Are We Happy Yet?

Another new article on happiness studies, linked by AL Daily, from the online magazine Cato Unbound, called Are We Happy Yet? The Cato Institute, from its own Web page, seems to be a libertarian, probably right-wing body, which partially explains their disagreement with Richard Layard’s book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. Layard is a New Labour academic, whose book advocates the idea “Happiness should become the goal of policy, and the progress of national happiness should be measured and analyzed as closely as the growth of GNP.”


There was an article in Spiked a couple of months ago, “There is No Paradox of Prosperity” which also disputes some of Layard’s points.
I read Layard’s book a few months ago. I thought his ideas about happiness-oriented policy were an effort to frame the politics of New Labour as the positive politics of niceness, as New Labour distances itself from the old socialist politics of economic equality and redistribution. However most of the book was good. His presentation of happiness economics made a lot of sense. Affluent people are often unhappy because we are habituated to affluence and easily led to resent what other people have, and desire things that we don’t have. When the media are occupied with manufacturing fear, the happy members of an affluent society are generally discontented, anxious and unhappy. Many of his ideas are presented in the Lionel Robbins lectures, available online – Lecture One, Lecture Two, Lecture Three.
Layard in fact suggests that happiness is a combination of external factors – the absence of extreme poverty, illness, war, and oppression, with personal factors, and points out the ways that people can contribute to their own happiness by maintaining relationships, exercise, meditation, religion, and recognizing the social factors that cause discontent and unhappiness.
Since Layard cites research by Ruut Veenhoven, one of the contributors to the Cato Unbound series, I am interested in what Veenhoven makes of Layard’s book. His contribution has not been published at this point.

1 thought on “Are We Happy Yet?”

  1. How many books about happiness have you read? I’m wondering if a greater understanding of what happiness is (or could/should be) leads to increased happiness? Or does it just lead to more questions: am I happy now? Am I happy now? How about now? Or: Was I really happy THEN, or was it something else? I remember you once talking or writing about a book you read where the author compared the modern “pursuit of happiness” to what the American founding fathers probably meant by “pursuit of happiness.” By their definition (if I remember correctly)… having the opportunity to work, a roof over your head, freedom to worship… we should all be pretty damned happy. And yet by modern definitions of happiness many of us can count ourselves miserable. Strange. So, maybe the trick is to find a definition of happiness that matches our current condition; then we can feel better knowing we are happy. That would probably work for me.

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