Being on jury duty this past three weeks has given me a chance to get through a small pile of reading material, including this book, ‘Happiness: Lessons from a new science’, by Richard Layard. It came out three or four years ago, and has been very influential, cropping up regularly in bibliographies and politician’s speeches.
In a nutshell, ‘Happiness’ is a summary of the scientific study of happiness. It is possible to measure it, argues Layard, and we can work out what causes more of it and less of it. Thus equipped, we should structure our society around those things that make us happy. “Here we are as a society,” writes Layard, “no happier than fifty years ago. Yet every group in society is richer, and most are healthier. In this new land of opportunity, what are we not doing that we could?”
There is some brilliant cultural analysis here, as Layard picks apart what drives our culture. Individualism, status, competition, all things proven to make us unhappy, but pursued nonetheless, written into policy in the form of performance related pay or schools rankings. For this, Layard blames the unholy synergy between Adam Smith and Charles Darwin: “From Darwin’s theory of evolution many people now conclude that to survive you have to be selfish and to look after No. 1: if you don’t, you get taken for a ride. From Adam Smith they also learn, conveniently, that even if everyone is completely selfish, thing will actually turn out for the best: free contracts between independent agents will produce the greatest possible happiness.”
Under the guidance of this free market philosophy, our current society revolves around the idea of growth, of having more. As Layard points out, we are no happier now than we were fifty years ago, even though our incomes have doubled. Although being poor can be miserable, and an increase in income can lead to an increase in happiness, that ceases to be true once our basic needs are met. In the developed world, our needs were some time ago. Our continued pursuit of economic growth may now be working against our dreams of happiness.
Instead, we should unite around a new vision of the common good, using Jeremy Bentham’s principle of the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. So, we should monitor happiness as well as, or instead of, GDP. We should ease inequality, and help the poor. Since mental illness is one of the leading causes of unhappiness, we should do everything we can to prevent it. Family and relationships are the most important factor in happiness, so flexible working, shorter working hours, and better child care are important. Community should be encouraged, so anything that brings people together should be supported or even subsidised. Advertising to children should be banned. On a personal level, avoid comparing yourself with others. Appreciate what you have. Seek to ‘do good’, rather than ‘do well’.
There’s a lot to cheer about in these recommendations, and it has been great to see politicians adopting the ideas. David Cameron has certainly been inspired. A move towards a more compassionate society, towards greater community, better work and more stable families is a vision we could all agree on, and Layard has done us a great service putting the scientific case for something that we can all feel intuitively.
However, I do have a vague sense of disquiet about the extent to which happiness can be a guiding ethos. There is surely more to a good society than the pursuit of happiness for all. Surely there are rights and wrongs – gross inequality is not wrong because it makes us unhappy, but because it is morally unjustifiable. I’m not sure that happiness is a sufficient guiding principle for a society.
The greatest happiness for the greatest number of people also leaves large loopholes. Shopping for bargain fashion items at Primark, for example, makes many people very happy. Since Primark has many more customers than it has sweatshop workers, it must cause more happiness in the world than sadness. According to a cost-benefit analysis of happiness, Primark is therefore a good thing.
Those considerations aside, ‘Happiness’ is a great book, full of insights into human nature and the consumer culture.