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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.