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Why Happiness Matters

28 Mar 2010 | Richard Layard

In 1932 the mother superior of a Milwaukee convent asked each of her novices to write an essay on "Why I want to be a nun". The essays were kept, and decades later a psychologist scored them for positive emotion. Amazingly that score turned out to be a powerful predictor of how long each nun would live.

So happiness is good for you. It is also what people want. Everyone wants to be happy, yet many are not. This has been the human condition for as long as anyone can remember - Samuel Beckett said that the tears of the world are a constant quantity.   But what if the tears of the world are not so constant? What if it really is possible for individuals and whole societies to shape and boost their happiness?

This simple but extraordinarily powerful idea lies behind Action for Happiness - a movement for positive social change. We know that, as our society has become richer, our happiness has not risen in step. Despite ever greater affluence, our lives are increasingly stressful.

This paradox requires a radical rethink of our lifestyle and our goals. The rat race is not helping, because one person's success is simply another person's failure. We need a more cooperative society where people expect more satisfaction from what they give than from what they get. This means a profound change of culture. So Action for Happiness is intended as the focal point for a fundamental shift in cultural values.

We hope this will become a mass movement, eventually worldwide in scope. We are embracing the latest online and social networking ideas to bring together groups of like-minded people. As members we will each commit ourselves to trying to create more happiness in the world around us and less misery. This applies in our private lives, in how we are at work, and in what we do in the community - including the policies we ask policy-makers to adopt.

The resources available on our website aim to provide members with knowledge, ideas and inspiration about how to promote happiness within and without, and how to reduce suffering. We will encourage members to create a range of different groups focused on particular angles, like education or community action. The whole movement is empowered by the burgeoning new science of happiness, which explains a great deal about why some individuals and societies are happier than others.

We believe that a shift in societal values is possible, because there is a deep hunger out there for a better way of life, and because we now have enough knowledge about how to achieve it. Material wealth has failed to deliver the happier society that many expected. Since 1950 there have been regular surveys of the happiness of the population in Britain and the USA and these show that we are no happier now than we were then. Similarly surveys of British teenagers show that twice as many are emotionally disturbed as in the 1970s.

These changes are clearly linked to a growth of selfishness. People have been regularly asked "Do you think most other people can be trusted?" Fifty years ago 60% of people said Yes; today only 30%. For a happier society we have to turn this tide of narrow individualism - the greatest enemy of happiness is an unhealthy pre-occupation with self.

We can surely create a society in which people feel better inside themselves - where they are happier. Such a society has to start with individuals and their goals. But it also has to provide the external context in which all people can flourish - social justice means a world without excessive inequalities in happiness.

For our personal life, there is plenty of knowledge about how to live if you want to be happy. The New Economics Foundation recommend that every day you do 5 things - the spiritual equivalent of the 5 fruit and veg a day needed for physical health. These five activities spell GREAT - Giving, Relating to other people, Exercising the body, Appreciating the world around, and Trying out something new. On average people are happier the more they care about other people's happiness and the less they care about their own. In this sense, happiness is a by-product - not by ignoring happiness but by focussing on the happiness of others.

Relationships are central to this, and it is tragic how, in our increasingly atomised society, many people never speak meaningfully to another person all day long. But we also need to exercise our bodies - we were not constructed to sit around all day. Appreciating the world around us means noticing and savouring whatever comes our way - the sights, the sounds, the touch - living more in the present than the future or the past. And exercising the mind by learning or trying out new activities is revitalising - almost anything can become absorbing and delightful.

These are secrets of positive living. The new positive psychology has put them onto a more scientific footing but they are also enshrined in much of the ancient wisdom. Many of these also taught forms of spiritual practice which many people find helpful. For example meditation is now spreading rapidly as a practice in our society. It is easy to see why. The American academic, Jon Kabat-Zinn, offered an 8-session course of meditation to employees of a Californian corporation. He divided applicants into a treatment group and a control group. Four months after the last session the treatment group had climbed 20 places out of 100 in the ranking of happiness compared with the control group.

'Silent sitting' is now used increasingly in schools, especially the so-called Values Schools. It improves not only happiness and behaviour, but also school performance.  School leaders, in common with all others, find they benefit from the opportunity to collect themselves, and let go of the tyranny of unproductive thoughts and emotions.

When it comes to society, what changes are needed? Long-term economic growth must cease to be the be-all and end-all. Of course people care about their income, but they care about their income relative to other people. So if one person goes up, someone else goes down. This makes overall growth a false goal for a society.

What people do desperately want is a stable economy. There is almost no evil greater than unemployment, which reduces measured happiness as much as do bereavement or marital break-up. People hate loss more than they value gain, as was shown by Daniel Kahneman, the only psychologist to have won the Nobel Prize in Economics. So economic security is an enormously worthwhile goal, even if it reduces long-term economic growth.

