Tag Archives: Happiness

HAPPINESS. Lessons from a New Science – Richard Layard.

Human beings have largely conquered nature, but they have still to conquer themselves. We have grown no happier in the last fifty years. What’s going on?

We have more food, more clothes, more cars, bigger houses, more central heating, more foreign holidays, a shorter working week, nicer work and, above all, better health. Yet we are not happier.

The best society is one where the citizens are happiest. So the best public policy is that which produces the greatest happiness.

That is what this book is about, the causes of happiness and the means we have to affect it. I hope this book will hasten the shift to a new perspective, where people’s feelings are treated as paramount. That shift is overdue.

In this new edition of his landmark book, Richard Layard shows that there is a paradox at the heart of our lives. Most people want more income. Yet as societies become richer, they do not become happier. This is not just anecdotally true, it is the story told by countless pieces of scientific research. We now have sophisticated ways of measuring how happy people are, and all the evidence shows that on average people have grown no happier in the last fifty years, even as average incomes have more than doubled, in fact, the First World has more depression, more alcoholism and more crime than fifty years ago. This paradox is true of Britain, the United States, continental Europe, and Japan. What is going on?

Now fully revised and updated to include developments since first publication, Layard answers his critics in what is still the key book in ‘happiness studies’.

Richard Layard is a leading economist who believes that the happiness of society does not necessarily equate to its income. He is best known for his work on unemployment and inequality, which provided the intellectual basis for Britain’s improved unemployment policies. He founded the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, and since 2000 he has been a member of the House of Lords. His research into the subject of happiness brings together findings from such diverse areas as psychology, neuroscience, economics, sociology and philosophy.

I am an economist, I love the subject and it has served me well. But economics equates changes in the happiness of a society with changes in its purchasing power, or roughly so. I have never accepted that view, and the history of the last fifty years has disproved it. Instead, the new psychology of happiness makes it possible to construct an alternative view, based on evidence rather than assertion. From this we can develop a new vision of what lifestyles and what policies are sensible, drawing on the new psychology, as well as on economics, brain science, sociology and philosophy.

The time has come to have a go, to rush in where angels fear to tread. So here is my effort at a new evidence-based vision of how we can live better. It will need massive refinement as our knowledge accumulates. But I hope it will hasten the shift to a new perspective, where people’s feelings are treated as paramount. That shift is overdue.

So many people have helped in this book and helped so generously that I describe their role in a separate note at the end. I have been helped by psychologists, neuroscientists, sociologists, philosophers and of course economists, all sharing a desire for human betterment. If the book does anything, I hope it creates a bit more happiness.

Preface to the second edition

This book was first published six years ago. The wellbeing movement was already well under way and is now in full flood. Policy-makers worldwide are questioning whether wealth is a proper measure of welfare. And it has become quite respectable to say that what matters is how people experience life, inside themselves. Not everyone agrees with that, but talking about the happiness and misery which people feel no longer provokes an amused smile. The debate is on, at all levels in our society.

So this is a good moment for a second edition. In it I set out my own views in the debate, review some key new evidence, and record some major successes of the weil-being movement. I have not rewritten the main text of the book; instead I have added an extra final Part.

There is a second reason for a new edition. When the book came out, I received thousands of letters, some of them touching and mostly appreciative. Many asked, “Are you founding a movement?” For some time I thought “No.” But many things have made me change my mind. Public opinion is changing but far too slowly. There is still so much unnecessary misery that goes unaddressed while less important issues attractenormous attention. And technology now makes it much easier than before to mobilise people in a good cause.

So a group of us, including two multi-talented friends, Geoff Mulgan and Anthony Seldon, are launching a movement called Action for Happiness, which I discuss briefly in the final chapter. Our hope is that it may become a worldwide force for good. I have no doubt that we can have a happier world, and with your help we will.

Richard Layard, January 2011

What’s the problem?

“Nought’s had, all’s spent, Where our desire is got without content.” LADY MACBETH

There is a paradox at the heart of our lives. Most people want more income and strive for it. Yet as Western societies have got richer, their people have become no happier.

