Well-Being and Action for Happiness
11 Aug 2011 | Richard Layard
A fundamental cultural change is underway in Britain: we are
beginning to think that the purpose of life and of government might
be the well-being of the people rather than the creation of wealth.
Similar subversive ideas are growing in other rich countries, but
they are more advanced in Britain than elsewhere. Everybody now
knows that we are no happier than we were sixty years ago, despite
massive wealth-creation. So politicians of all parties talk about
well-being, including the Prime Minister. And there are civil
service divisions that deal with it, and policies that can be
traced to it.
But even in Britain the idea lacks a clear philosophical focus,
and a corresponding cultural organisation to promote it. So let me
talk first about those two issues, and then look at the current
political scene and ask how well it matches to the challenge.
We are talking about nothing less than the purpose of human
life. In the 18th century Enlightenment in Britain and the USA
there were two key beliefs.
- The first said that the best state of society was where there
was the most happiness and the least misery. That was the
fundamental proposition of political philosophy - the lodestar for
government. As Thomas Jefferson said, "The care of life and
happiness is the sole legitimate objective of government".
- Corresponding to this was the basic proposition of moral
philosophy - that the right way to live is to create the most
happiness and the least misery that you can in the world around
you. That was the lodestar for moral action.
These ideas were never accepted by all thinking people and they
appeared difficult to implement if we knew so little about the
causes of happiness. But due to major scientific progress we now
know a lot more. And, equally important, the old religious
sanctions for morality no longer convince most Europeans and there
is a desperate need for a rational, secular basis for morality -
and for a political philosophy consistent with it. So the two ideas
I have described should be the basic foundations of
21st century culture.
But there are critics - some friendly fire and some less
friendly. So let me quickly discuss nine issues.
- What is happiness? Happiness is a feeling
and there is a spectrum running from extreme happiness at one end
to extreme misery at the other. Happiness is feeling good and
enjoying your life and wanting to go on that way. Unhappiness is
feeling bad and wanting things to change. We are interested not in
temporary highs but in the total of each person's happiness in
- Why is happiness uniquely important? We
can list all kinds of goods we value: health, freedom,
accomplishment, wealth and so on. But for each we can ask why we
value it, and we can have a reasoned discussion. For example,
health is good because sickness makes you feel dreadful. Or freedom
is good because oppression makes you feel awful. But if we ask why
it matters if we feel bad, there is no answer. It is self-evident.
It is basic to the way we are, as humans. This was why the
Enlightenment thinkers, including Jefferson, thought as they
- But won't talk of happiness encourage
selfishness? On the contrary, both propositions say
the exact opposite. They say that because everybody wants to be
happy, everybody's happiness should count equally when we are
deciding what to do. So in Action for Happiness we ask members to
pledge to try to create as much happiness and as little unhappiness
as they can in the world around them.
- But isn't this utopian? I don't think so.
There are two sides to our nature - there's certainly an egoistic
side but there's also an altruistic side which enjoys helping other
people. When people do good, they feel good, and brain science
confirms this - the brain 'lights up' in the same areas as when
people get other rewards like chocolate.
So the job of culture is to promote the altruistic side over the
egoistic side. Unfortunately our excessively individualistic
culture tends if anything to do the opposite. But cultural trends
can be reversed. The 18th century was increasingly
individualistic, while the 19th century saw increasing social
responsibility. We don't want a new Victorian era based on the fear
of hellfire. But we do want a culture of greater caring based on
reason and on the new science of happiness, which provides so much
more evidence on what really makes people happy.
- But isn't happiness a by-product? J.S.
Mill argued just this, and of course we should not be asking
ourselves if we are happy all the time. But we certainly should
think a great deal about whether other people are happy - they
won't become happy if we think of their happiness as a by-product.
And sometimes, if we're discontented, we should think about how we
could become more contented ourselves, and use some of the evidence
to become so.
- But what about fairness? How exactly
should we think about other people? Where does fairness come in?
Fairness is about the way in which happiness is distributed. If we
care about fairness, we should pay more attention to reducing
misery than to increasing the happiness of people who are already
happy. This point was overlooked by Bentham, but it should apply to
us individually and to the practice of government.
- The role of government? Governments have
of course always been interested in lots of things besides economic
growth. They have been concerned with the relief of misfortune and
with producing peaceful, civilised communities. But it's now more
obvious than before that a happier society will require government
to care increasingly about the values which children acquire in
school, about mental health and more generally how people behave to
When the first edition of my book on happiness came out, it
attracted mostly favourable reviews, but two were very critical.
One was called The Bureaucrats of Bliss and the other The Happiness
Police. But putting happiness first would never lead to a police
state because freedom is one of the basic determinants of
- But can happiness be measured? It can.
