The problem with happiness

“There is a paradox at the heart of our lives. Most people want more income and strive for it. Yet as Western societies have got richer, their people have become no happier.” So says Richard Layard in his 2006 book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science.  But the problem is not income, nor it’s addictive nature, nor the social issues resulting from widening gaps between the top and bottom earners. The problem, it seems, is happiness.

What’s wrong with happiness?

The problem’s not happiness per se, but more that our collective actions suggest as a society we have  little understanding of what happiness is, where it comes from, or how to get it. Do we know how to be happy? Are we actually aiming to be happy? In his book, Richard Layard states that happiness is our ‘programmed goal’ and that it can be achieved primarily via work – specifically ‘meaningful’ work (i.e. work that helps others). This will come as no surprise to many, but his point is that the consumerist / individualist approach we have widely adopted as a society isn’t the path to happiness. We may be confusing the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of income.

The problem with pursuing income is that the benefits of income are not only temporary (a pay rise may make us happier, but it soon wears off and needs to be replaced with another pay rise) but they are also relative. Relative to our neighbour, relative to our society. Our gain in relative income therefore is to the cost of someone who earns less – who becomes relatively poorer. Income, Layard argues, perpetuates the zero sum game. There is loss for every win. And we are no better off as a society as a result.

What can we do?

Although Layard’s book offers nothing about happiness you wouldn’t be able to get from the classic philosophies / religions – help people, do a job that satisfies you, stop chasing material wealth – what you do get is a perspective on how our actions as a society belie what we have been told for centuries. Our approach to happiness could be described as at best reactive, responding to mental health problems when they happen but with little focus on halting the social conditions in which they prevail. The alternative is to be pro-active – putting happiness and helping others on the public agenda as an objective. Re-establish the Common Good, and put a halt to individualism. This is something for which we can surely take responsibility ourselves.

The role of government

Accepting we have our own role to play, what role does the state play in our happiness? Certainly by making more ‘meaningful’ work available, but in broader terms there is a growing focus on happiness as the correct priority for public policy. That means public policy – including economic policy – should focus on increasing happiness, not GDP. This may seem a daunting task – not least because GDP is internationally recognised as the measure of the value of our economic output, correlating it to our standard of living, but calls for alternative approaches to ‘growth’ are becoming bigger. In France, Spain and Italy a strong degrowth movement has developed, and the UK is also contributing to the search for a new economic model – including the Sustainable Development Commission’s Prosperity without Growth and the new economics foundation’s Great Transition. Even MPs are calling for a move beyond GDP.  At this stage I’m tempted to quote Kenneth Boulding (“Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist”) but before I do (oops…) I should point put that some economists, too, are keen to be part of the solution (not least Richard Layard who is also an economist).  Alternative theories such as behavioural economics attempt to address the flawed principles of traditional economics and more accurately reflect ‘real world’ behaviour. Maybe we’re already on our way to a happier society.

The more I read the more I see encouraging evidence of a groundswell of change. But returning to the purpose of this blog… Is happiness – or specifically a focus on happiness, helping others and the Common Good – the root that feeds social prosperity?

Matt Chocqueel-Mangan

Digital producer, agile practitioner, scrum master. Pursuing sustainable democracy and social change.

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