This is no old wives’ tale. It is a fact proven by many pieces of scientific research. As I’ll show, we have good ways to measure how happy people are, and all the evidence says that on average people are no happier today than people were fifty years ago. Yet at the same time average incomes have more than doubled. This paradox is equally true for the United States and Britain and Japan.

But aren’t our lives infinitely more comfortable? Indeed: we have more food, more clothes, more cars, bigger houses, more central heating, more foreign holidays, a shorter working week, nicer work and, above all, better health. Yet we are not happier. Despite all the efforts of governments, teachers, doctors and businessmen, human happiness has not improved.

This devastating fact should be the starting point for all discussion of how to improve our lot. It should cause each government to reappraise its objectives, and every one of us to rethink our goals.

One thing is clear: once subsistence income is guaranteed, making people happier is not easy. If we want people to be happier, we really have to know what conditions generate happiness and how to cultivate them. That is what this book is about, the causes of happiness and the means we have to affect it.

If we really wanted to be happier, what would we do differently? We do not yet know all the answers, or even half of them. But we have a lot of evidence, enough to rethink government policy and to reappraise our personal choices and philosophy of life.

The main evidence comes from the new psychology of happiness, but neuroscience, sociology, economics and philosophy all play their part. By bringing them together, we can produce a new vision of how we can live better, both as social beings and in terms of our inner spirit.

What Philosophy?

The philosophy is that of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, as articulated by Jeremy Bentham. If you pass below the fine classical portico of University College London, you will find him there near the entrance hall, an elderly man dressed in eighteenth century clothes, sitting in a glass case. The clothes are his and so is the body, except for the head, which is a wax replica. He is there because he inspired the founding of the college, and as he requested, he still attends the meetings of the College Council, being carried in for the purpose. A shy and kindly man, he never married, and he gave his money to good causes. He was also one of the first intellectuals to go jogging or trotting as he called itwhich he did until near his death. But despite his quirks, Bentham was one of the greatest thinkers of the Enlightenment.

The best society, he said, is one where the citizens are happiest. So the best public policy is that which produces the greatest happiness. And when it comes to private behaviour, the right moral action is that which produces the most happiness for the people it affects. This is the Greatest Happiness principle. It is fundamentally egalitarian, because everybody’s happiness is to count equally. It is also fundamentally humane, because it says that what matters ultimately is what people feel. It is close in spirit to the opening passages of the American Declaration of Independence.

This noble ideal has driven much of the social progress that has occurred in the last two hundred years. But it was never easy to apply, because so little was known about the nature and causes of happiness. This left it vulnerable to philosophies that questioned the ideal itself.

In the nineteenth century these alternative philosophies were often linked to religious conceptions of morality. But in the twentieth century religious belief diminished, and so eventually did belief in the secular religion of socialism. In consequence there remained no widely accepted system of ethical belief. Into the void stepped the non-philosophy of rampant individualism.

At its best this individualism offered an ideal of “selfrealisation.” But that gospel failed. It did not increase happiness, because it made each individual too anxious about what he could get for himself. If we really want to be happy, we need some concept of a common good, towards which we all contribute.

So now the tide is turning. People are calling out for a concept of the common good, and that is exactly what the Enlightenment ideal provides. It defines the common good as the greatest happiness of all, requiring us to care for others as well as for ourselves. And it advocates a kind of fellow-feeling for others that in itself increases our happiness and reduces our isolation.

What Psychology?

At the same time, the new psychology now gives us real insight into the nature of happiness and what brings it about. So the Enlightenment philosophy can now at last be applied using evidence instead of speculation.

Happiness is feeling good, and misery is feeling bad. At every moment we feel somewhere between wonderful and half-dead, and that feeling can now be measured by asking people or by monitoring their brains. Once that is done, we can go on to explain a person’s underlying level of happiness, the quality of his life as he experiences it. Every life is complicated, but it is vital to separate out the factors that really count.

Some factors come from outside us, from our society: some societies really are happier. Other factors work from inside us, from our inner life. In part 1 of the book I sort out how these key factors affect us. Then, in part 2, I focus on what kind of society and what personal practices would help us lead happier lives. The last chapter summarises my conclusions.

What Social Message?

