Is a happier society possible?
11 Apr 2011 | Richard Layard
This is the transcript of a lecture given by Lord
Richard Layard on 10 March 2011 co-hosted by the Joseph Rowntree
Foundation and the University of York. Lord Layard explores
four critical areas of our lives that can be optimised to increase
happiness: income, human relationships, altruism and work. He goes
on to discuss Action for Happiness, which launches on 12 April 2011
and aims to encourage a mass movement of people pursuing a better
way of life.
You can also download a copy of this text and listen to an audio recording.
H.L. Mencken defined Puritanism as 'the haunting fear that
someone, somewhere may be happy'. I hope there are no Puritans
here, because I have always believed that the best society is the
one in which there is the most happiness and, above all, the least
misery. It's a very simple idea that was widely accepted in the
18th-century Enlightenment and in the decades that followed.
Unfortunately it's been much less accepted in the 21st century.That
has done us no good and it is not perhaps surprising that measured
happiness in Britain and the U.S. is no higher now than it was in
If we do want a happier society, the first thing we have to do
is to reassert the
Enlightenment ideal - to agree that happiness is the objective for
our society. But that has to translate into individual behaviour,
which means that everybody has to make that their personal
objective in life. In other words if we ask the question "how
should we live?" the answer is: we should each aim to produce the
most happiness we can in the world around us, and the least
That is the pledge that members of the new movement called
'Action for Happiness' will make - that they will aim to create
more happiness in the world around them and less misery. But then
of course there is the question of how we do that, in our own lives
and through the kinds of policies and institutions that we
That depends on what determines happiness. In my view the
central aim of social science should be to determine the conditions
that produce happiness and how these conditions can be generated.
But we do already know a good deal, as a result of the huge
burgeoning of 'happiness studies' in the last 30 years. So let me
review some of what we know and what follows from it. I want to
- human relationships;
- work; and
- our movement.
I will begin with income, because I suppose the dominant idea in
post-war culture has been that if we could all become richer, that
would be the best measure of progress. And it is certainly true
that in every single society that has ever been studied, richer
people are happier than poorer people. It is also always found that
extra income does more for a poor person than for a rich person,
and the impact of extra income is roughly inversely proportional to
the income the person already has. So if you focus on income you
would want to increase average income and to reduce the inequality.
That would just about sum it up.
But the shocking finding is that over time in rich societies
like ours, the huge increase in average income since the 1950s
has not been accompanied with any increase in average happiness
 - not even in the golden age up to the 1970s when
inequality was actually falling. We know the reason for this:
what people in rich countries care about is not their absolute
income but their income relative to other people. Although
some economists deny this, their results depend heavily on
evidence from poor and middle-income countries. 
In more advanced countries, we have abundant evidence that
relative income is what people care about. And it is of course
impossible to raise the average level of relative income. If one
person goes up, someone else has to go down. It is a zero-sum
game. So, at the level of society, raising average income is a
fruitless goal. It will happen anyway but we should not sacrifice
to that goal other things that really could produce a happier
Those things are all to do with the quality of our human
relationships - in the community, in the family, and at work.
In our external world the most important single factor affecting
our happiness is whether we feel other people are on our side.
Not a bad measure of this is a question that has been asked
in many countries over many years: Do you think other people
can be trusted? Only 30 per cent of people in the U.K. and
U.S. think they can, compared with 60 per cent some 40 years ago.
But in Scandinavia the level is still over 60 per cent, and
these are the happiest countries too. We are suffering from a
philosophy of excessive individualism, in which many people are
encouraged to believe that their proper goal in life is to do
the best they can for themselves rather than contribute to
the lives of others. Some years ago, two dreadful placards
went up in the Department for Education, eight storeys high,
with the words 'Getting ahead'. This is quite the wrong message to
send to our children.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation did a wonderful report a few
years ago on our main social ills and identified excessive
individualism as one of the worst.  Quite right. In our
Good Childhood Enquiry we reached the same conclusion.
 And it has got a lot worse. In the 1960s, two-thirds of
U.S. students said it was very important to develop a
meaningful philosophy of life and only 45 per cent said it
was important to be well-off. Now the numbers are the other
But none of this is inevitable because, as I have said, some
societies are much more trusting than others. As Richard Wilkinson
and Kate Pickett have shown, the trusting societies are also more
equal, and our societies in Britain and the U.S. have become less
equal.  I do not think that more inequality is causing
lower trust or vice versa. I think that both are reflecting the
growth of individualism.
But can we reverse this? The first point is that social trends
can be reversed. Britain in the 18th century was increasingly
anarchic and licentious but this trend was sharply reversed in the
early 19th century, which ushered in an era of much more social
We also know that there are important elements in our nature
which we can build on to produce a more altruistic society. Clearly
we have a dual nature. On the one side is the strongly egotistic
nature based on the struggle for survival and to be the alpha male
or female. On the other side there is the biological basis of
Here are two interesting experiments. The first is about
empathy.  Two friends (A and B) are put in a laboratory and
Person A's brain is wired up. First he is given an electric shock
on his hand and then his friend is given the same shock. In each
case, person A's brain is activated in the same brain area.
