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Caring about the happiness of others

06 Feb 2012 | Action for Happiness

This article is a transcript of a conversation between Professor Lord Richard Layard, co-founder of Action for Happiness, and Richard Holloway. It was first broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland on 15 January 2012. Listen to a recording of the conversation

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Richard Layard: "I think we ought to agree is that the best state of affairs is one where as many people as possible are happy and as few as possible are miserable, and that therefore the way we should lead our lives is to try and produce as much happiness as we can in the world around us and especially as little misery; I think that should be the central ethic. But it's something that we have to take deep inside ourselves as the basic habit on which we base the way we live. And of course what follows from that is that we are not going to have a happier society if we're each pursuing our own happiness: we're going to have a happier society if we're each pursuing the happiness of other people mainly. The basic source of misery is self and self-absorption and I think we have moved somewhat towards a more self-absorbed society where people have been encouraged to believe that their job in life is to make the most of themselves rather than to contribute to the lives of others, and I think that we've got to get back to a more 'other-oriented' society.

Incidentally, we have founded Action for Happiness, which is a movement of people who are pledging to live in that way. The churches used to perform some of this function of taking people outside themselves, enabling them to form alliances with other people from whom they derived strength. I think we need secular forms within which people can get that strength from others, affirming what they really care about, and from that, taking action to put those principles into effect. We've got a very bad set of values of a very individualistic kind that have crept in over the last 30 years. They've come in partly because there is a vacuum that has been caused by the decline of religion, but we've got to plug that vacuum with a really positive idea that young people can grow up from primary school onwards believing that their job is to create as much happiness as they can in the world around them and as little misery; that's a very powerful idea."

Richard Holloway: "You say that there's a science of happiness, but do you think we can be happy by trying to be happy? Doesn't it come when you're collecting stamps or conducting an orchestra, or climbing a mountain, or helping your next door neighbour? Talk us through this 'science of happiness'."

Richard Layard: "Well one thing which it does show is that one of the surest ways to be happy is to try and contribute to the happiness of other people, rather than just pursuing your own happiness. People who are more concerned with other people's welfare than their own are actually measurably happier. It can also be shown in an experimental sense that if things happen that make people more prone to help others, they do thereby become happier, and this is confirmed also in the neuroscience of the brain.

Of course we have lots more evidence about the factors that make people happy: we know that relationships are the most important set of things, particularly relationships in the family or with close loved ones, relationships in the community (do you feel safe in the place where you live, do you feel warm about the community in which you live)- all of these things are important. But also, there is the inner life, and I think one of the things which has struck me in my research is the huge importance of mental illness. For example, we've got studies where people have been followed right through their life up to their 30s and you try and explain who is in misery and who is happy in their 30s. You find absolutely overwhelming that a person's record of mental illness, indeed right back into their childhood, comes out as the dominant factor affecting a person's happiness, and we have terribly neglected this.

We've neglected developing really good mental habits and strength in our children by focusing so much in our schools on preparation for exams and for success in the 'great race of life', rather than success in a deeper sense: in terms of satisfaction from your lives and what you give to others. And we have not taken advantage of the now very good programmes that are available to help children build resilience, to understand their own emotions, to understand the emotions of others. Of course in the end we need to teach children not only to be good at managing their relations with their fellow children but  to get ready for their relations with the other sex, and to think seriously about what would be involved in having a child."

Richard Holloway: "Isn't there a sense in which we've become an 'instant gratification society' in all sorts of ways. We look for instant fixes; there's an enormous reliance on the chemical approach to mental illness (I know there's a role for it), the kind of celebrity culture kids want to jump immediately into: fame and riches? How do we develop that what you might call a 'social patience' in people; how does your small, quiet voice of sanity get through that babble?"

Richard Layard: "I would put a huge amount of faith and stress in our schools. There's an interesting movement of Values Schools, which I like a lot, in which they pay particular attention to the importance of words, and they have a value for each month; they really concentrate on it and make it real to people. For example they have a month where 'generosity' is the word of the month and then 'honesty' and so on. I think words have more of a power than we give them credit for in our modern, very visual kind of society, and we need to build on that.

But I want to go back to what you said about mental health and chemicals. The great progress in the last 30 years in helping the mentally ill - and I'm talking about at least 1 in 6 of people who are suffering from depression or anxiety conditions - has been in modern, evidence-based psychological therapies, like Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy which we know can 'cure', if that's the right word, at least half of the people who experience these therapies within 4 months. And in the case of these anxiety conditions, people suffering from social phobia, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder, just general anxiety, can be totally transformed; they can get rid of all their symptoms for life after something like 16 hours of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy.

These should be simply routinely available to the whole population, and the ideas behind them should be a basic part of our culture, which would help to prevent these problems as well as help us to cure them. So we want people to feel in control of their lives. We know that a feeling of being in control of your life is one of the most important elements in a happy life, and that includes being in control of your mental life. You can be taught to be in control of your mental life, and in control of your mood: you're not simply a plaything of either fate or of your emotions. You can manage all of that."

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