So how, as a society, can we influence whether people are happy? One approach is to proceed by theoretical reasoning, using elementary economics. This concludes that selfish behaviour is all right, provided markets are allowed to function: through the invisible hand, perfect markets will lead us to the greatest happiness that is possible, given our wants and our resources. Since people’s wants are taken as given, national income becomes a proxy for national happiness. Government’s role is to correct market imperfections and to remove all barriers to labour mobility and flexible employment. This view of national happiness is the one that dominates the thinking and pronouncements of leaders of Western governments.

The alternative is to look at what actually makes people happy. People certainly hate absolute poverty, and they hated Communism. But there is more to life than prosperity and freedom.

In this book we shall look at other key facts about human nature, and how we should respond to them:

Our wants are not given, in the way that elementary economics assumes. In fact they depend heavily on what other people have, and on what we ourselves have got accustomed to. They are also affected by education, advertising and television. We are heavily driven by the desire to keep up with other people. This leads to a status race, which is self-defeating since if I do better, someone else must do worse. What can we do about this?

People desperately want security, at work, in the family and in their neighbourhoods. They hate unemployment, family break-up and crime in the streets. But the individual cannot, entirely on his own, determine whether he loses his job, his spouse or his wallet. It depends in part on external forces beyond his control. So how can the community promote a way of life that is more secure?

People want to trust other people. But in the United States and in Britain (though not in continental Europe), levels of trust have plummeted in recent decades. How is it possible to maintain trust when society is increasingly mobile and anonymous?

In the seventeenth century the individualist philosopher Thomas Hobbes proposed that we should think about human problems by considering men “as if but even now sprung out of the earth, and suddenly (like mushrooms) come to full maturity, without any kind of engagement with each other.”

But people are not like mushrooms. We are inherently social, and our happiness depends above all on the quality of our relationships with other people. We have to develop public policies that take this “relationship factor” into account.

What Personal Message?

There is also an inner, personal factor. Happiness depends not only on our external situation and relationships; it depends on our attitudes as well. From his experiences in Auschwitz, Viktor Frankl concluded that in the last resort “everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of human freedoms, to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

Our thoughts do affect our feelings. As we shall see, people are happier if they are compassionate; and they are happier if they are thankful for what they have. When life gets rough, these qualities become ever more important.

Throughout the centuries parents, teachers and priests have striven to instil these traits of compassion and acceptance. Today we know more than ever about how to develop them. Modern cognitive therapy was developed in the last thirty years as a forward-looking substitute for backward-looking psychoanalysis. Through systematic experimentation, it has found ways to promote positive thinking and to systematically dispel the negative thoughts that afflict us all. In recent years these insights have been generalised by “positive psychology,” to offer a means by which all of us, depressed or otherwise, can find meaning and increase our enjoyment of life. What are these insights?

Many of the ideas are as old as Buddhism and have recurred throughout the ages in all the religious traditions that focus on the inner life. In every case techniques are offered for liberating the positive force in each of us, which religious people call divine. These techniques could well become the psychological basis of twenty-first-century culture.

Even so, our nature is recalcitrant, and for some people it seems impossible to be positive without some physical help. Until fifty years ago there was no effective treatment for mental illness. But in the 1950s drugs were found that, despite side effects, could provide relief to many who suffer from schizophrenia, depression or anxiety. This, followed by the development of cognitive and behavioural therapy, has given new life to millions of people who would otherwise have been half-dead. But how much further can this process go in the relief of misery?

Human beings have largely conquered nature, but they have still to conquer themselves. In the last fifty years we have eliminated absolute material scarcity in the West. With good policies and Western help, the same could happen throughout the world within a hundred years. But in the meantime we in the West are no happier. Changing this is the new challenge and the new frontier, and much more difficult than traditional wealth-creation. Fortunately, enough tools are already available to fill this small book.

What is happiness?

“If not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled” P. G. Wodehouse

In the late nineteenth century doctors noticed something strange about people with brain injuries. If the damage was on the left side of the brain, they were more likely to become depressed than if it was on the right. As time passed, the evidence built up, and it was even found that damage on the right side of the brain could sometimes produce elation. From these dim beginnings, a new science has emerged that measures what happens in the brain when people experience positive and negative feelings.

