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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.

 

 

 

 

 

Happy in the centre of your being?

8 Sep

How happy did you feel yesterday?  Conversely, how anxious did you feel yesterday? These two questions, posed by the Office for National Statistics in its annual population survey, are a kind of thermometer employed by the ONS to check the British population’s emotional temperature. We’re not being asked how much pleasure or pain we experienced yesterday, or how many of our desires we managed to satisfy. Just how happy or anxious we felt. 

Dartmoor pic

Most people will have little difficulty in recognising anxiety, but it’s hard to predict how respondents are going to interpret the word ‘happy’. The underlying implication is that feeling happy is the opposite of feeling anxious, and if we respond in that vein, then as Daniel Haybron suggests (‘Happiness and its Discontents’, New York Times 13 April, 2014), we’re telling  the ONS about our emotional well-being. How ‘untroubled, confident, comfortable in our own skins’ were we feeling yesterday? In other words, what was our overall emotional condition? ‘To be happy,’ writes Haybron, ‘is to inhabit a favourable emotional state.’

Pleasure and pain aren’t the issue here. We may have had tremendous fun yesterday – an enjoyable meal, some great sex. Or we may have had some unpleasant experiences, like a bout of toothache, or an argument with a colleague. But did these episodes affect our basic feelings?  Perhaps we felt anxious in spite of the sex, or happy in spite of the toothache. Pleasure and pain aren’t necessarily tied into our emotional well-being, and it’s the latter that the ONS is trying to gauge.

“‘I have a headache.’ Well, don’t say, ‘Oh no!’ ‘I’ve got earache.’  Again, don’t say, ‘Oh no!’ I’m not suggesting that you’re not allowed to groan, just that you shouldn’t groan in the centre of your being.” This is a quote from the Discourses of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus (1.18.19). How you’re feeling in the centre of your being is what interests this thinker, and it’s probably what the ‘happy’ and ‘anxious’ queries are getting at too.

Haybron thinks that it’s worth posing these questions because ‘our emotional conditions may provide the single best indicator of how, in general, our lives are going.’ So the ONS gets some useful data from our answers. But thinking about these things may be good for us as well, for the respondents as well as the questioners. Instead of scrutinising the day’s events, one by one, we should try looking at the bigger picture. Does the way we are living make sense? ‘Often, the signals of the emotional self can set us on the path to better ways of living – and a happiness worthy of the name.’

Considering these questions doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about the ingredients which contribute to our emotional well-being. To think about these we probably need to go back to the theories which I’ve discussed in earlier blogs. According to Haybron, as well as physical needs – food, clothing shelter – we also have needs as emotional beings. ‘Among the most important sources of happiness are: a sense of security, a good outlook, autonomy or control over our lives, good relationships, and skilled and meaningful activity. If you’re unhappy, then there’s a good chance that it’s for want of something on this list.’

Aha, there’s a definite sighting of a theory here – it’s the objective list idea (this blog, 20 October, 2016). I’m keen on this strategy myself, so I’m not going to disagree. If only someone could tell me how to acquire the good outlook, then I might be as happy as Larry. This simile, I discover from the internet, may have its origins in the Cornish and later Australian expression ‘happy as a larrikin’.  So give me a better outlook, and I might be as happy as a rowdy and careless young person who’s always larking about. Or possibly … as happy as someone who’s hugging a menhir on Dartmoor, which is what I’m doing in the picture above. 

 

Objective lists

20 Oct

listAccording to ‘objective list’  theorists, if we itemise the things which contribute to our well-being, we will often find that not all the entries on the list relate to pleasurable experiences or desire-satisfaction.  So neither hedonism nor desire theories work all that well as an account of  the ingredients of individual well-being.

There are problems with lists, of course – particularly with the stipulation ‘objective’. In the words of the contributor to Stanford’s ‘Plato’ entry, how do we decide what should  go on the list?  “It is important that every good should be included.” (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/well-being/#ObjLisThe).  This often seems to come down to a question of who decides what goes on the list.

Most of us can probably come up with some reasonable suggestions. A year ago I heard  Professor Andrew Oswald present a convincing check-list of factors which we need to be aware of in any quest for well-being. These include items such as employment, exercise, and friendship (see this blog, 4 October 2015). Exercise may provide a good example of what objective list theorists are talking about. Some people hate it – they neither enjoy it nor want it. But somebody is telling them that they need it if they’re going to achieve well-being.

