Can we live happily ever after?

Ron Horvath, The University of Sydney

Richard Layard Happiness: Lessons from a New Science London, The Penguin Press, 2005 (256 pp). ISBN 0-71399-769-9 (hard cover) RRP $45.00.

Freud was very sceptical about humans achieving happiness and is remembered for his comment that ‘the best that can be hoped for in life is the transformation of hysteric misery into common unhappiness’. Nietzsche, another happiness sceptic, observed: ‘I don’t know why we’re here, but I’m pretty sure that it’s not in order to enjoy ourselves’ (cited by Persaud 2005). By contrast, the Dalai Lama is a happiness optimist. He believes that the principal aim of our existence is happiness and that spiritual bliss or enlightenment is an achievable state of existence. Between the optimists and the sceptics, there is, of course, a considerable range of views.

In the past decade the science of happiness has entered the fray in the hope of determining what makes us happy and whether we can make ourselves happier. What distinguishes this recent approach from the tradition set in motion by Freud and by behavioural psychology is the focus on positive rather than negative emotions. Happiness scholars do not reject the important discoveries made about disabling conditions such as depression; indeed, the advances made to relieve psychological misery are acknowledged and even celebrated because of the progress toward improving emotional well-being. However, happiness scholars focus attention on positive emotions like happiness, joy, and contentment, and study the conditions responsible for these emotions with the goal of discovering ways of augmenting happiness in a sustainable way. Happiness researchers currently recognise three broad factors responsible for the level of happiness of individuals: genetic endowment, individual practice, and social setting. The relationship among these factors offers a refreshed take on the nature vs. nurture debate as well as developing a basis for evaluating claims about happiness expressed in contemporary self-help manuals.

Happiness is now
an objective and measurable phenomenon.

Richard Layard’s book, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, draws together the research from neuroscience, positive psychology, sociology, economics, and philosophy from the perspective of a happiness optimist. What distinguishes Layard’s account from much of the literature in happiness studies is the degree to which he incorporates social factors into the happiness equation. Layard focuses on the common good, with each person counting equally in measuring the average happiness of a society. He is also unusual because he is interested in formulating policies designed to augment the average happiness. My aim in this essay is to provide a brief account of how the three general factors operate separately and in relation to one another. But first, we should consider in what sense the study of happiness can be viewed as a science.

Layard argues, on the basis of fascinating evidence, that happiness is now an objective and measurable phenomenon. New developments in brain scanning technology have allowed neuroscientists to locate where in the brain positive emotions like happiness and negative emotions like anxiety or unhappiness are to be found; they are also able to measure the intensity of the emotion. A much more detailed account of the results of this new technology is provided by Goleman (2004) in the context of ascertaining how happy meditating Buddhist monks are compared to a sample of people who have not been involved in long-term mind training. When brain scans are compared with what people report they are feeling ‘there is no difference between what people think they feel and what they “really” feel’ (p. 20) Although the measures available thus far are crude though rapidly improving, Layard concludes from this type of evidence that what people say they think about human emotions can be described as objective. Happiness means ‘feeling good—enjoying life and wanting the feeling to be maintained’ and unhappiness is ‘feeling bad and wishing things were different’ (p. 10).

The notion that there is an objective identity between thought and feelings should set the cat among the pigeons. After all, feelings are at the core of what is meant by subjectivity, and the possibility of being objective has been under relentless critique for decades. Indeed, the entire post-Enlightenment project could be characterised as a colonisation of the objective by the subjective. Layard draws two major implications from this evidence: first, there are no higher or lower forms of happiness, and second, being happy cancels out being unhappy and vice versa.

There are no higher or lower forms of happiness.

What role does our genetic inheritance play is the level of happiness we experience? Since ‘roughly 50 percent of almost every personality trait turns out to be attributable to genetic inheritance’ (Seligman 2002, p. 47), the particular configuration of our genetic wiring is a powerful influence on each person’s level of happiness. Each individual can be viewed as having an emotional thermostat, a set point identifying the typical level of happiness they experience over a lifetime. The set point of individuals varies considerably across a spectrum from seriously depressed to optimistically happy, with mildly unhappy and generally content in between. This variation is a critical part of what constitutes an individual’s personality. Positive psychologists view the emotional thermostat metaphor optimistically. They see the glass as only half full and aim to use scientific methods to discover how to fill the other half with happiness. The critical question is whether the level of happiness can be raised over the set point on a sustainable basis. Although positive psychologists recognise that both individual practices and social circumstances account for the ‘other half’, they have tended to emphasise specific individual practices that contribute to lifting our emotional well-being.

