Happiness, Lessons from a New Science by Richard Layard. Part 1

This book is such a treaure trove of knowledge that I read it quickly; I got very excited about it and many projects popped in my head and I planned to ask two of my highly conscious girlfriends to read it, to check if they would be excited about the same projects as I was …. but after a while I reminded myself that it is a peaceful and quiet life I am thriving in at the moment so I let go of the projects …. for the time being at least. so, what did I learn from this book?

Matthew Arnold

“Is it so small a thing,

To have enjoyed the sun,

To have lived in the spring,

to have loved, to have thought, to have done?”

  1. Jeremy Bentham – one of the greatest thinkers of the Enlightenment “the best society is one where the citizens are happiest”.
  2. our wants depend heavily on what other people have and on what ourselves have got accustomed to, education, advertising & TV, heavily driven by the desire to keep up with other people: status race – self-defeating since if I do better, someone else must do worse.
  3. people want security; they hate unemployment, family break-up and crime in the streets. how can the community promote a way of life that is more secure?
  4. people want to trust other people. In the USA & Britain levels of trust have plummeted.
  5. when a person has a happy experience, the body chemistry improves and heart rate tend to fall. Especially good experiences can have long-lasting effects on our health. taking 750 actors and actresses who were ever nominated for Oscars, those who got Oscars went on to live 4 years longer on average than the losers. Such was the gain in morale from winning.
  6. extra happiness provided by extra income is greatest when you are poor and declines steadily as you get richer (extra happiness has been cancelled out by greater misery coming from less harmonious social relationships).
  7. clinical depression has increased since World War 2 as has alcoholism and crime.
  8. whether you are happy with your income depends on how it compares with some norm ie what other people get (social comparison) and what you yourself are used to (habituation) – these 2 forces are strong human nature  so it is quite difficult for economic growth to improve our happiness!! (A rise in other people’s income hurts your happiness.)
  9. people are rivalrous about income  (self-defeating) but not rivalrous about their leisure.
  10. one secret of happiness is to ignore comparisons with people who are more successful than you are: always compare downwards , not upwards.
  11. the Hedonic Treadmill: living standards are to some extent like alcohol and drugs. Once you have a certain new experience, you need to keep on having more of it if you want to sustain your happiness – adaptation. The secret of happiness is to seek out those things that you can never fully adapt to.
  12. the most classless societies in the world are those in Scandinavia, where taxes are high, basic education is good and there is a culture of mutual respect
  13. IQ weakly correlated with happiness as are physical and mental energy

The Big Seven factors affecting happiness – 1st 5 given in order of ‘importance’

  1. family relationships
  2. financial situation
  3. work
  4. community and friends
  5. health
  6. personal freedom
  7. personal values
Sir Henry Wotton’s description of the happy man:
” This man is freed from servile bands
Of hope to rise or fear to fall,
Lord of himself, though not of lands,
And having nothing yet hath all”
Different people have different ways of disciplining their minds :
People find comfort from within, in all sorts of ways …..generally relying on the deep positive part of oneself, NOT on the efforts of the conscious EGO. Some call this source of comfort “divine” and the most robust findings of happiness research show that people who believe in God are happier.
What has been strongly reiterated in my mind:
  1. as Western societies get richer, their people have become no happier
  2. once subsistence income is guaranteed making people happier is not easy
  3. in the 20th century religious belief diminished and so eventually did belief in the secular religion of socialism, in consequence there remained no widely accepted system of ethical belief. in the void stepped the non-philosophy of RAMPANT INDIVIDUALISM : at its best this individualism offered an ideal of “self-realisation” – but that gospel failed, it did not increase happiness, because it made each individual too anxious about what he could get for himself
  4. if we really want to be happy, we need some concept of a common good, towards which we all contribute
  5. people are happier if the y are compassionate and if they are thankful for what they have
  6. happiness is our overall motivational device
  7. the things we get used to most easily and most take for granted are material possessions eg cars and advertisers understand this and invite us to “feed our addiction” with more and more spending.
  8. even the most heritable traits can be radically altered by experience
  9. people who care about other people are on average happier than those who are more preoccupied with themselves
  10. more anxiety comes from striving to “do well” for yourself than from striving to “do good” for the rest of the world
  11. science and technology are the prime source of the changes that affect our attitudes and feelings

I loved this joke (I have a soft spot for the pharmaceutical world)

This is what caused me to dream up projects:

The Royal Government of Bhutan in 2005 made the decision to develop GNH indicators in order to move the concept of GNH from the point of academic discourse to a measurable one.

It’s been a few years now since I have started a crusade again trash TV (to the dismay of my long-suffering husband) ….. and so saddened to learn this !

Four years ago, Bhutan, the fabled Himalayan Shangri-la, became the last nation on earth to introduce television.

I was born and bred in a country where divorce was introduced in 2011 …. I listened to comments from my friends who were brought up in other countries whilst my compatriots battled it out with the pro-Catholic Church Government and the Catholic Church to win the referendum and have divorce legislated  in the country. So I was not so thrilled to read and learn the following statistics …..

