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I will try to create more happiness and less unhappiness in the world around me

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Answers to sceptics

Richard Layard provides his reaction to some of the sceptical views that have been put forward about the importance of happiness.

Our movement has, as we had hoped, provoked a major debate about the goals for our society. We rejoice in this, and are grateful to all who take the time to set out their views, whether pro or con. But we think that many of the critics' arguments are based on misunderstanding. So here are some of their main questions, together with our comments.

1. Isn’t happiness just a vague, subjective concept?

Of course the causes of happiness differ hugely between people. Some like quiet, some like noise; some like to study, others don't. We get happiness from different things. But we all know what it is to be happy - and to be miserable. It is a matter of our feelings. What matters is how we feel in general, rather than the short-term ups and downs.

If we ask, How is our society doing? We should ask how people feel about their lives. That is the proper measure of the quality of life. What matters ultimately is people's experience of life. Experience is subjective, which is precisely why it matters. Pain is subjective and so is contentment.

We want a society that generates as little physical and mental pain as possible - and as much joy and contentment. Pain can come from different quarters and so can happiness. But we all know how good or bad we feel, and most people have no difficulty in answering questions on this topic.

Even so, many people whom we respect have difficulty with the word happiness because it is subjective. But in our view this reflects an important reason why this movement is needed - that many people resist taking subjective experience seriously enough. Our society would be happier if it took happiness more seriously, and gave it greater priority.

2. Doesn’t talking about happiness encourage selfishness?

If it did, we would never have created Action for Happiness. For, quite obviously, we will not have a happy society if people pursue only their own happiness. Our movement is not about that; it is about producing a society in which everybody is happier, because everybody contributes to the happiness of others.

That's why our members pledge to try to create more happiness in the world and less misery. If enough of us approached life that way, we would see two main results: firstly we would make other people happier and secondly we ourselves would also be happier.

So you might ask why we talk about happiness at all - why not talk about altruism or self-sacrifice or duty? Because we need a clear concept of what we would be doing if we did our duty. The world will be a better place when duty means creating as much happiness as you can, and as little misery. If we all took that view, in our family lives, at work and in our communities, we would have a very different world - and a better one.

3. Doesn’t talk of happiness encourage slackness?

People often object that hard work and sacrifice are needed, if you want to achieve anything. Talk about happiness, they say, and people will seek instant gratification.

That is absurd. Throughout history people have sacrificed current happiness for the sake of their own future happiness or their children's or their society's. We may often need to sacrifice happiness today for a greater good, but the justification has to be greater happiness down the road - and not an everlasting hair-shirt.

4. Isn’t some suffering inevitable or even beneficial?

Of course, some degree of suffering can never be eliminated from human life. But there is something odd about the argument that misery can be good for you because it tells you that you need to change. For the argument assumes that you don't like being unhappy, otherwise it would not make you want to change. And it also assumes that things will be better when you have changed - and are presumably happier.

A more serious argument is that peace of mind requires us to accept the bad things we cannot change, as the Serenity Prayer tells us. So, if we are suffering, we ought not to make things worse by re-iterating to ourselves that the suffering is a tragedy.

However, when it comes to other people, we should react differently. We should consider their suffering a disaster and not, as is sometimes said, a blessed opportunity to show the greatness of their spirit. When we look out at the world, a major goal must be the reduction of suffering.

5. Isn’t happiness a by-product?

Again the same logic applies. If we want to help other people, this means helping them to have happier lives - through what we can do each day, and through the big choices we make about our family, our work and our community. But, when we think about ourselves, it has to be somewhat different. Most of the time we should not be constantly asking, Am I happy? but instead getting on with doing something useful or beautiful that fully engages us.

But there are times when we should analyse ourselves, ask why we are discontented, find a better way. Some of the needed changes may be in our external life (for example our work-life balance or our goals) while others may be internal. There are many ways on this website through which we can manage our inner emotions to achieve greater harmony and joy. John Stuart Mill was wrong when he implied we should never look inside. When we need to, we should.

