The nub of Layard’s argument is this: once people’s basic economic needs are met additional income and wealth contributes little to an individual’s happiness. What’s more a society which encourages a focus on the self and its wants, and heightened individualism, tends to undermine the very things which psychological research now shows are crucial to feelings of happiness: close personal relationships, trust, and security. On top of this consumerism, advertising and the effects of the mass media heightens human beings’ natural interest in ‘status’ and social comparisions. This means that in contemporary society people’s lives are overly concerned with work, money, and how they are doing in ‘the rat race’. Such a life focus is not intrinsically satisfying and so we have the prosperity paradox that for all the increased wealth in modern society people do not feel happier.
Layard’s Definition of Happiness
In the study of happiness there are two main ways to define it: the hedonic tradition, which sees happiness in terms of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, and the eudaimonic tradition, originating in Aristotle, which refuses to equate happiness with pleasure. In the latter notion it is not happiness in the moment which matters but living a good, virtuous life of self-actualization. The advantage of the hedonic approach is that it fosters the belief that it is up to each individual to define his or her own happiness. In other words, it avoids paternalism or elitism where some types of happiness are judged to be better than others. (E.g. is the pleasure and happiness an individual derives from watching a soap on TV just as important as the happiness derived from conducting a Beethoven symphony?) The limitation of the hedonic approach is that potentially it encourages, or at least justifies, short-term pleasure-seeking behaviour.
The English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, the father of Utilitarianism, was one of the main exponents of the hedonic tradition and Professor Layard consciously follows in his footsteps. Indeed Professor Layard’s definition of happiness is uncompromisingly hedonic: '… by happiness I mean feeling good – enjoying life and wanting the feeling to be maintained’, he writes.
Professor Layard and Positive Psychology
Professor Layard’s views on happiness are somewhat at odds with the founders of Positive Psychology - Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi - both who stress the importance of engagement or meaning, as opposed, to pleasure in one’s life. In
Martin Seligman, acknowledges the importance of pleasure as a source of happiness but believes it culminates in a lesser, and fleeting, form of happiness than the happiness gained from meaning – serving a goal bigger than oneself. Unlike the Benthamites, Seligman is content to talk about a hierarchy of happiness. (See happiness section.) Layard, on the contrary, simply equates happiness with good, pleasurable feelings and the avoidance of pain.
Professor Layard in his book does acknowledge the importance of wider society and often makes reference to the need for ‘a common good’. As we’ve also seen he is very critical of the individualism of modern society and the cult of self but he does not ask whether the pursuit of immediate gratitication and pleasure (which is in essence how he defines happiness) is part of the problem in modern society. Thus there is a sense that for all that Professor Layard might talk about the need for ‘a common good’ and meaning in people’s lives, somehow his simple, Benthamite definition of happiness is not robust enough for the complexities of modern society and the myriad of pleasure-seeking activities on offer. This is most apparent when we consider the notion of educating children about happiness using Professor Layard’s definition. After all, an important milestone in children’s lives is the ability to control their impulses for immediate gratification (pleasure or happiness in the moment) for something ultimately more meaningful in the future.
As an economist Professor Layard’s work on happiness is enormously important. In the United Kingdom, he has helped to make the subject of happiness legitimate territory once again for economists, politicians and public policy-makers. He also comes up with some interesting ideas for public policy. (See next section.) But since policy-making is so much his concern he has opted for a definition of happiness which is practical from the point of view of public policy but which is one-dimensional and indirectly supportive of much of the pleasure-seeking nature of contemporary society. Professor Layard may not talk about ‘units’ of happiness, yet it is difficult not to draw the conclusion that it is the desire to see happiness in such simplistic, quantitative terms which drives his defintion of happiness.
As a Centre for Confidence and Well-Being we are much more attracted to more complex definitions of happiness which emphasise the importance of meaning and purpose in people's lives.
Copyright: Centre for Confidence and Well-being, 2006