The BBC ‘Happiness Manifesto’, (BBC Lifestyle n.d.) is a good example of a list of practices that can make individuals happier:

  1. Get physical (exercise)
  2. Count your blessing (express and feel gratitude)
  3. Talk-time (have an hour-long uninterrupted conversation with your partner or closest friend each week)
  4. Plant something
  5. Cut your television viewing by half
  6. Smile at and/or say hello to a stranger (at least once each day)
  7. Phone a friend (make contact with a friend or relative you have not been in contact for a while and arrange to meet up)
  8. Have a good laugh at least once a day
  9. Every day make sure you give yourself a treat (take time to enjoy this)
  10. Daily kindness (do an extra good turn for someone each day)

Layard does not offer a systematic program of individual practices to raise the level of happiness. But comments sprinkled throughout his book are similar to items on the BBC list. One thing I found fascinating in the many books that I have read on happiness is that the ‘secrets of happiness’ are both familiar to me and can be simply stated, whereas the mechanisms responsible for the ‘secrets’ are complexly embedded in our genetic wiring, individual behaviour, and social circumstances. For example, how happy we are with our level of income, or increases in income, depends not on the income as such, but on our income compared to a social norm, especially our reference group. Being very affluent will not make us happy if, say, the members of our extended family or our close circle of friends, with whom we make comparisons, are more affluent. But when it comes to the secret of happiness, Layard tells us to ‘ignore comparisons with people who are more successful than you are: always compare downwards, not upwards’ (p. 47). Time and again, he follows complex discussions of the mechanisms with secrets such as ‘count your blessings; don’t cry over spilt milk; avoid false gods’ (p. 199). In other words, most of the secrets of happiness are found in canons of wisdom that have been known for centuries and have been formulated in different ways by the great spiritual traditions; that is, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, and Islamic teachings. Contemporary self-help books on happiness can be viewed as a repackaging of the ancient wisdom in the form of secular ‘inspirational’ texts. (See Salermo (2005) for a critical review of the self-help industry.)

Most of the secrets of happiness have been known for centuries.

My guess is that the list of items in the BBC Happiness Manifesto would, if systematically incorporated into one’s life, lead to an increase in feelings of well-being. Happiness studies can play a role because they use scientific means to identify which practices actually contribute to raising our level of happiness above that set by our emotional thermostats on a sustainable basis. Happiness research has the potential to reinvigorate on a different basis traditional wisdom which can appear too trite or even hackneyed when we see it on a bumper sticker, find it in a fortune cookie, or hear it from a self-appointed happiness guru.

Two final points about individual practice: first, considerable effort and training is required before individual practice such as exercise or mind training raises the level of well-being above the range set by a given emotional thermostat. Second, for individual practices to be sustainable, they generally have to take place in a social setting that supports the activities. The deepest contradiction in the happiness literature is that prescriptions offered to make people happier generally focus on individual behaviour but at the same time individualism is often recognised as the root cause of much contemporary unhappiness.

Social circumstances also play a critical role in raising or lowering the level of happiness. Layard identifies what he calls the Big Seven factors that contribute to happiness: 1. family relationships, 2. financial situation, 3. work, 4. community and friends, 5. health, 6. personal freedom, and 7. personal values. In other words, people in Western nations who are married, comfortably affluent, employed, socially involved, healthy, free (in human rights terms), and believe in god are happier. Less happy people are divorced, widowed or single, relatively poor, unemployed, socially isolated, unhealthy, etcetera. These factors tend to be identified in cross-sectional analyses of data in which the level of expressed happiness is the dependent variable and each of the ‘Big Seven’ make an independent contribution to the level of happiness in a statistical sense.

We judge what we have in relation to what others are perceived to have rather than what we need.

