- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 29, 2005



By Richard Layard

Penguin, $25.95, 310 pages, illus.


What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? — Luke 9:25. Or, as Richard Layard puts it in secular, supranational terms in “Happiness: Lessons From a New Science,” what good is it if Western societies get richer and richer but their populations become no happier?

Mr. Layard, a highly regarded British economist and pioneer in the new field of happiness studies, proves both halves of his equation quite satisfactorily in this engaging, if inevitably controversial work. Standards of living in the United States, Britain, Western Europe and Japan have more than doubled in 50 years, bringing us improved health and shorter work weeks and allowing us to accumulate more and more stuff. This may sound good, but then the author cites numerous scientific studies to demonstrate that not only has this not made us happier; in some cases we are less happy. This theme is similar to one developed by Gregg Easterbrook a little over a year ago in “The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse.”

Happy, schmappy, and so what? some might say. Who knows what makes people happy? It may be futile to pursue the subject. Yet, actually, it is not. There are many studies from science, economics and psychology indicating what makes people happy. And if it’s futile to pursue it, why did we enshrine the pursuit of happiness in our Declaration of Independence?

Mr. Layard is by way of being a Benthamite, an admirer of Jeremy Bentham, the British philosopher (1748-1832) who propounded the Greatest Happiness principle, that the best society is one that produces the greatest total sum of happiness among the greatest number of people. Following from this, Mr. Layard writes, the best, most humane public policy is that which produces the greatest happiness — humane because it emphasizes that what matters is what citizens feel about their lives.

Thus it follows to measure national welfare, governments need to abandon inaccurate gauges such as national income or gross national product and instead measure the average happiness of the population, giving extra weight to the least happy — a complicated though not impossible process. If Mr. Layard’s readers — believing, as they do doubt will, in different notions of happiness or perhaps assuming that happiness is not the chief end in life — have not begun to object so far, they probably will at this point, particularly those who are of a Republican frame of mind. And readers of a libertarian bent will be positively frothing.

Why? Because to achieve what he suggests, the author believes we must jettison policies and attitudes fostered in the last 25 years by politicians such as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and George W. Bush. Laissez-faire economics, even adjusted for modern times, will not, he argues, achieve the common good — that is, the greatest happiness. Mr. Layard doesn’t like emphasis on self-realization and individualism. “A country,” Mr. Layard says, “will have a higher level of average happiness the more equally its income is distributed.” You will not be surprised, then, to discover that his ideal model is Scandinavia.

So he writes: “Our fundamental problem today is a lack of common feeling between people — the notion that life is essentially a competitive struggle.” And on “many measures,” he concludes (not at all surprisingly), “the Scandinavian countries are among the happiest” because they “have the clearest concept of the common good.”

The details of Mr. Layard’s argument are too complex to go into here, but his attitude toward taxes will give a clear indication of the drift. He is, in a word, for them. The author maintains that well-applied taxes do not distort, but correct problems that need correcting. For example, they discourage smoking and pollution. And like cigarettes and alcohol, income and spending, too, have addictive effects — the more we get the more we want — so “taxation again has a useful role, just as it has with other forms of addiction… .Taxes discourage us from overwork, from running on a treadmill that brings less advance in happiness than we expected.”

Still, anyone, whatever their political persuasion, can benefit from the book’s questioning whether we shouldn’t force ourselves off this “hedonic treadmill.” And most people will agree that we should actively encourage qualities such as security and community, values we all claim to treasure. It is interesting to note that what Mr. Layard calls into question is exactly the same sort of treadmill that Tom Rath, the hero of Sloan Wilson’s “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” a novel published exactly50 years ago, felt the world forced him to walkin order to succeed at business enough to support his family well and which he believed subtracted from his ability to enjoy life.

If nothing else, the findings of the many researches and experiments Mr. Layard cites are in themselves fascinating — and instructive. For example, actors who have won Oscars have gone on to live four years longer, on average, than those who were nominated and lost. The “lesson” from this “new science”? Try to have happy experiences, because they are beneficial to your health.

Roger K. Miller, a former reporter and newspaper book review editor, is a freelance writer, reviewer and editor.

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