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Happiness and public policy

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Extra money has not translated into extra happiness

We have more money than ever before, yet our happiness levels are in decline.

For Britain to become a happier nation, economic growth should cease to be the top priority of government, says Lord Layard, government adviser and professor at the London School of Economics.

The best society is that where the people are happiest, and the best policy is the one that produces the greatest happiness. So argued the great 18th century thinkers like Jeremy Bentham, and their admirable views did much to inspire the social reforms of the century that followed.

But in many cases it was difficult to apply the principle because so little was known about what makes people happy.

However, the last 30 years have seen a major scientific revolution, and we now know much more about what causes happiness - using the results of psychology and neuroscience.

The first thing we know is that in the last 50 years average happiness has not increased at all in Britain nor in the USA - despite massive increases in living standards.

This is because above an average income of about 10,000 per head, richer societies are no happier than poorer societies.

Richer people are of course on average happier than poorer people in the same society, but this is largely because people compare their incomes with other people.

If everyone gets richer, they feel no better off.

Achieving happiness

In rich societies like ours what really affects happiness is the quality of personal relationships.

Always top comes the quality of family life, or other close personal relationships.

Then comes work - having it (if you want it) and enjoying the meaning and comradeship it can bring.

And then comes relationships with friends and strangers in the street.

Faster economic growth is not the most important objective for a society

Some societies are much happier than others - and Scandinavian countries always come out near the top.

This is largely because people trust each other more there than in other countries.

In Britain and the US the number of people who believe that "most other people can be trusted" has halved in the last 50 years, and this reflects the growth of an individualism which makes personal success more important than almost anything else.

These facts call for a revolution in how we think about ourselves and about how the government can help us to flourish.

It becomes clear that faster economic growth is not the most important objective for a society.

We should not sacrifice human relationships nor peace of mind for the sake of higher living standards, which will be growing anyway.

This insight should affect all areas of public policy. I cannot argue each proposal here, though they are argued in my book on the subject.

Let me just set down a few proposals rather boldly.

  • The most important thing we can affect is the values which our children acquire. Schools should teach them systematically that the secret of a happy life is in giving to other people. Evidence-based programmes exist for doing this, and should become a part of our core curriculum.

  • The least happy people in our society are people with a record of mental illness. Three-quarters of people with depression or hyper-anxiety receive no treatment, although psychological therapies exist which can cure over half of these terrible cases. Such therapies should be available free on the NHS.

  • Advertising makes people feel they need more and thus makes them less happy with what they have. As in Sweden, we should ban advertising aimed at children under 12.

  • We should stop apologising about taxes: if people pay more tax as they work harder it will discourage us from an even more fevered way of life, sacrificing further our relationships with family and friends. We should also persist with income redistribution, since an extra 1 gives more happiness to poor people than to rich. That argument also implies redistribution to the Third World.

Our living standards are not threatened by China or India.

In fact we are in a new situation for mankind where further wealth-creation is now unnecessary for survival.

If we want to become still happier, we need a new strategy from the one pursued over the last 50 years - we need to put human relationships first.

Lord Layard is a contributor to The Happiness Formula which is broadcast on BBC Two on Wednesdays at 1900 BST.

Why money doesn't buy happiness
27 Jan 05 |  Business



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