National surveys of happiness began in 1948 and it is possible to correlate directly some factors (for example, national income) with happiness data and to make inferential claims about a variety of social trends that may impact on happiness, for example, the role of television viewing. While television viewing may have some benefits, on balance Layard believes that the negative consequences overwhelm the benefits. Income is a more complex case. As national income raises a nation out of poverty, happiness increases and then plateaus. Layard analyses the relationship between national income and national happiness in some depth. He finds that Western nations have, over the past half century, become richer but not happier; he calls this the ‘happiness paradox’. He explains the happiness paradox as follows: we quickly get used to (adapt is the term used by psychology) the things we buy with our money and consequently people in rich Western societies are on a hedonic treadmill, spending more and more time making money to buy things that give little no long term happiness. Consider the minutes of happiness that the purchase of a new commodity provides against the number of days worked to pay for it! Another dimension of the happiness paradox is the need to keep up with the more affluent Joneses in our social circle: we judge what we have in relation to what others are perceived to have rather than what we need and what really makes us happy. He concludes that both adaptation and social comparison negate the contribution that increases in income might make in affluent nations.

Happiness also varies geographically, both between and within nations. Many people from Eastern Europeans nations like Russia, Belarus, or Bulgaria regard themselves as relatively unhappy, whereas Danes, Americans, and Australians rate themselves among the happiest. One happiness database shows midtown Manhattan to be the unhappiest place in America and Branson, Missouri, to be the happiest. Senior, a journalist of Russian origin now living in Manhattan observes the following about Australians: ‘Australian buoyancy, such an enduring mystery—they’re like an entire nation of people who can’t relate to Chekhov’ (2006).

Cross-sectional analysis, which identifies the Big Seven factors contributing to happiness, the historical trends, and the geographical variability of happiness, suggests that social circumstances play a role in people’s level of happiness. When Layard turns to the question of what can be done to increase happiness, he focuses on changes in social circumstances that will contribute to the increase in the overall happiness of a society through the agency of government policy. The idea that policy interventions can or should intervene in the private emotional lives of people is often critically dismissed, presumably on the grounds of limiting the rights of individuals to choose. However, government already acts as a powerful force impinging upon our emotional lives and thus restricting our right to choose.

If fear and desire can be manufactured why not happiness?

In her recent book, Fear and Politics, Carmen Lawrence argues that ‘we are living, not for the first time, in an era of heightened collective fear, a fear which is being exploited and encouraged by our governments through the media’ (2006, p. 5). She discusses how fear of others, fear of crime, or fear of annihilation are to a considerable extent the result of political intrusions in the emotional lives of Australians. If fear and desire can be manufactured (through advertising, spin, and propaganda), why not happiness? If negative emotions cancel positive ones, as Layard suggests, the manufacture of fear and anxiety is also a factor contributing to the happiness paradox. Layard believes that public policy should focus more on relieving misery than augmenting happiness and his recent report on depression (2006) provides a more detailed illustration of his view on the role of public policy in increasing the overall happiness of a society.

By separating out three major factors (individual genetic inheritance, individual practice, and the social setting) that contribute to happiness, we arrive at a model that distinguishes three major sets of constraints on our level of emotional well-being. The starting point to increasing happiness is to recognise the differences in individual emotional thermostats and then to develop programs of individual practice which take account of the social context within which we live our daily lives, since that context can either support or be inimical to particular practices.

It is early days for the field of happiness studies in its current academic configuration: the size of its bibliography is small although doubling perhaps every five years. What Richard Layard succeeded in doing is to offer a systematic summary of many of the key scientific findings to reinvigorate a vision proposed by such 19th century intellectuals as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. The message of the new science of happiness is that it is within our capacity as human beings to live happier ever after.


Goleman, D. 2003, Destructive Emotions and How We Can Change Them, Bloomsbury, London.

Lawrence, C. 2006, Fear and Politics, Scribe Short Books, Melbourne.

Layard, R. 2006, The depression report: A new deal for depression and anxiety disorders, The Centre for Economic Performance’s Mental Health Policy Group, London School of Economics [Online], Available: [2006, 27 Oct].

BBC Lifestyle (n.d.), Happiness Manifesto, British Broadcasting Corporation [Online], Available: [2006, 27 Oct].

Persaud, R. 2005, Interview with James Carleton, ABC Radio National, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 14 August [Online], Available: [2006, 27 Oct].

Salermo, S. 2005, SHAM: How the Gurus of the Self-Help Movement Make Us Helpless, Nicholas Brealey, London.

Seligman, M. 2002, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential For Lasting Fulfilment, Free Press, New York.

Senior, J. 2006, ‘Some dark thoughts on happiness’, New York Magazine, 23 July [Online], Available: [2006, 27 Oct].

Ronald Horvath is an Honorary Associate in the School of Geosciences at The University of Sydney.

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