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Happiness - Lessons From a New Science

Page history last edited by Chris Yeh 12 years, 2 months ago

Happiness: Lessons from a New Science

by Richard Layard


12 Truths About Happiness


Happiness Matters


1) Happiness is a real, objective phenomenon that can be measured. Good feelings drive out bad feelings, and vice versa.


2) We are programmed to seek happiness. Generally, what makes us happy is good for us...this includes sex but also cooperation and moral behavior.


3) It is self-evident that the best society is the happiest. This "ultimate" principle allows us to judge when morals conflict (e.g. truth vs. kindness).


4) Our society is not likely to become happier unless people agree that this is what we want to happen. This is a common good around which mankind should unite.


Sources of Happiness


5) Humans are deeply social beings. Friendship and marriage make people happier; unemployment makes people unhappier in part due to the breaking of social ties. Socializing is an end, not just a means.


6) As social beings, we want to trust each other. Average happiness per country (as well as suicide rate) can be explained by 6 factors:

  • Proportion of people who say other people can be trusted
  • Proportion who belong to social organizations
  • Divorce rate
  • Unemployment rate
  • Quality of government
  • Religious belief

Financial incentives, because they tend to reduce trust, may not be the best way to influence behavior.


7) People are deeply attached to the status quo. People like what is familiar to them--crime and mental illness are higher in transient or heterogenous communities. Change comes at a cost.


8) Human beings are status conscious. Natural selection has planted in us the desire to be better than other people, and status is a zero-sum game--the total amount of status in a society is fixed. Taxes may actually be useful; the disincentive to work may actually help capture the externality of envy induced. We should also educate the young to place less emphasis on status and more on helping others. Much of our civilization is "unnatural," so we can overcome natural selection.


9) Human beings are very adaptable. Income is addictive--you need to keep increasing it to increase happiness. On the other hand, friendship has a permanent effect on happiness. We habituate rapidly to what money can buy. If income is addictive, perhaps taxing it can be useful in the same way that taxing cigarettes discourages smoking.


10) Extra income increases happiness less and less as people get richer. Helping poor countries and poor people is a less expensive means of increasing happiness.


11) Happiness depends on your inner life as much as on outer experiences. Spiritual practices ranging from meditation to religion to positive psychology can make a difference, as can cognitive therapy.


12) Public policy can more easily remove misery than augment happiness.


Policy Implications


Markets are incredibly efficient, but do not guarantee happiness. The old saw is true--money, beyond a certain point, cannot buy happiness. Also, many of the key factors that impact happiness are not a result of voluntary exchange. Advertising, crime, friendliness, all of these have a major impact. Security is critical factor which is not generally considered in cost/benefit calculations.


Layard's Happiness Plan

  • We should monitor happiness as closely as we monitor GDP and income.
  • We should consider the happiness implications of policies such as taxes, performance-related pay, and mobility
  • We should spend more on helping the poor (where money can have a disproportionate impact)
  • We should spend more on tackling mental illness
  • We should introduce more family-friendly policies at work, since these relationships are central to happiness
  • We should subsidize activities that promote community life
  • We should eliminate high unemployment using the "tough but tender" approach--all should have a chance to work, but if they choose not to, they shouldn't receive unemployment benefits.
  • We should prohibit commercial advertising to children, as is the case in Sweden
  • We need better education, especially moral education. This includes systems of morality, empathy, and the desire to serve others. The basic aim is to provide a sense of overall purpose wider than the self.


"A society cannot flourish without some sense of shared purpose. The current pursuit of self-realization will not work. If your sole duty is to achieve the best for yourself, life becomes just too stressful, too lonely--you are set up to fail. Instead, you need to feel you exist for something larger, and that very thought takes off some of the pressure."


"We desperately need a concept of the common good. I can think of no nobler goal than to pursue the greatest happiness of all."


"Some people say you should think about your own happiness, because you can only be happy as a by-product of something else. Of course you cannot be happy without a wider goal than yourself, but you cannot be happy either without self-knowledge and self-acceptance. If you feel low, there are centuries-old philosophies to help....happiness comes from outside and from within. The true pilgrim fights the evils in the world out there and cultivates the spirit within."


"Create all the happiness you are able to create: remove all the misery you are able to remove. Every day will allow you to add something to the pleasure of others, or to diminish something of their pains. And for every grain of enjoyment you sow in the bosom of another, you shall find a harvest in your own bosom; while every sorrow which you pluck out from the thoughts and feelings of a fellow creature shall be replaced by beautiful peace and joy in the sanctuary of your soul."

--Jeremy Bentham


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