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Coronavirus and the Happiness of the People

20 Mar 2020 | Richard Layard

On International Day of Happiness (20 March), Professor Richard Layard, co-editor of the World Happiness Report, shares his thoughts on the Coronavirus crisis.

Idoh 2020

We live in very difficult times. All of us are exposed to a common threat and how we each fare will depend largely on what other people do. That is of course always true, though we often forget it.

Today is the International Day of Happiness and we are publishing the 2020 World Happiness Report. The report demonstrates that our happiness largely depends on the support of others, their generosity and their disinterested goodwill. But in the coming months this will be truer than ever. So I want to make just two points.

First, now is the time to rebuild our concern for others - both during the crisis and after it. During the crisis we need millions to self-isolate, not just to protect themselves but to protect others whom they might otherwise infect. At the same time, people who are healthy will need succour to support the frail - to help with, shopping, messages of support, and the like. And when children are confined to home while their parents work, millions of volunteers will need to care for them. Above all, health care workers will have to go on risking their lives on behalf of others. 

These are the kinds of actions people took all the time during World War II, and the culture of fellow feeling that developed then lasted for some decades after the War. We should hope and expect that the same will happen after this war against the virus. 

I believe we are moving into a very different culture in which comradeship and cooperation are valued much more in comparison with interpersonal competition.

And this can also be the moment when governments put the well-being of their people as their central goal rather than GDP.

Europe and the USA have already had more deaths than the Far East where the virus originated and where the population is much larger. Why was the West so slow to act? It was mainly because we did not want to disrupt the GDP. But as Thomas Jefferson said, "the care of human life and happiness is the only legitimate object of good government". It is time for every government worldwide to adopt these as their overarching objectives. 

Finally let me say a word about how we can care for ourselves during this crisis. It will take some real wisdom to handle the anxiety and frustration we will all experience - and some will suffer much more than this if they lose loved-ones or if their government fails to protect their livelihoods.

Each of us will choose our own way to handle our state of mind. Personally I will use the excellent Ten Keys to Happier Living from Action for Happiness which have been shown to have astonishing effects on people's happiness. The Ten Keys spell out GREAT DREAM.

Great Dream New Poster Wide Small

GREAT means giving, relating (remotely of course), exercising, appreciating and trying out new things - five essential daily practices for a happy life.

DREAM relates to longer term things like direction.  Whatever way we follow, we must all try to use the crisis to grow both in ourselves and in our caring for others.

The surrounding clouds are dark but I do believe they can have a silver lining. From this crisis can emerge a permanent increase in fellow feeling and commitment to the common good.  And in ourselves we can find new inner strength.

By forcing us to focus on what really matters, this crisis can lead in the end to a happier society.



Richard Layard is co-founder of Action for Happiness, co-editor of the World Happiness Report and author of Can We Be Happier? Evidence and Ethics, published January 2020 by Penguin.


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