Layard and the Politics of Happiness

December 12th Lord Richard Layard’s latest publication was launched at an event jointly organized by the London School of Economics and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The press release accompanying the launch of The Origins of Happiness was headed “Relationships and good health the key to happiness, not income” [i]. Few would disagree, and many would consider it churlish to differ.


The report’s main finding is that government action to tackle common mental health problems such as depression and anxiety would be more four times more effective in increasing the overall levels of happiness in society, than tackling poverty and financial hardship. The elimination of poverty would reduce unhappiness by 5%, whereas the elimination of depression and anxiety would reduce unhappiness by 20%. The cost of the investment required in extra NHS staff would be covered by savings to the government in taxes gained from higher levels of employment, reduced benefit costs, and fewer visits to GPs and accident and emergency departments.

The report points out that making people happier is not simply a matter of improving their financial situation. Over the last fifty years average incomes have doubled but people have become no happier as a result. That is undoubtedly the case, but the problem is that there is plenty of evidence – largely disregarded by the report – that it’s not the absolute level of income that affects our contentment, but our income relative to those around us. It’s income inequality that matters.

The most comprehensive source of evidence here is of course Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s monumental inquiry into the relationships between life expectancy, poor health and social breakdown in The Spirit Level [ii]. The first chapter makes the following point:

“The contrast between the material success and social failure of many rich countries is an important signpost. It suggests that, if we are to gain further improvements in the real quality of life, we need to shift attention from material standards and economic growth to ways of improving the psychological and social wellbeing of whole societies. However, as soon as anything psychological is mentioned, discussion tends to focus almost exclusively on individual remedies and treatments. Political thinking seems to run into the sand.” (4: emphasis added)

The book shows that comparisons of life expectancy between countries show no relationship with average income as far as the global north is concerned. However comparisons within countries show a very strong relationship between average income and age-adjusted mortality rates. Furthermore, higher levels of income inequality in rich countries are associated with higher scores on a global index of health and social problems, including life expectancy, rates of mental illness, violence, homicide, imprisonment, obesity and teenage births. The relationship only holds for measures of income inequality, not average income. For example, people living in countries like the USA, UK and Portugal that have the highest levels of income inequality live shorter lives that people living in the Scandinavian countries and Japan with the lowest levels of income inequality. The differences may be small (USA life expectancy is 77 years, Japan nearly 82), but they are significant.

Wilkinson and Pickett consider two possible explanations for this. First, what matters in rich countries is not your absolute income, but your income relative to others in the same society  – whether you are doing better or worse than others. In other words it depends on “…where you come in the pecking order” (13). Alternatively, the relationship is mediated by social mobility, which sorts out the healthy from the unhealthy. Healthy people do well and move up the social ladder, leaving the unhealthy behind. They conclude that social mobility cannot fully explain these relationships. It may partially account for why more of these problems congregate in the poorest areas, but not why, overall, more unequal societies have higher levels. The problem in rich countries is not related to society not being rich enough, or even too rich, but to differences in income between rich and poor being too great. This strongly suggests that a key issue is where we stand in relation to our peers. It concerns how we see ourselves in relation to others. It is a matter of social gradients. In addition, inequality doesn’t just affect the poor in society. It affects us all including the rich, who live shorter lives in more unequal countries. In more unequal societies we are all unconsciously preoccupied with where we stand in relation to others. Is the guy next door driving a Ford like me, or a BMW? The key to understanding these relationships is the interaction between income inequality and social status. Why?

The Spirit Level points out that countries with higher levels of income inequality tend to be more hierarchical, consequently social status becomes much more important. If we are continually preoccupied with our social position the world fills with potential threats to how I see myself. This is a world in which loss of face is catastrophic for self-esteem. This is one reason why levels of violent crime are much higher in more unequal societies. The American psychiatrist William Gilligan has shown that incidents involving loss of face and shame are one of the most important triggers of violent crimes in young men [iii]. Loss of self-esteem leads to painful emotions such as shame, a powerful source of anxiety and depression. Levels of trust, and thus social capital, are also lower in more unequal societies.

Layard’s work consistently fails to engage with income inequality. Instead it is obsessed with objective measures of happiness. The Origins of Happiness briefly refers to the Spirit Level and income inequality only to dismiss it as “…some kind of atmospheric effect”, whatever that means (p. 106). William Davies’s [iv] excellent recent critique of Layard’s work [v] points out that it is grounded in Benthamite utilitarianism that is deeply suspicious of people’s subjective reports about how they feel. Layard doesn’t trust what people have to say about the way they feel. He prefers behavioural psychology and neuroscientific studies that ‘locate’ happiness in the left pre-frontal cortex. This gives rise to an idealized and generalized view of happiness (or unhappiness) that is impossible to relate to the personal experiences of misery and distress that those of us who work with people who suffer depression and anxiety encounter on a daily basis. This is a view of unhappiness that is utterly remote from the social, economic and interpersonal realities of bullying, racism, abuse and harassment that make happiness unattainable.

In contrast to Layard’s work, which sees happiness located in the mind of an individual, the Spirit Level locates unhappiness firmly at the interface between individual psychology and the social world. It follows that if we are to improve the well being of society we need to redistribute wealth. In contrast Layard’s solution shifts the focus to the treatment and management of misery in the individual through therapy. This is why it appeals to most politicians, as can be seen in the extent of his influence. In the 1980s he was a consultant to Margaret Thatcher’s Treasury and the National Economic Development Office. He served as a consultant to the Russian and French governments and as an advisor to innumerable economic organizations. Under Tony Blair he became a consultant to the Forward Strategy Unit at No. 10 Downing Street, and in 2000 entered the House of Lords.

Layard tells us that relationships and good health are the key to happiness, not income, and that we all need psychotherapy to achieve this. Well in this week before Christmas try telling that to the single mum (single because she fled domestic violence), as she trudges in shame and despair around the foodbank with her two kids, bombarded by media imperatives to buy her kids the latest toys, when she has no money for even food or heating, and is about to be made homeless because she was sanctioned and had her benefits stopped for three weeks, after she was ten minutes late for her appointment at the Jobcentre, because she had to take her youngest child to see the doctor. Happiness? Happy Christmas? Bah! Humbug, Lord Layard.

[i] Clarke et al (2016) The Origins of Happiness: How new science can transform our priorities. Draft (not for distribution) available from requested and received 14th December 2016

[ii] Wilkinson, R. & Pickett. K. (2009) The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. Penguin Books, London.

[iii] Gilligan, J. (2003) Shame, Guilt and Violence. Social Research; 70, 4; 1149 – 1180.

[iv] Davies, W. (2015) The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being. Verso, London.

[v] Layard, R. (2005) Happiness: Lessons from a new science. Allen Lane, London.