Happiness Lessons from a new science

Penguin Books 2005 Paperback
Richard Layard
ISBN-13 978-0-141-01690-0
English UK


In this book a Professor of Economics from the London School of Economics attempts to synthesise evidence from Philosophy, Psychology, Medicine and Social Sciences about happiness, which he sees as the ultimate goal of a modern society.
The book is divided into 2 parts, the problem and a discussion of possible solutions. Each chapter is introduced by a quote and a picture or cartoon summarising the chapter’s key message.

The Problem

What’s the Problem?

The central theme of the book is that, although western societies have become monetarily richer since WW2, individuals are no happier. He defines this as “a paradox at the heart of our lives”. He outlines the task of the first part of the book as explaining this, drawing on Jeremy Bentham’s Philosophy, and evidence from Psychology, Social Sciences and Personal enlightenment.

What is Happiness?

This chapter outlines the scientific evidence for happiness, and the consensus emerging that it is measurable, both by questionnaires and by sophisticated brain investigations (EEG and PET scans combined with MRI). By combining an unhappy/happy dimension with an unaroused/aroused dimension, he defines 4 quadrants, with joy being happy and aroused and contentment being happy and unaroused. He describes evidence that happiness is not only a goal in itself, but also contributes positively to health.

Are we getting Happier?

Here the evidence of changes in happiness levels within countries and between countries is discussed. In the US and UK there has been no overall increase in happiness over the past 50 years, despite a doubling of real income over this period. The richest are happier than the poorest. International comparisons suggest that, beyond an income of around $20,000 per annum, there is little change in overall happiness in the country.

If you’re so rich, why aren’t you happy?

Here he identifies four key reasons for the lack of increase in happiness with increasing income: social comparisons, the hedonic treadmill, work-life balance, and inequality. Social comparison is where you have to “keep up with the Jones”; any new car next door makes you feel devalued. The hedonic treadmill is where you soon get accustomed to anything new, which becomes the new norm. The UK and US spend considerably more time working than other European countries, which may decrease time for self-enjoyment.

So what does make us happy?

He identifies 3 areas:

  1. Our genetic make-up, especially with regard to mental illness
  2. Our upbringing, especially family break-up
  3. Adult life factors: these are the 7 key factors that can be manipulated:
  • Family relationships
  • Financial situation
  • Work
  • Community and friends
  • Health
  • Personal freedom
  • Personal values, including Goals
  • In the World Values Survey, six factors explain 80% of the variation in happiness:

    1. Divorce rate
    2. Unemployment rate
    3. Level of trust
    4. Membership in non-religious organisations
    5. Quality of government
    6. Fraction believing in God

    What’s going wrong?

    Here he identifies adverse trends impacting negatively on happiness, which include:

    • Broken families
    • Increased crime
    • Decreased trust
    • Changes in gender roles
    • Television, which affects
    • Social life
    • Attitudes to sex and violence
    • Attitudes to wealth and beauty
    • Moral and spiritual values

    Can we pursue a common good?

    This chapter reviews some of the psychological evidence relating to cooperation between individuals. This includes a discussion of:

    • The prisoner’s dilemma
    • Importance of reputation
    • Effects of punishment
    • Effects of approval
    • Sense of fairness
    • Benefits of commitment
    • Tribalism

    What Can Be Done?

    The Greatest Happiness: Is that the goal?

    Does economics have a clue?

    How can we tame the rat race?

    Can we afford to be secure?

    Can mind control mood?

    Do drugs help?

    Conclusions for today’s world