The broad picture is this. Good feelings are experienced through activity in the brain’s left-hand side behind the forehead; people feel depressed if that part of their brain goes dead. Bad feelings are connected with brain activity behind the right-hand side of the forehead; when that part of the brain is out of action, people can feel elated.

Such scientific breakthroughs have transformed the way we think about happiness. Until recently, if people said they were happy, sceptics would hold that this was just a subjective statement. There was no good way to show that it had any objective content at all. But now we know that what people say about how they feel corresponds closely to the actual levels of activity in different parts of the brain, which can be measured in standard scientific ways.

The Feeling of Happiness

So what is the feeling of happiness? Is there a state of “feeling good” or “feeling bad” that is a dimension of all our waking life? Can people say at any moment how they feel? Indeed, is your happiness something, a bit like your temperature, that is always there, fluctuating away whether you think about it or not? If so, can I compare my happiness with yours?

The answer to all these questions is essentially yes. This may surprise those of a sceptical disposition. But it would not surprise most people, past or present. They have always been aware of how they felt and have used their introspection to infer how others feel. Since they themselves smile when they are happy, they infer that when others smile, they are happy too. Likewise when they see others frown, or see them weep. It is through their feelings of imaginative sympathy that people have been able to respond to one another’s joys and sorrows throughout history.

So by happiness I mean feeling good enjoying life and wanting the feeling to be maintained. By unhappiness I mean feeling bad and wishing things were different.

There are countless sources of happiness, and countless sources of pain and misery. But all our experience has in it a dimension that corresponds to how good or bad we feel. In fact most people find it easy to say how good they are feeling, and in social surveys such questions get very high response rates, much higher than the average survey question. The scarcity of “Don’t knows” shows that people do know how they feel, and recognise the validity of the question.

When it comes to how we feel, most of us take a longish view. We accept the ups and downs and care mainly about our average happiness over a longish period of time. But that average is made up from a whole series of moments. At each moment of waking life we feel more or less happy, just as we experience more or less noise. There are many different sources of noise, from a trombone to a pneumatic drill, but we can feel how loud each noise is. In the same way there are many different sources of enjoyment, but we can compare the intensity of each. There are also many types of suffering, from toothache to a stomach ulcer to depression, but we can compare the pain of each. Moreover, as we shall see, happiness begins where unhappiness ends.

So how can we find out how happy or unhappy people are, both in general and from moment to moment? Both psychology and brain science are beginning to give us the tools to arrive at precise answers.

Asking People

The most obvious way to find out whether people are happy in general is to survey individuals in a random sample of households and to ask them. A typical question is, “Taking all things together, would you say you are very happy, quite happy, or not very happy?” Here is how people reply in the United States and in Britain: very similarly, as the table below shows. Interestingly, men and women reply very much the same.

But is everyone who answers the question using the words in the same way? Fortunately, their replies can be independently verified. In many cases friends or colleagues of the individual have been asked separately to rate the person’s happiness. These independent ratings turn out to be well related to the way the people rated themselves. The same is true of ratings made by an interviewer who has never met the person before.

Feelings Fluctuate

Of course our feelings fluctuate from hour to hour, and from day to day. Psychologists have recently begun to study how people’s mood varies from activity to activity. I will give only one example, from a study of around nine hundred working women in Texas. They were asked to divide the previous working day into episodes, like a film: typically they identified about fourteen episodes. They then reported what they were doing in each episode and who they were doing it with. Finally, they were asked how they felt in each episode, along twelve dimensions that can be combined into a single index of good or bad feeling.

The table shows what they liked most (sex) and what they liked least (commuting).

The table below shows what company they most enjoyed. They are highly gregarious, preferring almost any company to being alone. Only the boss’s company is worse than being alone.

We can also use these reports to measure how feelings change as the day goes on. As the next chart shows, these people feel better as time passes, except for a blip up at lunchtime.

