Happiness: A New Science

Richard Layard, an economic advisor to the British Government from 1997 – 2001 and founder of Europe’s leading economic research center at the London School of Economics, ventured into new interdisciplinary territory when he wrote “Happiness: Lessons from a New Science” (Penguin Books, 2006). He combines insights from neuroscience, psychology, sociology, philosophy and economics to come to some conclusions about the pursuit of happiness. His conclusions are compatible with the best insights from some of the world’s great religious traditions. I said “Amen” to much of the book and recommend it as a counterbalance to the daily ups and downs of economic indicators, on which a lot of people rely for their feelings of well-being. GNP is not an adequate measure of happiness.

Layard uses Jeremy Bentham’s 18th century Greatest Happiness principle as a starting point: “the best society is one where the citizens are the happiest and the best public policy is that which produces the greatest happiness”. In this egalitarian philosophy everyone counts equally and there is a vision of the common good, in contrast to the rampant individualism which dominates many Western societies today. Clearly people need sufficient income for basic needs such as food, shelter, clothing and transportation, but beyond these needs happiness cannot be equated with increased income and wealth. As Jesus said to the rich fool, “what does it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul.”

Five of the seven factors affecting happiness are all concerned with the quality of relationships, writes Layard: family relationships, work, community and friends, personal freedom and personal values (the other two are income and health). The downward trends in family life and levels of community trust explain reduced happiness over the past 50 years. Television reduces social life and increases crime and illicit sex. Television also creates discontent about wealth and beauty. Layard borrows one of the secrets to happiness from the Buddha: enjoy things as they are, without comparison. Depression is one of the main causes of unhappiness (but very treatable) and mental illness accounts for 25% of the toll caused by illness in general. Yet only about 25% of the mentally ill are currently in treatment.

His statements about happiness are backed by a steady supply of research data. I was particularly struck by some research done by Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University. On the toss of a coin you would either lose $100 or gain a larger sum. How large a sum would be necessary to make you accept the bet? The typical answer is $200. People need the prospect of gaining twice what they might lose before they are willing to take the risk. That shows how strongly they dislike losing money, and not just money. Any kind of loss hurts twice as much as an equal gain helps. People do not like loss in general, so a good society helps people to feel more secure, thus producing more happiness.

Society cannot meet all our needs for security and stable relationships, but there is much we can do to help ourselves. Layard says that happiness depends as much on your inner life as on your outer circumstances and he recommends cultivating a positive worldview through the practices of meditation, the mystical tradition, cognitive therapy, and positive psychology. We need to focus on our strengths and control our tendency to compare ourselves with others. Love is the common strand in what makes us happy.

Layard rejects individual self-realization and competitive struggle as forces destroying community and cooperation. His social vision is the promotion of the common good and the greatest happiness of all. In economic terms this would mean striving to eliminate poverty and high unemployment, to expand mental health treatment, to support family-friendly employment practices, and most importantly to provide moral education which teaches about empathy for others, serving others, parenting and family life, mental illness, and citizenship.

Layard’s book is full of wisdom about happiness and confirms many of the beliefs I have learned from liberal Christianity. The recovery of a social vision is essential. He calls it the Greatest Happiness principle. Jesus called it the kingdom of God. It is an urgent time for Christians to proclaim the coming kingdom of God.

About John Fisk

I am a retired pastor, who served churches in New England for 33 years. I emigrated to the USA from England in 1974 and completed two graduate degrees in theology and pastoral practice at Andover-NewtonTheological School. In retirement I am focused on the teaching of Christian meditation, providing spiritual guidance, leading retreats and occasional preaching. I am particularly interested in contemplation, the mystical path and social justice.
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