Fellow-feeling is a real feeling based on identification with the
The second experiment is about good and bad behaviour.
 People play a game which tests if they
are trustworthy by whether they share their money with another
person. When a person behaves well, his brain is activated in
exactly the same place as when he receives some other reward like
This is a crucial experiment for the theory of morals. For it
shows that virtue can be its own reward. As they say, if you
want to feel good, do good. That of course was the basis of
Aristotle's theory of good behaviour - that good behaviour has
to be learned as a habit and then the virtuous person
will experience pleasure when he behaves virtuously (not
always of course, but generally so). In my view that should be
the foundation of moral education rather than the dreadful Kantian
doctrine that you cannot do your duty from habit. The revival
of altruism in the 21st century cannot be based on the
hair shirt, but it can be based on a warm-hearted
understanding of human psychology.
This includes the truism that you are unlikely to feel
compassion for others unless you also have compassion for yourself.
We have plenty of experimental evidence that both of these can be
This is not the time for my lecture on mental health. But I
strongly believe that we have got to teach compassion in school -
to yourself and to others. And that we have to give much more
priority to mental health services for children and adults in the
However, I do want to say something about work which is actually
my professional subject of study. Obviously it is important to have
work if you want it. But the quality of work is also crucial. One
of the most depressing things I know is this: that when people make
a diary of the previous day, recording how happy they were in each
episode, they were least happy when spending time with their
boss. What a dreadful situation.
We know from psychology that the three main factors which make
for satisfying work are:
- Mastery. Doing work which is challenging but which you can
- Control. Having enough discretion in how you do the job.
- Purpose. The feeling that what you do is worthwhile and part of
some wider whole. 
Yet so many forms of management cut right across that basic
desire for meaning and purpose in your work. Much of this is the
fault of fellow economists employed in U.S. business schools. They
have argued in favour of the closest possible relationship between
pay and performance. For very routine and individual tasks this can
work, but for tasks involving creativity and teamwork, it is very
doubtful if it works and it certainly does not generate job
There are many experiments where two groups were asked to
undertake interesting tasks and the group which was paid for
successful performance did worse. One of these experiments
may particularly interest this very idealistic audience.
 People coming to enquire at a blood collection
centre were divided into two groups, one of which was told
they would be paid. Only 30 per cent of that group decided to
give blood, compared with 50 per cent of those who were not paid.
Of course, if it is a job, you need to be paid a reasonable
amount, and you need to be promoted on merit. But you do not
need to be paid precisely for what you do.
Let me tell you about Zappos, the largest online shoe shop,
founded by Tony Hsieh. The main aim of the company is the happiness
of its customers and its workers. There is no performance related
pay, and no targets. But it does have 10 principles - a code of
honour. And people are only recruited if they subscribe to them.
After their probationary period, those who are successful are
offered a $2,000 bonus to quit. Hardly anyone takes it up. The
business has been so successful it has been bought by Amazon for
over $1 billion.
So the time is ready for radical cultural change, away from a
culture of selfishness and materialism, which fails to satisfy,
towards one where we care more for each other's happiness - and
make that the guiding raison d'être for our lives. That is why we
are launching Action for Happiness. How will it work?
Action for Happiness
We want it to be a mass movement of people pursuing a better way
of life. Many people have the right ideas already, but can get
strength from joining with others. Its greatest strength will be
through groups forming to improve their lives and the lives of
others. But there will also be thousands of individuals who
act on their own.
When you go into the website (www.actionforhappiness.org), you
will find ten keys to happier living, and linked to each one
is 50 actions you can take on your own or together with others to
produce more happiness. For each action you will find
scientific evidence and useful materials. One central feature
- and the number one action - is taking the pledge to make the
happiness of others a core purpose in our lives.
The movement is launching on 12 April 2011, but without trying
we already have a membership of 4,000 people from 60
countries. That shows the hunger that people have for a better way
of living. They feel that a better way of life must be
possible. And the scientific evidence shows they are right.
 Layard, R., Mayraz, G. and Nickell, S. (2010), 'Does
Relative Income Matter? Are the Critics Right?' in E. Diener, J.
Helliwell and D. Kahneman (eds) International Differences in
Well-Being. New York: Oxford University Press.
 As above.
 Layard, R. (2010) Happiness: Lessons from a new science.
London: Penguin (second edition), p.80.
 Thake, S. (2008) Individualism and consumerism: reframing
the debate. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
 Layard, R. and Dunn, J. (2009) A Good Childhood: Searching
for Values in a Competitive Age. London: Penguin.
 Wilkinson, R. and Pickett, K. (2009) The Spirit Level: Why
More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. London: Allen
 Singer, T. et al. (2004) 'Empathy for Pain Involves the
Affective but not Sensory Components of Pain', Science, Vol.
303, pp. 1157-62.
 Rilling, J.K. et al. (2002) 'A Neural Basis for Social
Cooperation', Neuron, Vol. 35, pp. 395-405.
 Gilbert, P. (2009) The compassionate mind. London: Constable
& Robinson Ltd.
 Pink, D. (2009) Drive: The Surprising Truth About What
Motivates Us. Riverhead.
 As above.
Do things for others, At work, Family & friends, Be a Happiness Activist