I have showed these findings to stress the point that happiness is a feeling and that feelings occur continuously over time throughout our waking life. Feelings at any particular moment are of course influenced by memories of past experiences and anticipations of future ones. Memories and anticipations are very important parts of our mental life, but they pose no conceptual problems in measuring our happiness, be it instantaneous or averaged over a longer period of time.

It is the long-term average happiness of each individual that this book is about, rather than the fluctuations from moment to moment. Though our average happiness may be influenced by the pattern of our activities, it is mainly affected by our basic temperament and attitudes and by key features of our life situation, our relationships, our health, our worries about money.

Brainwaves

Sceptics may still question whether happiness is really an objective feeling that can be properly compared between people. To reassure doubters, we can turn to modern brain physiology with its sensational new insights into what is happening when a person feels happy or unhappy. This work is currently being led by Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin.

In most of his studies Davidson measures activity in different parts of the brain by putting electrodes all over the scalp and reading the electrical activity. These EEG measurements are then related to the feelings people report. When people experience positive feelings, there is more electrical activity in the left front of the brain; when they experience negative feelings, there is more activity in the right front of the brain. For example, when someone is shown funny film clips, his left side becomes more active and his right side less so; he also smiles and gives positive reports on his mood. When frightening or distasteful film clips are shown, the opposite happens.

Similar findings come from direct scans of what is going on inside the brain. For instance, people can be put inside an MRI or PET scanner and then shown nice or unpleasant pictures. The chart gives an example.

People are shown pictures, first of a happy baby and then of a baby that is deformed. The PET scanner picks up the corresponding changes in glucose usage in the brain and records it as light patches in the photographs. The nice picture activates the left side of the brain, and the horrendous picture activates the right side.

So there is a direct connection between brain activity and mood. Both can be altered by an external experience like looking at pictures. Both can also be altered directly by physical means. By using very powerful magnets it is possible to stimulate activity in the left side of the forebrain, and this automatically produces a better mood. Indeed, this method has even been used to alleviate depression. Even more remarkable, it has been found to improve the immune system, which is heavily influenced by a person’s mood.

So we have clear physical measures of how feelings vary over time. We can also use physical measures to compare the happiness of different people. People differ in the pattern of their EEGs, even when they are at rest. People whose left side is especially active (“leftsiders”) report more positive feelings and memories than “riqht-siders” do. Left-siders smile more, and their friends assess them as happier. By contrast, people who are especially active on the right side report more negative thoughts and memories, smile less and are assessed as less happy by their friends.

So a natural measure of happiness is the difference in activity between the left and right sides of the forebrain. This varies closely with many measures of self-reported mood. And one further finding is interesting. When different people are exposed to good experiences (like pleasant film clips), those who are naturally happy when at rest experience the greatest gain in happiness. And when they are exposed to nasty experiences, they experience the least increase in discomfort.

The EEG approach works even on newly born babies. When they are given something nice to suck, their left forebrain starts humming, while a sour taste sets off activity in the right brain. At ten months old, a baby’s brain activity at rest predicts how well it will respond if its mother disappears for a minute. Babies who are more active on the right side tend to howl, while the left-siders remain upbeat. At two and a half years old, left-sided youngsters are much more exploratory, while right-siders cling more to their mothers. However, up to their teens there are many changes in the differences between children, both by character traits and by brainwaves. Among adults the differences are more stable.

The frontal lobes are not the only part of the brain involved in emotion. For example, one seat of raw emotions is the amygdala, which is deeper in the brain. It triggers the command centre that mobilises the body to respond to a frightening stimulus, the fight-or-flight syndrome. But the amygdala in humans is not that different from the amygdala of the lowest mammals, and works unconsciously. Our conscious experience, however, is specially linked to the frontal lobes, which are highly developed in man.

So brain science confirms the objective character of happiness. It also confirms the objective character of pain. Here is a fascinating experiment, performed on a number of people. A very hot pad is applied to each person’s leg, the same temperature for all of them. The people then report the pain. They give widely varying reports, but these different reports are highly correlated with the different levels of brain activity in the relevant part of the cortex. This confirms the link between what people report and objective brain activity. There is no difference between what people think they feel and what they “really” feel, as some social philosophers would have us believe.

A Single Dimension

But isn’t this all a bit simplistic? Surely there are many types of happiness, and of pain? And in what sense is happiness the opposite of pain?

