The Truth About Happiness
I am writing about this topic not because I decided to read ‘Can we be happier?’ by Richard Layard in a last, desperate attempt to improve my own happiness but mainly because my dad brought it for me and it has loose connections to economics which is one of the subjects I am currently studying. However, I have decided that whether you deem yourself happy or not this book is full of ideas that must be shared especially in these times in the covid-19 pandemic. Richard Layard himself is a professor at the London School of Economics and has been studying for years ways to increase happiness mainly by decreasing unemployment and inequality as well as through many other methods as well.
To start with, we must understand what happiness is. And this can be explained using The Happiness Principle which is made up of three different principles. Firstly, The Progress Principle which says that we should judge the state of the world by how far people are enjoying their lives. Secondly, The Ethical Principle which explains how each of us should aim to create the most happiness in the world through the choices we make. And finally, The Policy Principle which is that policymakers must choose policies which create the greatest possible happiness. It is also important to remember that all these policies should put emphasis on helping those with the least happiness the most.
So, what effects happiness the most?
Unsurprisingly, mental health has the biggest impact on happiness and is increasingly becoming a more understood area. Furthermore, it may seem surprising that your years in education have the least effect on your happiness. Especially considering the amount of importance parents and schools put on exams and performing well in school. However, I will come on to look at the reasons for all these impacts and look at ways of resolving these problems later.
Some people may argue that the greatest way to achieve happiness is to be happy with oneself, and there are many ways of training one’s thoughts and feelings. You only must look at the Dalai Lama (a prominent Buddhist leader) for an example of this; not only does he practise both mindfulness and altruism but is deemed to be one of the happiest people alive. Mindfulness can teach you to care for yourself whilst altruism can teach you how to care for the wellbeing of others. But is it enough to find individual happiness? Or is it the job of society to work collectively to improve the lives of everyone?
Firstly, lets look at mental health and how it became such a big problem. The answer is simple enough – it is only recently that people have really started to consider it a serious issue. For years people have not received the requires treatment needed mainly because there have not been the facilities to treat mental health problems and because people didn’t understand how to spot these issues. Even now only 10% of children have access to the counselling they need and mainly only high-risk people are helped. By letting these seemingly harmless feelings build up inside children they become worse and worse and are carried into their adult lives. In a lot of cases these people only start to get help after serious harm has been done to their wellbeing. This seems crazy as mental health treatment pays for itself. After the patient gets help, they can increase their output by either returning to work or education and decrease the physical healthcare spending as they become less reliant on the NHS. Not only will the person be happier, but the economy will grow.
Another cause of mental health problems is drug addictions. At the moment those using illegal drugs are treated as criminals; but this is not the solution. The solution is to treat it as a mental health problem. These people need help to get over their addictions and improve their life instead of being made to pay even more for actions they cannot even control. This has been successfully done in Switzerland where heroin users were given the drug in smaller, more controlled doses in a clinic. It was found that those who attended these clinics decreased their criminal activity by 80% and some were able to return to a healthier, happier lifestyle.
Based on recent surveys it has been shown that people are unhappiest when at the workplace, especially when with their boss. It is vital that this relation between managers and their workers changes if we are to achieve maximum happiness. Managers need to able to talk to their workers and need to be trained in how to spot mental health problems. A healthy relationship will allow them to be able to talk to those people they are worried about without the worker feeling worried that they will lose their job. Instead they should feel like they can get the right help they need in order to return to work at whatever speed is best for them.
Furthermore, companies should focus on the wellbeing of their employees they can do this through taking surveys and running courses on wellbeing. For example, a company run based off individual performance pay produces stress and jealousy amongst workers and doesn’t promote the most effective working environment. This is shown in Denmark where they tracked 300,000 workers under performance related pay and found that 6% used anti-depressant medication. This is countered by the idea of using group performance pay which enhances team spirit and encourages people to work together. The European Working Conditions Survey found that people on this type of pay were overall happier and less likely to quit their job.
So, now we come onto the whole reason I read this book! How can economists improve our happiness? Firstly, we should aim for slow long-term economic growth instead of rapid growth.
Basically, we want to follow the trend line as closely as possible without going through big booms and recessions. This is because the happiness felt by making money in the boom is outweighed by peoples aversion towards for losing money. Therefore, the best strategy is to focus on low unemployment and low inflation rates. However, keeping unemployment low is easier said then done. But a few ways to start would be making Job Seekers Allowance harder to come by and last for less time like they do in Sweden. But this can only be effective in combination with active help to get people into jobs. One way of doing this would be to educate everyone with a useful skill they can use in the workplace.