For society as a whole, it does no good if we whip up ever fiercer competition and train our young to be consumers rather than citizens, eager for their rights, but less aware of their responsibilities and duties. Instead we should encourage our young people to get more satisfaction from what they can contribute to the lives of others.

The new challenge for government is to create the conditions for better human relationships - better education in life skills, better support for parents, better help with depression and crippling anxiety, and better communities.

Too many people are embarrassed to talk about happiness. When Tony Blair was told that one of the government's goals for primary schools was that children should enjoy learning, he was horrified. This has to change.

Schools are our great opportunity as a society: the audience is (nearly) captive. Children want to be happy and to learn the secrets of happy living. A school ethos of mutual respect and consideration is essential, but so too is specific teaching of life skills.

We know from scientific trials that resilience can be taught in ways that dramatically reduce teenage depression and anxiety. To make this happen, 100 teachers from Manchester, Hertfordshire and Tyneside spent two weeks learning how to teach resilience from Martin Seligman and his colleagues at the fountain-head of positive psychology, the University of Pennsylvania. Using the basic concepts of cognitive behavioural therapy they have now taught some 4,000 British children with impressive results. The key of course is to develop the strengths of the individual and to concentrate on developing positive attitudes and pursuits.

Other trials show clearly that approaches of this kind do much more to reduce unhealthy living than programmes full of don'ts. Wellington College in Berkshire has pioneered the teaching of happiness and well-being: regarded as soft or irrelevant by critics, academic results have shot up since the new approach was adopted.  Unhappy children don't want to learn: happy ones do.  Academic success and happiness are not mutually incompatible, they go hand in hand.

But even good, pro-social people will not necessarily make good parents. We need to teach the psychological aspects of parenting in secondary schools and in free ante-natal classes. For children a key issue is how their parents get on. So we should have free psychological help available for parents in conflict, if only for the sake of the children.  An eleven year-old child in Liverpool, who was taught reconciliation techniques for his work as a playground monitor, applied them to his warring parents: for the first time in four months, they spoke kindly to each other.

If people have psychological problems, the help within most healthcare systems is disgracefully sporadic. In a recent survey of British family doctors, only 15% said they could usually get the standard psychological therapy recommended for those of their patients who need it by the government's own National Institute of Clinical Excellence. A society focussed on happiness would not tolerate this discrimination against people with mental as opposed to physical illness. It is another illustration of our unwillingness to accept the reality of the inner life.

Most healthcare systems have been 'illness services' for far too long: they also need to promote  'positive health', drawing on the striking evidence that how happy or optimistic people are can be decisive in determining how fast they recover from heart disease and other conditions.  Police forces are already having to address fear of crime as well as crime, and learning that this requires them to  focus more  attention on the quality of  personal relationships in the community,  and less on  patrolling the streets in cars with flashing lights.

We can also improve our workplaces to produce more happiness at work. As the research shows, workers are happier, and no less productive, if they have more control over their work and are more involved in decisions about how it is organised. Team members flourish better if performance pay is based on the performance of the group rather than the rating of the individual; the latter divides rather than unites. Companies that look after their employees well, like the John Lewis Partnership, flourish in the market-place.  So happiness is good business. And communities where people talk to each other and have more control are happier than places where they don't.

An experiment in an old people's home illustrates this nicely. Half the residents were given house plants which were tended by the staff, and the others were given plants they had to tend themselves. Remarkably, death rates in the second group were only half as high as in the first one.

What are the chances that politicians will listen in the current financial climate? Actually, not bad. In recent years the OECD, the club of rich nations, has held three big conferences on "What is progress?". In France, President Sarkozy set up a Commission, including five Nobel Prize winners, to report on the same subject. High in the Himalayas, Bhutan has as its national goal not the GDP but Gross National Happiness - not so different from the Gross National Well-being advocated by David Cameron.

In the West, there has been more progress in Britain on the happiness agenda than in any other country - with Well-being divisions in many government departments and surveys of happiness at national and local levels. So the door is half-open. But it will take a massive push from citizens to bring about real change in priorities - another reason for setting up Action for Happiness.

This is not a new idea. It has ancient roots in Greek philosophy, Buddhism and Confucianism - not to mention the Golden Rule of Christianity. By the Eighteenth Century Enlightenment it was a common-place notion that the good society is one where there is the most happiness and the least misery. We need to return to this Enlightenment ideal, aided by modern science. That is why we have founded Action for Happiness as a movement for positive social change.

The time is ripe for a change in culture but so far we have lacked the catalyst to bring it about. There have been insufficient outlets for these feelings of dissatisfaction. Our movement will provide that focus - a way for like-minded people to improve the quality of their own lives and of those around them. If you want to be part of creating a positive change in our culture, please join us.

Lord Richard LayardAnthony Seldon Geoff Mulgan


Action for Happiness


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