On Happiness

Happiness, Goodreads.

Richard Layard’s Happiness (2005) was about the ‘new’ science of happiness. Depressingly, it feels current and we all need reminding of three things: 

  1. What makes us happy? Family, finances, work if we want it, community, health, personal freedom, personal values. 
  1. The main measure governments use to determine policy has for decades been GDP. But happiness should be central to governance.  
  1. You can take control of your own happiness. Spend less time consuming. Realize “average affluence” is lower than you think. Work for purpose, and spend time on your relationships and health.  

Want to know more?

This blog post is part of a series I am making called Reading For The Aspirational Self. Don’t think of this as book summaries – I’m not doing that. Instead, I’m drawing out specific lessons that I find particularly interesting. And which I think could act, together, to help people who share my aspirations. If you, too, want to be present, family-centric, intrinsically motivated and polymathic, I can help.

  • The most distilled version of what I’m offering is a free mailing list designed for learning, “Think On Thursday” – each e-mail will include a lesson designed around the content. Click here for some information on that.
  • The series is also on YouTube in the form of 7-12 minute videos. Here’s the channel link – the video and transcript are below.
  • I’m tweeting excerpts from the videos, as well as some of the story of this project, how we’re doing it, and where it is going, on Twitter. @DaveCBeck

If you want to know more about Happiness take a look at the website here: https://www.actionforhappiness.org/why-happiness.

Starboard reflections,


This weeks video:-


Politics and education as well as most of what you would see on that screen you’re looking at right now orient around things like wealth and productivity but those things don’t make us happy once our basic needs are met. Richard Layard’s happiness was first published in 2005 It’s about the new science of happiness as it was then it’s still salient 15 years later, at least in the U S and the UK.

In this video I’ll draw three points out from Layard’s book. Firstly what makes us happy. The research outline still holds mostly today. Secondly, I’ll outline his argument that our politics and society should be orientated more around happiness than around GDP or economic growth. This has been taken seriously in countries like New Zealand but the UK and the US are way behind on this. Thirdly, one of the biggest problems for happiness is comparison and aspirations, and that’s something that you can control for yourself.

So I’ll talk about how to make yourself happier according to the research in a moment. First, what makes us happy?

I’ll start with the negative. What doesn’t make us happy? That might be quite surprising. Age has no effect. Gender attractiveness, your intelligence measured by IQ or anything else, your energy levels, interestingly, have almost no correlation with happiness. Your education too. All of these things that people see as quite important, it as markers of where they are in life, don’t correlate with happiness, according to the research.

So what does? Well, there were seven things. The first one, family. Having a strong sense of family and a family around you, people to love and people who love you, a reciprocal relationship with your family, is one of the most important things for happiness. Not all of us can have that, but for those of us that do, it’s the determinant. It’s the key one.

Secondly, finances, certainly above the scarcity point, correlates with happiness. And there’s actually been more recent research that shows that carries on higher up the income scale, at least in the United States as well, perhaps due to aspirations, which I talk about in the moment.

Thirdly, work, if you want to work, not everybody does. But if you want to work then, and you find your purpose in life through work, then work is an important determinant of happiness.

Fourthly community. So not just a family, but also a wider circle of friends. And people who, again, you have a reciprocal relationship based on things that are not financial with a reciprocal relationship of care.

Fifthly, the feeling that we have a say over how we’re governed and the government.

And sixthly, our personal values, what you might think of as an internal philosophy and the feeling that that is a distinctive set of personal values and individual one for you rather than dictated by other people.

That’s in important determinant of happiness too.  (popup on screen – Dave forgot ‘health’ which is the seventh…)

And so two of those I’ll just draw out briefly because there are things that you can change. Each one of them, we need goals for him, happiness. So a quote from the book is prod any happy person and you’ll find a project. I’m not sure that’s entirely true, but it holds is a correlation and that’s something you can determine. You can set your own goals.

It’s a little bit like attitudes towards boredom. Keens and Bertrand Russell have both argued that boredom is the biggest danger for people once  economic scarcity has been overcome, which it has now in the West largely. And boredom is an attitude.  My oldest son is seven. I think he said he’s been bored maybe two or three times in his life so far. And that’s because he’s curious about the world around him, the same holds for many of the children.

Curiosity is something that you can relearn as an adult too.

Being curious about the world around you and disconnecting consciously from the distraction culture of constantly scrolling on phones, which doesn’t satiate a kind of impulsive curiosity properly.  That’s a choice. That’s something you can change yourself.