There are indeed many types of good and bad feeling. On the positive side there is loving and being loved, achievement, discovery, comfort, tranquillity, joy and many others. On the negative side there is fear, anger, sadness, guilt, boredom and many others again. But, as I have said, this is no different from the situation with pains and pleasures that are purely “physical”: one pain can be compared with another, and one pleasure can be compared with another. Similarly, mental pain and physical pain can be compared, and so can mental and physical enjoyment.

But is happiness really a single dimension of experience running from extreme misery to extreme joy? Or is it possible to be both happy and unhappy at the same time? The broad answer to this is no; it is not possible to be happy and unhappy at the same time. Positive feelings damp down negative feelings and vice versa. So we have just one dimension, running from the extreme negative to the extreme positive.

Lest this seem very mechanical, we should immediately note that happiness can be excited or tranquil, and misery can be agitated or leaden. These are important distinctions, which correspond to different levels of “arousal.” The range of possibilities is illustrated in the diagram, which dispels any impression that happiness can only be exciting or hedonistic.

One of the most enjoyable forms of aroused experience is when you are so engrossed in something that you lose yourself in it. These experiences of “flow” can be wonderful, both at the time and in retrospect”.

Qualities of Happiness

The concept of happiness I have described is essentially the one developed by the eighteenth century Enlightenment. It relates to how we feel as we live our lives. It famously inspired the authors of the American Declaration of Independence, and it has become central to our Western heritage.

It differs, for example, from the approach taken by Aristotle and his many followers. Aristotle believed that the object of life was eudaimonia, or a type of happiness associated with virtuous conduct and philosophic reflection. This idea of types of happiness, of higher and lower pleasures, was revived in the nineteenth century by John Stuart Mill and it survives to this day. Mill believed that the happiness of different experiences could vary both in quantity and quality. (He could not accept that a given amount of satisfaction derived from the game of “pushpin” was as valuable as the same amount of satisfaction derived from poetry.)

Mill’s intuition was right but his formulation was wrong. People who achieve a sense of meaning in their lives are happier than those who live from one pleasure to another. Carol Ryff of the University of Wisconsin has provided ample evidence of this. She has compiled refined measures of such things as purpose in life, autonomy, positive relationships, personal growth and self-acceptance and used them to construct an index of psychological well-being. In a sample of US. adults this index is very highly correlated with standard selfreported measures of happiness and life satisfaction.

Thus Mill was right in his intuition about the true sources of lasting happiness, but he was wrong to argue that some types of happiness are intrinsically better than others. In fact to do so is essentially paternalistic. It is of course obvious that some enjoyments, like those provided by cocaine, cannot in their nature last long: they work against a person’s long-term happiness, which means that we should avoid them. Similarly, some unhealthy enjoyments, like those of a sadist, should be avoided because they decrease the happiness of others. But no good feeling is bad in itself, it can only be bad because of its consequences.

Happiness Improves Your Health

In September 1932 the mother superior of the American School Sisters of Notre Dame decided that all new nuns should be asked to write an autobiographical sketch. These sketches were kept, and they have recently been independently rated by psychologists to show the amount of positive feeling which they revealed. These ratings have then been compared with how long each nun lived. Remarkably, the amount of positive feeling that a nun revealed in her twenties was an excellent predictor of how long she would live.

Of the nuns who were still alive in 1991, only 21% of the most cheerful quarter died in the following nine years, compared with 55% of the least cheerful quarter of the nuns? This shows how happiness can increase a person’s length of life.

In fact most sustained forms of good feeling are good for you. However we measure happiness, it appears to be conducive to physical health (other things being equal). Happy people tend to have more robust immune systems and lower levels of stress-causing cortisol. If artificially exposed to the flu virus, they are less likely to contract the disease. They are also more likely to recover from major surgery.

Equally, when a person has a happy experience, the body chemistry improves, and blood pressure and heart rate tend to fall. Especially good experiences can have long-lasting effects on our health. If we take the 750 actors and actresses who were ever nominated for Oscars, we can assume that before the award panel’s decision the winners and losers were equally healthy on average. Yet those who got the Oscars went on to live four years longer, on average, than the losers. Such was the gain in morale from winning.

