Battle in Print: The Happiness Trap: promoting well-being or lowering horizons?

Lotte Meteyard, 27 September 2006

‘Happiness is that ultimate goal because, unlike all other goals, it is self-evidently good’
- Richard Layard, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (1995)

At the recommendation of Lord Richard Layard and a pilot establishment in Newham, Psychological Treatment Centres are being set up across the UK. Their purpose is to serve the 15 per cent of the population who suffer from anxiety or depression, over a million of whom receive incapacity benefit due to mental illness. By providing psychological treatments, talk-based and cognitive behavioural therapies, the hope is that those debilitated by mental illness can be rehabilitated back to health. The motivation for these centres is not primarily to improve existing mental health services and facilities, but stems from a fixation with mental well-being and the government’s intervention to improve it.

In his latest book, Richard Layard (2005) has taken up the (for economists) surprising data revealing that over the last 50 years our happiness has not increased with our income. Research concludes that money does not buy happiness because we value it relative to what others have and, since everybody is richer, we are none the happier. If income does not reflect a better society then what does, and how can government make it effective policy? Layard begins with happiness and works backwards, providing factors that both detract from and contribute to our happiness. The negatives are numerous: less harmonious social relations, the rat race, competitive individualism, the breakdown of the family unit, television, geographical mobility breaking down communities, and loss of trust in others. The ‘Big 7’ contributors are: family relationships, financial situation, work, community and friends, health, personal freedom, and personal values.

Happiness as a personal and societal aspiration is not new. ‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ is enshrined in the US Declaration of Independence, and according to utilitarian Jeremy Bentham’s greatest happiness principle, actions are ‘right in proportion as they tend to produce happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness’. Most of us see happiness as a reaction – like all emotional states – to action and circumstance. For Layard, and others such as positive psychologist Martin Seligman, happiness is something ‘out there’, an object to prod and interrogate. Layard states that ‘brain science confirms the objective character of happiness’, since consistent brain activations are found that reflect positive or negative stimuli, and positive or negative moods. If you ask people how happy they are they can provide reliable and stable responses. This is taken as proof that happiness is ‘real’, and a legitimate project.

With our emotions in hand, government policy can be based around people’s feelings: ‘unless we can justify our goals by how people feel, there is real danger of paternalism’, states Layard. When talking about crime, Tony Blair has affirmed this view: ‘It is not about statistics, it is about how people feel…the fear of crime is as important in some respects as crime itself’. Are people’s feelings really a coherent basis for government policy, instead of concrete measures of success? Should we care if people are afraid of crime if crime itself has been declining over the past decade?

Similarly, it is questionable what we can usefully conclude from opinion poll measures of happiness. It has not increased over the last 50 years, but it has not significantly decreased either – the same portion of people report that they are very happy, quite happy and not so happy. Perhaps this simply suggests a consistency in human nature rather than pointing to a grave social malaise. Psychological interventions like cognitive behavioural therapy may be cost-effective and successful for a large number of mental health problems, but it is a logical leap to base a campaign for well-being on modest reinvestment in mental health services. For those really in need of mental health support, the currently under-funded systems are already poor, and declining. For those of us who are having a bad day, these centres encourage us more than anything else to become aware, even paranoid, about our psychology, as well as our diets, careers, clothes, and neighbours’ and dog’s behaviour.

The elevation of happiness and positive affect to the status of ultimate goal ignores that both triumph and failure are part of life. It also undermines personal choice, providing a deterministic view of the nature of happiness. Happiness is not to be found through overcoming hurdles, striving for goals, or enduring hardship: the outcome here is satisfaction. Happiness comes through contentment, by changing our attitude rather than our circumstances, by engineering ‘the Big 7’ into place. In other words, it’s a state to strive for and experience, but it’s not our end point. Literature has explored the inert nature of a society kept passive with happiness – via drugs and hedonism in Huxley’s Brave New World  or effortless abundance in Wells’ The Time Machine. In both cases a contented society is passive and cultureless: no obstacles, no problem solving, no curiosity or investigation. A society that is focused on achieving happiness risks ignoring much of what makes us dynamic and, more importantly, human.

The well-being agenda makes strong claims about how we should view our material and mental lives, so it should provoke in us some important questions. Should we accept happiness as that ‘ultimate goal’, and, if so, what implications does this have for the measure of our experience? For the government, concern with the nation’s well-being is marketable, but it is ultimately apolitical. Happiness is a subjective state, whereas politics is about engaging individuals at a public level around common issues. Of course, only misanthropes would want people to feel worse rather than better, but with lifestyle interventions an increasing element in policy, we must also question how much of our personal experiences are up for political definition.

Lotte Meteyard is a PhD student, University College London


Bagehot (22.6.2006). ‘The right side of the argument’.The Economist.

Gould, M. (21.6.2006). Spreading a little happiness. The Guardian.

Grove, B. (6.7.2006). This quick fix is worth the risk, The Guardian.

Jeffries, S. (19.7.2006). Happiness is always a delusion. The Guardian.

Layard, R. (2006). The case for psychological treatment centres. 23 February.

Layard, R. (2005) Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. London, Allen Lane.

Rudin, M. (2.6.2006). Is there a happiness formula?. BBC News website.

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