  • half of all american 15 year olds are living with their biological father
  • in America divorce peaked in 1980, in Britain in continued rising slowly after that
  • divorce has been identified as the clearest reason for rising youth suicide in the US
  • since more and more people are separated, divorced or never married, this exerts a steady downward pressure on the average level of happiness.

In 1952 51% of all Americans thought people led “as good lives – moral and honest – as they used to”. By 1998 28% thought so. Fewer and fewer people in the US belong to associations of their fellows – sport, politics, service to the young and elderly, religion or common ethnicity. More and more people are going it alone, even when they go bowling. (Note to self: Facebook, blogs, virtual groups etc??)

  1. gender roles: wives are now paid workers and home-makers; liberating but because women continue to do more of the housework and parenting causes extra strain. Men feel they get less attention from the wives. From both sides a greater potential for dissatisfaction. Easier to split up, mothers contemplate break-up of marriage as they can earn money or get help from the State. Control of childbirth – the Pill, legalised abortion – sexual revolution. In the US a quarter of families take the evening meal together on fewer than 4 days a week. We need a more family-friendly lifestyle, one that is better adjusted to the new gender roles. More flexible hours of work, more parental leave and better child care.
  2. TV: in 1950 there was no TV in the home. The typical Briton watches the telly for 3.5 hours a day (my reaction: surprise and shock horror) ie over a life time a typical Briton spends more time watching TV than doing paid work (same for the US). Viewing time replaced social life. Also children got their own TV sets …..
  3. violence and sex: TV widens our experience; TV focuses far more on the extremes, contains more violence, sex and chaotic relationships than ordinary life does and contains more wealth and beauty. Evidence: if you expose children to violent films, they behave more violently in the playground; for 2 days after heavyweight prize-fights in the US there is 9% more homicide than otherwise; after a reported suicide or a suicide on TV drama, ,ore people actually take their lives (this reminded me of a sad case of an island, I fail to remember the name where suicide was unknown and when the first person committed it there were a string of others ….)
  4. wealth and beauty: raising our standards of comparison: in 1982 nearly half of all the characters in prime-time social dramas were millionaires. Since TV has a negative impact on your perceived position, it is bad for your happiness. Also, an extra hour a week watching telly causes you to spend an extra $4 a week – on “keeping up with the Joneses” : TV reduces our happiness with our possessions. NOT WITHOUT REASON DO CONSUMER-PRODUCT COMPANIES SPEND BILLIONS ON TV ADVERTISING. Viewing also reduces happiness with our bodies and our spouses. TV creates discontent by bombarding us with images of body shapes and riches we do not have.
  5. Moral and spiritual values: rampant individulaism has become increasingly the norm. The goal of self-realisation is not enough. No society can work unless its members feel responsiobilities as well as rights. The decline of orthodox Christianity and then of social solidarity has left a moral vacuum. From Darwin’s theory of evolution many people now conclude that to survive you have to be selfish and to look after No. 1 and from Adam Smith that if everyone is completely selfish things will turn out for the best. (Not to self: research Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand)


In 1973, a small Canadian town (called “Notel” by the investigators) acquired television for the first time. The acquisition of television at such a late date was due to problems with signal reception rather than any hostility toward television. Joy et al20 investigated the impact of television on this virgin community, using as control groups two similar communities that already had television. In a double-blind research design, a cohort of 45 first- and second-grade students were observed prospectively over a period of 2 years for rates of objectively measured noxious physical aggression (e.g., hitting, shoving, and biting). Rates of physical aggression did not change significantly among children in the two control communities. Two years after the introduction of television, rates of physical aggression among children in Notel had increased by 160% (P<.001).

  • the result of co-operation is not zero sum; it is a win-win activity. We survived because our genes gave us the ability to cooperate
  • cooperation is all around us; people are trusted with money for e.g. how does this happen? variety of mechanisms:
  1. punishment
  2. reputation
  3. approval
  4. sense of fairness; behaving well can make you feel good (Immanuel Kant believed that doing the right thing should give no pleasure but an MRI scanner shows that it does!). On average, people with a strong moral sense do better than others, even economically.This is because they are more trustworthy and so get more responsibility.
  5. commitment; in all walks of life, good behaviour by one person elicits good behaviour by others.
  6. tribalism

I differ in opinion with the author in these cases :

  • happiness comes from without and within – it depends on our circumstances but also on our inner selves : my little note : IT DEPENDS SOLELY ON OUR INNER SELF!
  • if our goals are too low, we get bored, but if they are too high, we get frustrated, the secret is to have goals that are stretching enough, but not too stretching, unattainable goals are a well-know cause of depression, but so too is boredom. My 2 pence: attachment to the attainment of a goal leads to depression whether the goal is small, big or unattainable. We must cherish the journey not the destination. Regarding boredom, one must change one’s circumstances if possible,  if this is not possible then accept and surrender to the feeling of boredom. As Byron Katie so eloquently puts it :”Love what is”.
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