The Function of Happiness

I hope I have now persuaded you that happiness exists and is generally good for your physical health. But that does not make it supremely important. It is supremely important because it is our overall motivational device. We seek to feel good and to avoid pain (not moment by moment but overall).

Without this drive we humans would have perished long ago. For what makes us feel good (sex, food, love, friendship and so on) is also generally good for our survival. And what causes us pain is bad for our survival (fire, dehydration, poison, ostracism).

So by seeking to feel good and to avoid pain, we seek what is good for us and avoid what is bad for us, and thus we have survived as a species. The search for good feeling is the mechanism that has preserved and multiplied the human race.

Some people question whether we have any overall system of motivation. They say we have separate drives for sex, feeding and so on, and that we respond to these drives independently of their effect on our general sense of well-being. The evidence is otherwise. For we often have to choose between satisfying different drives, and our choices vary according to how easy it is to satisfy one drive compared with another. So there must be some overall evaluation going on that compares how different drives contribute to our overall satisfaction.

When one source of satisfaction becomes more costly relative to another, we choose less of it. This is the so-called law of demand, which has been confirmed throughout human life and among many species of animals. It is not uniquely human and probably applies to most living things, all of which have a tendency to pursue their own good as best they can. In lower animals the process is unconscious, and even in humans it is mostly so, since consciousness could not possibly handle the whole of this huge task. However, we do have massive frontal lobes that other mammals lack, and that is probably where the conscious part of the balancing operation is performed.

Experiments show that at every moment we are evaluating our situation, often unconsciously. We are attracted to those elements of our situation that we like and repelled by the elements we dislike. It is this pattern of “approach” and “avoidance” that is central to our behaviour.

Here are two ingenious experiments by the psychologist John Bargh that illustrate the workings of this approach-avoidance mechanism. His technique is to flash good or bad words on a screen and observe how people respond. In the first experiment he flashed the words subliminally and recorded the impact on the person’s mood. The good words (like “music” improved mood, and the bad ones (like “worm”) worsened mood. He next examined approach and avoidance behaviour by making the words on the screen legible, and asking the person to remove them with a lever. The human instinct is to pull towards you that which you like, and to push away that which you wish to avoid. So Bargh split his subjects into two groups. Group A was told to behave in the natural way, to pull the lever for the good words, and to push it for the bad ones. Group B was told to behave “unnaturally”, to pull for the bad words and to push for the good. Group A did the job much more quickly, confirming how basic are our mechanisms of approach and avoidance.

So there is an evaluative faculty in each of us that tells us how happy we are with our situation, and then directs us to approach what makes us happy and avoid what does not. From the various possibilities open to us, we choose whichever combination of activities will make us feel best. In doing this we are more than purely reactive: we plan for the future, which sometimes involves denying ourselves today for the sake of future gratification.

This overall psychological model is similar to what economists have used from Adam Smith onwards. We want to be happy, and we act to promote our present and future happiness, given the opportunities open to us.

Of course we can make mistakes. Some things that people do are bad for survival, like cigarette smoking and the self-starvation of anorexia nervosa. Also, people are often short-sighted and bad at forecasting their future feelings. Natural selection has not produced perfect bodies, and neither has it produced perfect psyches. Yet we are clearly selected to be healthy, though we sometimes get sick. Similarly, we are selected to feel good, even if we sometimes make mistakes: it is impossible to explain human action and human survival except by the desire to achieve good feelings.

This raises the obvious issue of why, in that case, we are not happier than we are. Why is there so much anxiety and depression? Have anxiety and depression played any role in explaining our survival? Almost certainly, yes. Even today, it is a good idea to be anxious while driving a car-or while writing a book. A heavy dose of self-criticism will save you from some nasty mistakes. And it is often best to be sceptical about much of what you hear from other people, until it is independently confirmed.

It was even more important to be on guard when man first evolved on the African savannah. When you are in danger of being eaten by a lion, it is a good idea to be extremely cautious. (Better to have a smoke detector that goes off when you burn the toast than one that stays silent while the house burns down.) Even depression may have had some function. When confronted with an unbeatable opponent, dogs show signs of depression that turn off the opponent’s will to attack. The same may have been true of humans?

