How we can all contribute to societies’ happiness

We already have all the evidence and tools we need to make ourselves happier.
- Professor Richard Layard
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Professor Richard Layard is known as the ‘Happiness Tsar’. In his 60-year career as an economist, he advised the New Labour Government as a key architect of their ‘New Deal’ employment program, and co-founded ‘Action for Happiness’, a movement that helps improve wellbeing. He has also authored and co-authored 40 books.

His latest, Can We Be Happier?, brings together the latest evidence on wellbeing, and offers guidance for different professions can support societies’ happiness. In this interview, Professor Layard explains why the intense competition that is commonplace across modern societies is bad for everyone, and why we need to invest in things that really matter to us.

I meet Professor Richard Layard in his office at the Centre for Economic Performance, which he co-founded in 1974. The 85-year-old economist has an association with LSE that started when he took night-classes at the end of his day job as a schoolteacher.

After working as a Researcher at LSE on the Robbins Committee on Higher Education report, which paved the way for the huge expansion of higher education in the UK, Professor Layard realised that he ‘did not have a proper intellectual framework’. He studied for a Master’s degree in economics and then worked as a lecturer from 1968, remaining at LSE ever since.

We meet at the end of a busy period promoting Can We Be Happier?, one of his many books on the subject of wellbeing. When asked why his interest in the subject of happiness has been sustained throughout his long and distinguished career, Professor Layard says: “I think we need a happier society. And if people read this book, they will see we already have the evidence and tools we need to make ourselves happier.”

The book sets out a range of ambitious objectives to realise Professor Layard’s goal; fundamentally changing the materialistic, highly competitive culture in developed economies. He says: “One of the problems with our society is the values we are instilling in young people. The most lauded achievement is personal success, achieved by competing against other people.

“But at the level of society this becomes a zero-sum, with a loser for every winner. This is unpleasant for the people that lose, but also no good for the winners as it generates a lot of stress.”

In the book, Professor Layard documents the huge progress that has been made in the field of measuring happiness in recent years, collecting evidence relevant to different professions so they can contribute to societal wellbeing.

He emphasises the role of education; both individual teachers and the culture of the school are vital to children’s day-to-day and future happiness. “Primary school teachers have a long-lasting effect on the children they teach right up to the age of 20. We need a wellbeing code which can be used by all schools, to teach pupils proper life skills that can be used within the child’s time at the school and beyond.”

The workplace, where adults spend much of their lives, is another vital determinant of an individual’s happiness. Professor Layard found many people report working as their least enjoyable activity; and time with their manager making them the most unhappy.

Professor Layard says: “This is a terrible indictment of management culture. We need to involve workers more in decisions about work organisation and to change how we pay employees through the bonus culture. Enforced rankings of team members causes unhappiness and demotivation.”

The state has a vital role to play in the cultural change Professor Layard wants to see: “Economists and politicians should make the happiness of people the main objective of government policy. The evidence is already there to evaluate public spending on the criteria of how much happiness each policy yields per pound of expenditure.”

One of the criticisms of having happiness as a government policy objective is that it is difficult to quantify; our subjective feelings are personal to us and therefore not translatable. Professor Layard rejects this view: “It’s just as easy to measure how happy a child is as it is to measure how well they’re doing in a particular subject at school.

“There is no reason why we couldn’t restore balance to our education system by measuring the progress of a child’s happiness within the school system.”

But he views our focus on materialism as the biggest psychological barrier. Professor Layard says: “We assume things you can touch are more important than what people feel. But subjective experiences are the things that really matter to us in our lives; what we really want for ourselves and those we love is that they should feel good about their lives.” 

Professor Layard believes we have made great progress during his lifetime: “Mental health is being taken much more seriously. But there should be more public interest in spending public money on things which really matter to how people feel, as opposed to things you can touch and see, like bridges and railways.”

“Happiness is something that really matters to people. Mental health problems, family problems and problems of loneliness, these are the things which people worry about.”

Behind the article

Can We Be Happier? Evidence and Ethics by Richard Layard is published by Penguin.