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Can we be happier? Yes, but it’s not about wealth or GDP, says one economist

A growing body of research outlined by Richard Layard, founder and former director of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, shows that any number of things are more important to happiness than income.

Can we be happier? Yes, but it’s not about wealth or GDP, says one economist

(Photo: Unsplash/Lidya Nada)

The election of Donald Trump – and the prospect of his re-election – has been credited to everything from institutionalised racism in America to rising inequality.

But according to Richard Layard, founder and former director of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, the answer is simpler – it’s about happiness. If you look across the 3,096 US counties that participated in the 2016 election, votes for Trump were better explained by the average level of happiness in the county (self-reported, a measure that is apparently quite accurate) than by its unemployment, income or growth rate.

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By this calculation, Democrats wishing to prevent Trump 2 would do best to focus on which candidate will make the most people happy, rather than the policy particulars of tax, healthcare or foreign policy. Of course, the latter can help facilitate the former, which is the one of the messages that Layard pushes in his interesting (albeit overly sweeping) look at the new science of happiness and how we can harness it to improve ourselves, our relationships and our societies.

The answer to the title of Layard’s book Can We Be Happier? is a resounding “yes” – though becoming so will require in many countries an overhaul of everything from how we relate to children and partners to the design of our cities and our interactions with technology, work, time and money. Cue up the Headspace app – accomplishing all this will require much more mindfulness than most of us currently exhibit (mental health and the importance of actively cultivating it being a big theme in Layard’s book).

While happiness may require meditation, it may also require less money than we think.

A growing body of research outlined by Layard shows that any number of things are more important to happiness than income. At an individual level, mental health, relationships and the quality of one’s work are more important than wealth. At a country level, social trust is the most important factor – and the data in the book show that national happiness tends to correlate with high levels of trust (Scandinavian nations have more of it; countries such as Brazil have a dearth).

True poverty is, of course, a misery maker for people and societies alike. But once countries reach a basic level of development, economic growth doesn’t make us happy – connection to others and high levels of social trust do.

“Once countries reach a basic level of development, economic growth doesn’t make us happy – connection to others and high levels of social trust do.” – Rana Foroohar

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Perhaps this is why, on one of Layard’s many detailed charts about happiness, clergy score the highest as a profession in happiness, and fitness instructors, for example, score higher than some executives. The latter have got plenty to fix – the key reason so many people find work to be a drag is that most bosses make us feel terrible, and few of us have any autonomy in terms of how and where we do our jobs.

All of these findings run counter to the American Puritan ethos that has driven a lot of US development, as well as European philosophies that glorify struggle: Suffering and hard work doesn’t make us better people. In fact, they are actively destructive. “Such dreadful philosophies contributed to two world wars and to the ultra-competitive features of today’s dominant culture,” said the author, who notes that modern happiness research started taking off in the 1980s, around the same time as the Reagan-Thatcher revolution (which seems to have decreased happiness).

To him, the best policy road-map starts with the 18th-century Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment, which had the goal of the most happiness for the most people. If we believe that the real problem in society isn’t inequality in income but in happiness, individuals and policymakers alike can begin to implement the things that will help foster greater happiness both at a micro and a macro level.

“If we believe that the real problem in society isn’t inequality in income but in happiness, individuals and policymakers alike can begin to implement the things that will help foster greater happiness both at a micro and a macro level.” – Rana Foroohar

Layard is very big on cognitive behavioural psychology, which is cheap, and apparently, effective in boosting self-reported happiness. He lays out persuasive research about why we should reboot education to focus more on psychological wellbeing than academic particulars (for children, being in such a school environment appears to be as beneficial as being in a happy family).

As a former policymaker, he also has many ideas about where the low-hanging fruit for politicians might be. One of my favourites is his support for new parent groups; research shows that they have a large and long-term effect on wellbeing, by connecting people in need (what new parent isn’t?). As someone who has raised children on both sides of the Atlantic, I can testify that the lack of public and private support for parenting in the US can be soul-crushing.

The idea that happiness is not about material things but rather calm, co-operation, support and trust runs counter to many neoliberal economic prescriptions that focus simply on increasing the size of the pie. Happiness as a metric in GDP is gaining steam in many countries, a trend that will probably be fuelled by more women in politics (we do better at prioritising things that support happiness), greater tolerance for diversity and lower violent crime rates.

There are headwinds too: Social media has supported a culture of narcissism that is the opposite of happiness, and the superstar economy doesn’t lend itself well to sharing.

There are a few things in Layard’s book that don’t make me happy – it tries to accomplish too much, particularly towards the end, with chapters about retooling economics and rethinking our digital landscape in ways that feel perfunctory.

It also leaves big questions about things such as how to reinvent corporations and rethink family dynamics. At points, it has a check-list-y quality. But for people who want to understand how both the political economy and psychology influence wellbeing, it’s a great primer. The few hours it took me to read it were happy ones.

Can We Be Happier? Evidence and Ethics, by Richard Layard, is available at Books Kinokuniya

By Rana Foroohar © 2020 The Financial Times

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