remind yourself, as I did, that you don’t need to focus every minute of your life on value creation for value creation to have been what your life was all about.’

A bit tough, maybe? Personally, I think right now the advice  I need to be following is the bit that says, ‘Don’t spend every minute of your life on value creation’. I’m on a tight work schedule, and just tearing myself away from my desk can sometimes seem to require a superhuman effort.  As for shopping, preparing a meal, and sitting down to eat it – that’s way beyond what I can manage.

Which is stupid.  But Lickerman does take account of  self-destructive urges like this one. Basically, I think he’s suggesting that once we’ve decided what is meaningful for us and have tried to organise our lives around it, then we can afford to take a bit of time off.

But not too much. ‘Carpe diem,’ as the Roman poet Horace memorably advised us (Odes 1.11). After all, you never do know when your end is coming:

‘While we speak, envious time is fleeing: so pluck the day,
and believe in the future as little as possible.’

W.H.Auden puts it even less positively. Unlike other animals – ‘Fish in the unruffled lakes … Swans in the winter air’ –  we humans are afflicted with self-consciousness. ‘We, till shadowed days are done,/ We must weep and sing/ Duty’s conscious wrong,/ The devil in the clock,/ The goodness carefully worn/ For atonement or for luck.’ (Song). 

People as time-anxious as I am are probably well advised to renounce the devil in the clock and all his works (eg. crammed diaries, windows notifications, email alerts). But for me ‘plucking the day’ is still important. Just so long as it isn’t much more than an eight-hour day, and it leaves me at least a little time to go to Sainsbury’s and buy half-a-dozen eggs and a bag of potatoes for my tea.