The Happiness Revolution
12 Oct 2018 | Richard Layard
Professor Richard Layard, co-founder of Action for
Happiness, describes how the world happiness movement is helping to
change our culture and way of life. This talk was given in London
on 25 September 2018.
> Presentation slides from Richard's talk
It's lovely to be here with you again, and to discuss the future
of our happiness movement. And of course I have to begin with Mark
and his team, and the hundreds of volunteers who make this movement
possible. It's Mark who has created Action for Happiness. He has
been totally brilliant, he's been a fantastic organiser and a real
inspiration to us all. So Mark thank you so much.
We started in 2011. Things have changed hugely since then, and
there is now underway what could be called a world happiness
movement of which Action for Happiness is a central part.
And this movement is already changing the culture and the way of
life of our society.
The two cultures
So let me begin by talking about the two cultures -
the two very different visions of our purpose in life.
On the one side is the culture which is still dominant, which says
that the goal of life is personal success - good
grades, good job, good income and a desirable partner. In this view
the goal of life is to do as well as you can in
competition with others. But there are two problems with
this approach. First, in any competition there are
losers as well as winners - it's a zero-sum game. And
on top of that it's very stressful for everybody,
including the winners. So it's not surprising that we have rising
levels of mental illness, and no increase in happiness compared
with 50 years ago. That's the fruit of the harsh, competitive
culture which is still the dominant culture in our society.
But there is a rival culture, which we all belong
to, which is a gentler culture. It rejects the idea that if
everybody fights for themself you get the best possible outcome. It
says that there are two sides to human nature -
selfish and pro-social, and that our culture should promote the
pro-social side of us. This will produce a
positive-sum outcome, where we help others. They gain
but so do we, because helping others is one of the most satisfying
things you can do.
Of course the idea that we should help others is as
old as humanity itself. In the world's religions, it's a
divine commandment. But from the 18th
Century onwards religious belief has been in retreat, and
the 18th Century Enlightenment offered instead a
secular basis for morality. It said that you should
live your life so as to create the most happiness in the world that
you can. I think that's the most important idea of the modern
age, and it's the principle which all members of Action for
Happiness subscribe to.
It's the best possible defence against
self-absorption which is the root of all misery. It's
the right aim for our children, and it's the goal that should guide
us in our choice of jobs, of partner, and at every turn in our
It is not a hair-shirt philosophy. It says that our
own happiness matters but so does other people's. And it relies on
the psychological fact that making others happy will also in
general make us happy too.
So this principle - the ethical idea embodied in
the happiness principle - has to be the first element in the
happiness revolution that is going on. But you might ask why has it
taken so long to become the mainstream? One reason is that, until
recently, people put too much faith in economic
growth; but they now realise that it has not brought the life of
contentment they expected. The second reason is that only recently
have we had the outburst of new knowledge which makes
it much easier to live according to the happiness principle.
The new knowledge
The first part of this new knowledge is the new psychology - the
discovery (or rediscovery) that we can train our minds
to be happier and more contented. We can learn to observe our
negative thoughts and actions, and cultivate positive thoughts and
actions. This is the fundamental discovery made by cognitive
psychology and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and
positive psychology applies those same principles to
all of us. This truth - the power of mind-training -
has been proven through thousands of scientific trials. But of
course Eastern wisdom already contained many of the same ideas, and
that wisdom is becoming used increasingly in the West. In the last
month 7% of Britons have meditated. So therapy, positive psychology
and meditation are the new personal practices that are sweeping
through our society and improving millions of lives.
But there is also the question of the priorities for public
policy and here too there have been fundamental breakthroughs in
our understanding of what matters most in making us happy.
This slide shows the extraordinary growth in scientific
publications about happiness, which have shot up from virtually
zero at the turn of the century to 3000 in 2017. There are even 200
articles on happiness in economic journals. So we've got these
three elements contributing to the happiness revolution which is
going on around us.
So what does the science say? There's only time to show you
three findings from our recent book on the Origins of
The first shows you how our current situation
affect us. So it asks which factors best explain the huge
variation across people in their levels of happiness.
As you can see, income is one of the least important factors, and
human relationships and mental health are the most important.
But of course our ability to form relationships and our mental
health are largely determined in childhood, so it is
not surprising that our emotional health at 16 is the best
predictor of whether we will enjoy our adult lives. As I hope
educators realise, it matters more than qualifications.
And schools can and do affect it. In fact they affect it more
than all the measured characteristics of the family.
