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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Do things for others, Be part of something bigger, Be a Happiness Activist