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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 lives.

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 Happiness.

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 to.

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 said.

"We need an approach to ethics that can be equally acceptable to those with religious faith and those with none. We need a secular ethics"

How true.

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 compassion.

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 Alex.

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 questions.

  1. How can Action for Happiness as an organisation do better? 
  2. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. Many more employers are interested in the mental wellbeing of their workers.
  3. Many more individuals are meditating.
  4. People are more tolerant of diversity.
  5. There has been a huge fall in crime worldwide - indicative of a gentler society.
  6. 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.


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


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