Fighting long-term unemployment caused by covid-19 will be vital in recovering from this current recession. The longer people remain unemployed the harder it is to find new work and the more likely they are to become depressed. And although the lockdown has been put in place to mainly protect the older generations, it is the younger generations who will suffer the most economically. In a recent article by Richard Layard in the FT about post Covid-19 recovery, he reiterates how important it is that the government bring in new reforms to help theses people, like those I have already spoken about, to ensure as many people as possible can go back to work. This way we reduce our spending on benefits and increase our output.
But what can economists do about worldwide poverty? An obvious answer to this is migration which brings great happiness to the migrants as they find a better life in a more modern country with higher pay. This also helps their own countries of origin as many migrants send back some of their earnings to family members back in their homeland. However, this comes at the cost of existing residents. Therefore, a happy optimum is needed in order to find the most happiness worldwide which allows high levels of migration to diversify rich countries whilst giving existing residents controls over who can enter their country.
However, history shows that immigration will lead to even more conflict inside a country. People are more mistrusting of those from different ethnic backgrounds and less willing to help them. In order to achieve the most happiness these views on ethnicity need to be eradicated. To do this we need to start at the roots of our society – in schools. The first step would be to get rid of schools that cater to children from only one faith or denomination. But this alone is not enough we need active schemes to integrate children from all backgrounds learning together. The success of a scheme like this has been seen in Delhi where private schools were forced to take 20% of their pupils from poor families who didn’t have to pay fees. Not only this but the schools were forced to make sure they integrated these students fully with the more privileged students. The results of this were not only that the richer students became more inclusive of other classes in all aspects of their life, but they also became more likely to volunteer or taking an active role in trying to help the lives of others. Maybe more initiatives like this would lead to greater ethnic diversity and put a stop to racism.
Although it is important as individuals to do our best to improve the happiness of all, we rely heavily on the government bringing in the reforms needed to achieve this. So, what can politicians do to improve happiness? Well, first their main focus should the happiness of the people, after all this is the greatest factor to whether or not they get re-elected. They can do this by doing what they are employed to do – to lead! Ministers should seek to inspire the people they employ in order to get the most out of them. They can do this by making clear long-term plans which their workers are aware of with set goals to achieve. Within this the workers should be given freedom to deliver these plans to the best of their ability whilst being given constant training and retraining to keep them competent, stimulated and satisfied. This new injection of energy would keep workers motivated and more likely to perform better. But this must be initiated from the top down in order to be successful.
However, politicians need our help to do this. The extreme scrutiny and criticism they receive from the public is discouraging our brightest minds from working in politics. Not only this but the animosity created by the media does not give existing politicians the platform they need to do their job to the best of their ability. Take Edwina Currie for example who was forced to resign as government minister in the 1980s for a comment she made about eggs containing salmonella. Whether you like her or not, to ruin someone’s career over a flippant comment about eggs doesn’t seem like a solution. The time and money it will cost to train someone to take their position is not an efficient use of the resources available to the government. Furthermore, it discourages people from taking that job in the future. Therefore, a good relationship between politicians and the people is vital to achieve the most happiness.
Here I have highlighted a lot of the key points made by Layard, but what do I think. Firstly, it will be impossible to build the strong relation needed between the people and the government if untrustworthy actions such as those of Dominic Cummings continue to happen. But the government does need to focus on investing into people’s happiness. This involves taking active measures against problems like mental health and addiction to not only help the people get better but give them support to continue this improvement into the future independently. The government can do this by investing heavily into health care professionals and state of the art facilities which in turn will pay for themselves. Furthermore, we need to stop these mental health problems developing in the first place by placing much more emphasis on wellbeing in school and in the workplace. This involves training teachers and managers on how to spot mental health problems early on and offering wellbeing courses. The government should also have the macroeconomic objective of stable long-run growth focusing mainly on low unemployment and low inflation. To keep unemployment low there needs to be stricter rules surrounding job seekers allowance but also much more help from the government in helping the unemployed find work. They can do this by offering courses to teach people a new, current skill which will be useful in the workplace. On top of this they can have guaranteed work after 12 months for those who can prove that they have been actively looking for a job. If you want, listen to the video above to hear my complete manifesto focused on increasing happiness.
So, ‘Can we be happier?’. Of course, there’s hundreds of new research, methods and initiatives aimed solely at improving happiness. But at the end of the day these rely on each of us being prepared to change and doing our part in making the world happier.