Hedonists may protest at this point that objective list theories are elitist. The theories are claiming that certain things are good for people even when those people don’t want them, and don’t derive pleasure from them. We might get round this by arguing that deep down people do enjoy what’s good for them. I don’t really like spinach, for example, but I do enjoy the sensation that I’m eating something that will make me healthy.  So I sort of enjoy eating spinach. In my head I enjoy it.

Another response to the elitist objection is to bite the bullet, and point out that a theory can be both elitist and true.

Even so, objective list theories aren’t necessarily authoritarian. Somebody could have a highly elitist view of what constitutes well-being, while maintaining the liberal view that it’s up to the individual to decide whether he or she wants to engage with it. No nanny state here then, just a set of ideas about what’s good for us, take it or leave it. Nobody’s forcing me to eat spinach, are they? This may be seen as the position adopted by John Stuart Mill.

While desire theories tell us that what we want is what is good for us, objective list theories tell us that what is good for us is what we want. According to Stanford’s ‘Plato’, “what is most at stake (in objective list theories) is the issue of the epistemic adequacy of our beliefs about well-being”. In other words, how do we know what is good for us?  Do we trust others to tell us?

Pleasure? Desire? Objective List? 

7 Jul

Which one provides the key to the Paradise Garden?

image002

So far in this blog I’ve been looking at ideas about happiness more or less as I chanced across them, in plays, novels, happiness surveys, or articles about behavioural science. Random, but quite fruitful. Chekhov in particular has convinced me that personal happiness is an objective we might want to think twice about before dedicating time and effort to pursuing it.  Chekhov sees happiness as what nowadays we might call a bourgeois project, bound up with middle-class materialism and complacency. Chillingly, for him it can only ever succeed if we shut our eyes to what is happening around us. So, like an ancient philosopher, I’ve  been asking myself if the pursuit of happiness can ever be compatible with leading a good life.

To probe this question a bit more more deeply I’ve  been trying to examine happiness in a more systematic – that is to say, more theoretical – fashion. I turned first to a resource which I use quite a lot – ‘Plato’, the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (http://plato.stanford.edu/). According to its entry on ‘happiness’, there are two broad philosophical approaches to the topic. One approach uses happiness as a value term, equating it with well-being or flourishing. The other uses it as a term to describe a psychological condition – the use that features in happiness surveys. This in itself was a revelation to me, as up to now I’ve been using the terms ‘happiness’ and ‘well-being’ more or less interchangeably.

I turned next to the entry on ‘well-being’.  This, ‘Plato’ informs me, relates to how well a person’s life is going for that person in particular. It has what some people refer to as a ‘prudential’ value – it is good for the person, animal or thing that possesses it. This distinguishes it from aesthetic value or moral value, both of which exist in their own right irrespective of who or what possesses them. For example, it may be morally good to give away all your money to the poor, but if you end up living on the street and die of hypothermia, then it won’t turn out to have been very good for you. Conversely, sunshine, water and good soil  may all have prudential value for a plant, but if it happens to be Japanese knotweed, then you may think it has zero aesthetic value and want to banish it from your garden. These examples, I should  add, are my own and not ‘Plato’s’. 

So we’re talking here about what is good for us as individuals. There are three different ideas about what constitutes the essence of personal well-being. The first can be labelled ‘hedonism’. This argues that well-being consists of the greatest balance of pleasure over pain.  Pleasure seems like a good thing to most people – but do we really want to devote all our lives to pursuing it?

The second idea about well-being comes under the heading of ‘desire theories’. According to this, well-being is achieved through the satisfaction of our desires. This may not be the same thing as experiencing pleasure, since what we desire could easily involve us in quite a lot of pain. A simple example would be the wish for better teeth, which sometimes necessitates a fair amount of drilling. Our desires can be subdivided into present desires – what we want now; or comprehensive ones – the things we’d like to acquire over our lifetimes. 

The third idea is referred to as ‘objective list’ – the items which in general are seen as contributing to our well-being. For instance, if people have good teeth they probably don’t ever entertain the idea that their gnashers can give them pleasure, nor could they be said to want them. Even so, good teeth are one aspect of their well-being – something they’ll find out if and when one of their teeth suffers decay. In other words, our well-being may demand things that aren’t pleasurable, and which we don’t know that we want. 

Over the next few weeks I’ll be looking at each of these three theories in turn, courtesy of ‘Plato’.