You can ask people how happy they are and you will find that their
answers are well-correlated with what you would expect, both with
likely causes of happiness (like finding a job) and likely
consequences (like quitting one). They are also correlated with
what your friends report and with objective measurements of
electrical activity in the relevant parts of the brain.
- But is happiness fluffy? No. It is the
basic aspiration of every human being. It is what we most want for
our children. And it is the theme of much of the world's greatest
So the two propositions with which I began have strong
philosophical foundations. What do they imply for the actions of
individuals and of government?
It is best to start with individuals, because unless individuals
have good values it is difficult to see why they would elect a
government that acted well. So we want individuals to derive their
happiness as far as possible from contributing to the happiness of
others. As Aristotle saw so clearly, people will only behave
virtuously out of habit - because this is the way you have grown up
to behave from an early age. It is also much more likely if you
belong to an organisation of like-minded people committed to the
same way of living and drawing strength from it.
That is why Geoff Mulgan, Anthony Seldon and I have launched a
movement called Action for Happiness. As I write, the movement is
only one week old but it already has 12,000 members from 99
countries. There is clearly a hunger out there - people who feel
that life could be better if collectively they dared more often to
express their better selves.
Our hope is they will form local groups, with common beliefs
which they discuss and which they put into practical action in
whatever way makes sense to them. Thus the movement's website
offers 10 keys to happier living (fundamental principles) and 50
actions on which groups can draw in deciding how to implement their
beliefs. For each action an evidence base is provided, which shows
what improvements it may lead to. The actions run from very
private, like learning to meditate, to actions in your family or
your workplace, to actions within the realms of community and
The movement is totally non-political, with members from all
parties and none. But, if we want a happier society, some things
have to be done by governments.
The role of government
If a government is to promote happiness and reduce misery, it
needs an information base. It needs to measure the happiness of the
population - not the average, but the full range of happiness and
misery. And then it needs to understand the causes of these
outcomes. This should become the chief mission of the Economic and
Social Research Council. Under Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph,
wealth-creation was made the Council's central focus. It should be
replaced by well-being.
And then this understanding needs to be applied to policy
choice. This means a radical re-casting of policy analysis. At
present the main method is cost-benefit analysis where benefits are
measured in pounds, based on willingness-to-pay as shown by
revealed preference in the presence of choice. But this method
cannot capture the outcomes of most forms of public expenditure
like health, law and order, child protection, elderly care and poor
relief, since choice throws little light on how people value better
health, safer streets, happier children, and more contented elderly
and deprived people. For these objectives the outcome must be
measured in terms of changes in happiness and misery. To devise
these methods is now a major challenge.
So how does our situation in Britain match to this challenge? We
are doing well, compared with most other countries. Our central
government departments for domestic policy have well-being
divisions, though their voice is not always decisive. Our Cabinet
Secretary is a passionate supporter. Many of our local governments
are equally interested and three of them participated energetically
in the Young Foundation's Local Well-being Project. And in 2009 the
Office for National Statistics adopted the measurement of
well-being as one of its three main areas of development, partly in
response to the impressive leads in this area from the OECD and
from President Sarkozy. Ministers agreed with this initiative.
At the political level, party leaders of all three major
political parties support the importance of well-being. It is a
non-party-political issue - and in all parties there are also many
critics. But one must pay particular tribute to David Cameron for
his stalwart advocacy of the idea. In 2006 he made a famous speech
in which he said, "It's time we admitted there's more to life than
money, and it's time we focussed not just on GDP but on GWB -
General Well-Being". Since becoming Prime Minister he has
officially requested the ONS to measure the well-being of the
nation in an authoritative way and to include the results in the
nation's "official statistics". Britain will be the first country
to do this; and the results will begin coming out in Summer
When he launched this initiative, the Prime Minister said "We
have got to recognise, officially, that economic growth is a means
to an end. If your goal in politics is to help make a better life
for people - which mine is… then you have got to take practical
steps to make sure government is properly focused on our quality of
life as well as economic growth." No other head of government has
gone further towards establishing the quality of life as the
objective of his government.
For fundamental political debate, this is an exciting time. The
old mantra of wealth-creation as the goal of life and government is
over. The new gospel of well-being is there to be adopted. Action
for Happiness is happy to play its part. But it is up to the
political class to make it a reality.
Lord Richard Layard is professor of economics and director of
the Wellbeing programme at the London School of Economics. He is a
co-founder of Action for Happiness.
This article is a chapter from ResPublica's collection of
essays, entitled Changing the Debate: The New Ideas Redefining
Do things for others, Connect with people, Be part of something bigger, Be a Happiness Activist, Education, Politics of Happiness