The same goes for the goals. You can set yourself goals that are achievable and that aren’t based on what other people think are important, but are instead based around yourself. You can choose to spend more time to invest more time on the relationships you have with, with your family and with other people in the community around you. You can choose to think about your personal values, to spend more time defining them for yourself rather than letting them be defined by things around you. And if you do those things, you, you set yourself goals, you try and be more curious , you work on your relationships and you solidify your personal values. The research shows that you’ll be happier.

And at the same time, what you’re doing is you’re setting up a really positive compounding effect. So by setting goals that are orientated around your personal values, You’ll spend more of your time doing things like working on relationships and all of those will compound together to improve your individual happiness. And if you’re working as a community too, you’ll help others at the same time.

The reason it feels hard to orient yourself and your own goals around happiness and what makes you happy is that society as a whole, as I said in the introduction is oriented around wealth and productivity. So the main measure of government policy has for decades been GDP or maybe jobs, which is better than GDP, but it’s still oriented just around the economic portion of your life.

And ignores the importance of relationships, community and purpose more broadly, that is society is oriented primarily around financial things. So in choosing to take the step of orienting yourself around happiness, you’re going against the grain. And that’s difficult for us to do particularly those of us without free time.

 The problem is that once subsistence income is guaranteed, making people happier, isn’t an easy thing to do. It’s very difficult to determine how a state can act to improve people’s relationships, for instance. And given that education doesn’t correlate with happiness, it’s clear that just more education isn’t the answer because that’s the initial thing that many people jump to.

The way to think about this according to Layard. Is that happiness and pain are our overall motivational device. We seek as individuals to feel good and to avoid pain. That doesn’t have to be a moment by moment thing, but it can be overall over the course of our lives. Everything we do. And that people do as a society should be understood through that lens. All of the other drives that you think about and that you think are important, are for Layard, moot. They subservient to things like happiness, and pain.

Much like Bentham earlier, Layard argues that society should aim for the greatest happiness in all individuals. And that includes the model choices we make as a society too. So moral progress should be driven by happiness for the greatest number. Layard makes a concession here, particularly in the 2011 and rewrite that we should think mostly about the increase of happiness of people currently at the bottom of the scale and less about the loss of happiness at the top of the scale.

He’s okay with leveling off happiness, as long as the overall trend is up.

 So society currently is organized in a way that doesn’t optimize for happiness, like things we should change that as a society. And in the meantime that you can change that as individuals.

One of the biggest reasons that we’re not as happy as we could be nowadays is comparison. We naturally compare ourselves to the people around us and we’re happiest when we feel that we’re among our equals. And with the media that’s a particular problem. The sense that everybody around you is more wealthy is inculcated by a media and an advertising culture that constantly shows you things that you don’t have, that constantly exposes you to things that you were encouraged to think are better than your current way of living.

The more TV people watch, the worst that overestimation of average affluence was. For every hour of TV the people in this study watch they spent an extra $4 because they thought the people around them were spending that money too. It’s not true. The media and advertising as I’m sure you know consciously but perhaps you haven’t internalized, the media and advertising sell an aspiration, an aspiration of wealth, an aspiration of productivity, and an aspiration that you need to spend an earn more in order to achieve. Because we think the average affluence around us is higher than our own affluence. We’re less happy than we could be.

And it’s that disparity between the world that is actually around us and the world that we think is around us that Layard points out as a particular problem. I I’m guessing here that is advertising has become more effective with things like personalized targeting through Facebook that this disparity will have become worse.

This is a particular problem because status is a zero sum game. It’s a struggle for signifiers that we’re above other people and the other people are `below us. So the idea that we internalize an aspiration that’s slightly out of reach is a kind of never ending cycle. We aspire for more so the people around to see that and they aspire for more and so on.

And having more particularly when it just comes to more wealth is a little bit like any addiction. There’s a habituation effect, you get used to that level of wealth, and if you ever don’t have it or if the people around you ever don’t have it, the impact of losing that wealth is greater than the impact of gaining it in the first place.

And the same goes for many of the things that you might think of a status symbol.

Layard makes the political argument that working to gain wealth in excess of of what you need is a little bit like pollution. You’re raising other people’s aspirations and comparing yourself to others in a way that actually impacts their happiness negative. Because of that he argues that taxes should be seen as a charge on pollution. So, income tax is actually a corrective measure to account for the fact that those of you who are wealthy are making other people less happy and that your negative impact on other people because of your wealth is greater than the positive impact of that wealth on your own life. Now that’s something to reflect on for those of you who strive to increase your wealth endless ly.

The argument that Layard is making is that now that we’ve conquered scarcity as a society, we should be working towards our happiness And that goes to individuals too. Once you’ve conquered scarcity in your own life you should think more about all of the stuff I outlined earlier. Working on relationships working on the family around you having the say over government and feeling that you have a say, and your personal boundaries.