This kind of information makes it possible for
governments to set their priorities so as to maximise
happiness and many governments are getting interested. In 2016 the
OECD asked its member governments to adopt the
wellbeing of the people as the goal of their
governments. All OECD countries are measuring
happiness of their people and more and more are analysing the
impact of their policies in terms not of GDP but of happiness. The
UN hosts the launch of the World Happiness Report,
which I hope you all know about, at our World Happiness Day each
year. There is a happiness day at the World Government
Summit each year in Dubai and there is the wonderful World
Happiness Summit each March in Miami run by Manuel and Karen who
are here with us tonight, and which I hope many of you will go
Action for Happiness
So things are moving. But ultimately what happens both in
politics and in our lives will depend on what
individuals believe and aim at. Which brings me
back to secular ethics and the role of Action for
Happiness, which is where I want to finish.
As you know our patron is the Dalai Lama and here's what he
"We need an approach to ethics that can be equally acceptable to
those with religious faith and those with none. We need a secular
But no strongly-held set of beliefs has ever survived without an
organisation which stands for it. The world needs a
large secular membership organisation of people
committed to building a happier society worldwide. And that is what
Action for Happiness is becoming.
As you know, we were founded 7 years ago and it's amazing how
far we have come. We now have 120,000 members in 180 countries and
we have a million followers on Facebook. One of the heroes in this
story is Vanessa King, who played such a role in
developing our website and also in spreading our word to employers
and managers. So let's give Vanessa a great thank you.
But we always knew that an online movement was not enough. There
also had to be face-to-face contact between people.
It's not easy to lead a good life, and people who go to church go
there to be strengthened and inspired by others who share their
goals. In a secular society we desperately need similar places
where people meet regularly to be inspired and support each other.
So our aim is to have thousands of groups worldwide
where people meet regularly to be enabled to lead happier lives and
create more happiness for others.
The first step in forming these groups is the course called
Exploring What Matters which many of you have taken.
As you know, this has 8 2-hour sessions and we now have the results
of a proper controlled trial on how this affects the
happiness and attitudes of participants. The results are
extraordinary. The average impact of the course on a person's
satisfaction with life is as great as the effect of moving out of
unemployment into a job. Over 95% of participants say the impact of
the course on their lives is positive and they have large measured
increases in their levels of depression and their feelings of
Over 250 of these courses have now been held, with
similar results. But we want thousands more courses to
happen in the next few years. This is a big
organisational effort. We have thousands of volunteers
who would like to run courses, and tens of thousands who want to
take them. But the course-leaders need to be vetted and supported,
and I want to pay tribute to the inspiring work which Alex
Nunn has done in making all this happen. Thank you so much
But even more important than these courses is what happens after
them. Increasingly members of a course are continuing to meet in a
monthly get-together or joining another monthly get-together that's
already happening. Mark and Alex have produced a great pack to help
structure these meetings. So they start with a short period on
mindfulness, followed by reflection and discussion on the theme of
the month, followed (as usual) by discussion of what actions people
will take as a result. For each month there is a new and uplifting
theme, and materials to go with it.
That's the number 1 activity of our movement: the course and the
groups that emerge from it. And the idea is that each member will
carry the word into their daily life including their family life
and their job - whether as teachers, health professionals, working
in business, or whatever. So Action for Happiness also offers great
materials for many of the occupations which people follow. It
offers six excellent courses on how to produce a happier workplace,
as well as great courses for primary schools and for people with
xxx problems of mental health.
So for all these activities we are creating an army of
change-makers for the gentler culture which is essential for a
happier world. Our volunteers are crucial and I especially want to
thank Tracy for her great work in organising them. But we want to
do still better and that's the prime purpose of this meeting. So
when I'm finished I hope we can each of us address two
- How can Action for Happiness as an organisation do
- How can each of us do more to produce a happier society?
Why we will succeed
But, before I finish, I want to say why I believe we will
succeed. There are of course many bad things that are happening.
Social media are increasing people's self-absorption and
aggression; migration is causing rising nationalism; and so on. But
there are also hugely encouraging trends. Let me list a few.
- There has been a total change in people's awareness of mental
health problems. If you look at the Guardian, the number of
articles about mental health has grown since 2010 by a factor of 5,
and articles on happiness or wellbeing have doubled.
- Many more employers are interested in the mental wellbeing of
- Many more individuals are meditating.
- People are more tolerant of diversity.
- There has been a huge fall in crime worldwide - indicative of a
- Most important of all, there has been a huge increase in the
influence of women on society which accounts for many of the other
good things that I've listed.
More and more people are asking, Why are we so stressed when
there's no material reason for it? This stress is man-made. If we
had better values and goals we could reduce our own
stress, and contribute more to the wellbeing of others.
So the vital step is the change of goal. The goal should be the
Action for Happiness pledge - to create as much happiness as we can
in our lives. We need an army of people who make that pledge and
then try to carry it out.
So please get people to join Action for Happiness - your
friends, your family. Let's not be embarrassed to talk about these
things. For this is a movement which can grow and grow. And, if it
does, we shall indeed have a happiness revolution.