In Pursuit of Happiness

April 1, 2010 — Leave a comment

In Pursuit of Happiness Happiness: Lessons from a New Science by Richard Layard. Penguin Press. 2005. 310 pages. $25.95.

The notion that we should dedicate ourselves to happiness, both our own and that of others, might seem self-evident. The United States Declaration of Independence lists the pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right. But for all this pursuing of happiness, are we any closer to attaining it? The question itself poses a novel dilemma. How do we, either as individuals or as a society, quantify our level of happiness? If a scientific measure were available, what might it tell us? What might we do about it? These are just a few of the questions asked by British Parliament member Richard Layard in Happiness: Lessons from a New Science.

In thorough and thought-provoking detail, Layard makes the case that, for all their technological ingenuity and economic resourcefulness, the people of the United States and Britain are not measurably happier now than they were 50 years ago. Rates of alcoholism, depression, and crime have all increased since World War II, even as living standards in both countries have more than doubled.

Where humans have made progress is in our understanding of what happiness is, how it is caused, and how it is preserved. “Happiness is an objective dimension of all our experience and can be measured,” Layard argues. “We can ask people how they feel. We can ask their friends or observers for an independent assessment. Also, remarkably, we can now take measurements of the electrical activity in the relevant parts of a person’s brain [via EEG]. All of these different measurements give consistent answers about a person’s happiness.” Layard provides an annotated history of these experiments.

According to Layard, human beings are gratified by several sets of seemingly opposed urges. Security makes us happy, but we also possess a deeply ingrained urge to push beyond our comfort zones and engage the world around us. This, in turn, puts our security in jeopardy. Money does buy happiness. Wealth, it turns out, does not: Extra income improves our mood less and less in direct proportion to the amount of money we acquire, Layard notes. Ten dollars to an indigent individual buys a great deal of happiness. For an affluent person, $10 buys virtually nothing.

One of the great joys of Layard’s book is that it is full of similarly fascinating findings. For example, he observes that human beings hate loss about twice as much as we enjoy gain. Researchers have found that an income loss of $100 is twice as traumatic as gaining $100 is satisfying, that a direct correlation exists between happiness and health, and that public policy can indeed help increase a nation’s level of happiness.

These research findings, Layard argues, oblige us to strive for a happier society. “Achieving the greatest happiness is the right guide to public policy,” he writes. “It is also the proper criterion for private ethical decisions. When I am wondering what to do, I should seek the greatest happiness of everyone affected, each person’s happiness counting equally.”

Fostering such a society would be no frivolous undertaking, according to Layard. He lays out a step-by-step process routed in science and public-policy study-a plan that would include reorganizing the tax code (he favors a maximum wage), promoting family-friendly work policies, and limiting commercial advertising to children. Some of these recommendations are quite mundane; others are delightfully polemical. For instance, Layard advocates abandoning much of modern economics. Gross National Product, he argues, is a poor measurement for a nation’s welfare. “The real problems with economics,” he writes, “arise because economists have no interest in how happy people are and focus instead on their combined purchasing power, assuming their preferences are constant over time. Instead, we need a new economics that collaborates with the new psychology.”

Perhaps the most provocative aspect of Layard’s argument is how logical it is from beginning to end. He argues not so much for a paradigm shift as for a drastic paradigm clarification. If we, as a society, were to rededicate ourselves to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the result would be a net gain in both our material and emotional assets.

“The original idea was excellent,” Layard says of economics. “In making decisions, we ought to compare the benefits and costs. But these benefits and costs ought to be measured in terms of happiness. Using money is no adequate substitute.” Nurturing happiness across society would first and foremost require using science to measure a phenomenon that we have always known has existed, then applying that data in the most useful way possible, both individually and as a matter of public policy. To do so, Layard argues, would be to fulfill the original promise of both science and economics. “The secret is compassion towards oneself and others, and the principle of the Greatest Happiness is essentially the expression of that ideal. Perhaps these two ideas could be the cornerstones of our future culture.”

-Patrick Tucker
Originally published in THE FUTURIST, January-February 2006

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