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Despite covid-19 can we be happier?

pingpong balls with faces on

On this gloomy and wet Monday morning I am sitting at my computer partly thinking about this week’s blog, but still my thoughts continue to drift towards the wonderful holiday we had in Scotland. We all know how difficult it is to get your feet under the desk on your first day back at work. Still, I need to get to it and get my mind on the future with thoughts of my next holiday for example, and freedom from a world obsessed by COVID-19.

In these gloomy times with restrictions on our freedoms, we need to be thankful for what we have got. Maybe this is a good time for us all to take stock and reflect on what makes us happier anyway. I recently came across an article in the Telegraph by Tom Ough who reported on an interview with Richard Layard author of the book Can We Be Happier? Which may be of some help.

Can We Be Happier? Evidence and Ethics

The book discusses the growing significance of Layard’s field, which provides studies of national happiness that are beginning to influence government policies here and abroad. It’s a fascinating and in some ways heartening read. The book’s main concern is the refashioning of society towards one whose priority is its citizens’ happiness, but it also offers more granular proposals of how individuals can improve their well-being, whether it be in marriage, the workplace, in communities and within ourselves. 

Baron Layard, to give him the title he rarely uses is now in his eighties and is a terrific emissary for these ideas. Layard began crafting policy in the Sixties, when, as teacher-turned-economist, he was senior research officer on the Robbins committee on higher education. The committee’s findings led to a large-scale expansion of British university education, and in the decades that followed, Layard became part of the nascent field of happiness economics. An early landmark in this field was the “Easterlin paradox”, which refers to the finding by the American economist Richard Easterlin, in 1974, that once we’ve reached a certain point of wealth, increased income doesn’t make us any happier.

What does make us happier?

If money is not the answer, then what does make us happier, a question that economists became increasingly interested in during the Nineties. Layard was one of those economists, and his advice contributed to policies such as Tony Blair’s “New Deal”, which sought to reduce unemployment through training, and Gordon Brown’s expansion of psychological therapy.

Thanks in part to the publication in 2005 of Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, Layard, who had been created a Labour life peer four years earlier, became something of a public figure. He has consistently called for governments to pay more attention to their citizens’ self-reported well-being, and this school of thought reached the mainstream with David Cameron’s creation of a national happiness index.

Layard’s view on happiness

Layard believes that societies across the world need a change of culture, moving from stressful competitiveness to a more beneficent wholesomeness.

“Somehow or other,” he says, “we’ve got to get away from feeling that our lives are justified or not by how successful we are compared to other people, which is a zero-sum objective – because for every winner there’s a loser – to one where people are getting their happiness much more from contributing to the well-being of other people. That is a much better way of thinking how to make sense of your life, and a lot of people feel life doesn’t really make sense as a rat race. Even if you’re successful, it’s pretty stressful.”

Layard has a clear vision of what is wrong with public policy, and a clear vision of how it could be better. He recounts research showing that income is much less important to people’s happiness than, their mental health, their physical health, their relationships, their enjoyment of their job and their place in their community. “And yet here we are assuming the best thing to do in Britain is to build physical infrastructure!”

He lauds New Zealand, Scotland and Iceland, three countries to have proclaimed well-being, rather than GDP, the most important measure of their government’s success.

Summary

Layard’s work, and the field of which it is a part, is not without criticism. Some observers believe surveys to be a flawed way of measuring well-being; others consider happiness economics to be paternalistic. There is however a great deal of evidence that money alone will not make us happy. The fundamental question posed by Can We Be Happier, is about as important a question as it gets, whatever its answer. Given the current situation we all find ourselves in, the more we learn about how we can become happier is surely a positive benefit and maybe Layard’s book is worth a read.

Albert Cook BA, MA & Fellow Charted Quality Institute Managing Director Bettal Quality Consultancy

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