6. Isn’t there a danger of unthinking optimism ignoring real problems?

When we are managing our own emotions, optimism is not a liability but an asset. Our happiness depends greatly on where we direct our attention. If we count our blessings we are a lot happier than if we focus mainly on the glass half empty.

In some decisions realism is best, especially on financial matters. But in general optimistic people are better able to cope with failure even if they are sometimes more optimistic than realism would justify. Optimism isn't about being unrealistic; it's about choosing to focus on the things which are good and on positive ways forward, rather than getting stuck in issues and negativity.

Also, when we are thinking about other people, impartiality and realism is essential. This movement is not about the ostrich-like optimism of a Dr Pangloss, who thinks the world's problems can be solved by thought and good will, without action. On the contrary. And often the action has to be by governments.

7. Isn’t it dangerous if governments try to create happiness?

There is a common fear that governments trying to promote happiness will become over-bossy - the Nanny State. The fear is misplaced. From a mass of evidence we know the huge importance of freedom as a cause of happiness. The most miserable countries ever recorded were those in the Soviet bloc. No-one who used evidence to promote happiness would go down that route.

Freedom matters in many different ways. There is freedom from arbitrary arrest, freedom to speak your mind and so on. But there is also freedom to choose your job and your lifestyle. It was for this reason that Adam Smith preached the importance of the free market, while at the same time he urged governments to promote happiness. The two are not inconsistent.

Since we live in society, we are deeply affected by how other people behave. As we become richer, this issue assumes ever greater importance. So we now see governments reorienting their interest in the direction of behaviour. This is good. We do not want a society of conformists, but we do want a society where people really care about each other's happiness.

As Thomas Jefferson, hardly a conformist, said: "The care of human life and happiness and not their destruction is the only legitimate object of good government". And, to do the job, governments will have to measure happiness.

8. Surely measuring happiness is a crazy idea?

All British political parties now support the idea. See the ONS consultation on Measuring National Wellbeing. So too does the club of rich nations (the OECD) and many individual foreign governments. Such measurements are not new. Happiness has been measured regularly in the United States since the 1950s, and in the European Union's Eurobarometer it began around 1970. What is new is that these measurements are being made on larger samples and given official status.

That is all to the good because if you measure the wrong thing you do the wrong thing. Governments began measuring the GDP in order to manage unemployment, but they allowed it to become the totem of national success. This simply confirmed the materialistic, consumerist values of the wider society. It is great that this now changing.

The aim of measurement is to see who is languishing and, having found the causes, to adopt policies to improve things. To find this out people are asked questions about how happy they are, how satisfied with their life and its different dimensions, and so on. These measurements get high response rates. But do they mean anything? The answers are, as intended, totally subjective. But they are well-correlated with all kinds of objective measurements.

First they are correlated with brain activity in the relevant areas where positive and negative feelings are experienced. Second, they are correlated with behaviour - people who say they are unhappy at work tend to leave their jobs. Third, what people say is correlated well with obvious causes of happiness and misery, like unemployment. And fourth, what a person says about his happiness is echoed by what his friend say about him - if we could not perceive each other's subjective feelings, human society would be impossible.

9. Isn’t the movement a diversion from the current economic crisis?

Far from it. One reason for the crisis is the mistaken priorities of the past. Bankers argued that deregulation of banking was necessary in order to increase economic growth. This, they argued, was a more important objective than short-term economic stability. The result was that deregulation went ahead, even though it made instability more likely.

If instead we had looked at what really matters to people we would have seen that economic stability is very important and long-term economic growth much less so. A top priority for our society now is to reduce unemployment which is one of the greatest enemies of happiness.

As regards current political issues, our movement includes people from all political parties. It has no hidden agenda. We believe that both individuals and governments should do everything they can to produce more happiness in the world and less misery - and base their actions on the best possible sources of wisdom and knowledge.

Why happiness ?

"We all want to be happy and we want the people we love to be happy. Happiness means feeling good about our lives and wanting to go on feeling that way. Unhappiness means feeling bad and wanting things to change"

Richard Layard

Lord Richard Layard
Founder, Action for Happiness

Dalai Lama

"Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions".

- Dalai Lama