. . .

from

Happiness. Lessons from a New Science

by Richard Layard

get it at Amazon.com

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ADVERTISING SHITS IN YOUR HEAD. Reconnecting to Meaningful Values * JUNK VALUES. Consumerism literally is depressing – Johann Hari.

Advertising is the PR team for an economic system, Neoliberal Globalisation, that operates by making us feel inadequate and telling us the solution is to constantly spend.

We are constantly bombarded with messages that we will feel better only if we buy some specific product; and then buy something more; and buy again, and on and on, until finally your family buys your coffin.

Can we turn off the autopilot, and take back control for ourselves?

Spending often isn’t about the object itself. It is about getting to a psychological state that makes you feel better.

When there is pollution in the air that makes us feel worse, we ban the source of the pollution.

Advertising is a form of mental pollution.

When I was trying to apply everything I had learned to change, in order to be less depressed, I felt a dull, insistent tug on me. I kept getting signals that the way to be happy is simple. Buy stuff. Show it off. Display your status. Acquire things. These impulses called to me, from every advertisement, and from so many social interactions. I had learned from Tim Kasser that these are junk values, a trap that leads only to greater anxiety and depression. But what is the way beyond them? I could understand the arguments against them very well. I was persuaded. But there they were, in my head, and all around me, trying to pull me back down.

But Tim, I learned, has been proposing two ways, as starters, to wriggle free. The first is defensive. And the second is proactive, a way to stir our different values.

When there is pollution in the air that makes us feel worse, we ban the source of the pollution: we don’t allow factories to pump lead into our air. Advertising, he says, is a form of mental pollution. So there’s an obvious solution. Restrict or ban mental pollution, just like we restrict or ban physical pollution.

This isn’t an abstract idea. It has already been tried in many places. For example, the city of Sao Paulo, in Brazil, was being slowly smothered by billboards. They covered every possible space, gaudy logos and brands dominated the skyline wherever you looked. It had made the city look ugly, and made people feel ugly, by telling them everywhere they looked that they had to consume.

So in 2007 the city’s government took a bold step, they banned all outdoor advertising: everything. They called it the Clean City Law. As the signs were removed one by one, people began to see beautiful old buildings that had long been hidden. The constant ego-irritation of being told to spend was taken away, and was replaced with works of public art. Some 70 percent of the city’s residents say the change has made it a better place. I went there to see it, and almost everyone says the city seems somehow psychologically cleaner and clearer than it did before.

We could take this insight and go further. Several countries, including Sweden and Greece, have banned advertising directed at children. While I was writing this book, there was a controversy after a company marketing diet products put advertisements in the London Underground asking, ARE YOU BEACH BODY READY? next to a picture of an impossibly lithe woman. The implication was that if you are one of the 99.99 percent of humans who look less buff than this, you are not “ready” to show your flesh on the beach. There was a big backlash, and the posters were eventually banned. It prompted a wave of protests across London, where people defaced ads with the words “Advertising shits in your head.”

It made me think: Imagine if we had a tough advertising regulator who wouldn’t permit ads designed to make us feel bad in any way. How many ads would survive? That’s an achievable goal, and it would clear a lot of mental pollution from our minds.

This has some value in itself, but I think the fight for it could spur a deeper conversation. Advertising is only the PR team for an economic system that operates by making us feel inadequate and telling us the solution is to constantly spend. My hunch is that, if we start to really talk about how this affects our emotional health, we will begin to see the need for more radical changes.

There was a hint of how this might start in an experiment that tried to go deeper, not just to block bad messages that divert our desires onto junk, but to see if we can draw out our positive values. This led to the second, and most exciting, path back that Tim has explored.

The kids were telling Nathan Dungan one thing, over and over again. They needed stuff. They needed consumer objects. And they were frustrated, outright angry, that they weren’t getting them. Their parents were refusing to buy the sneakers or designer clothes or latest gadgets that they needed to have, and it was throwing them into an existential panic. Didn’t their parents know how important it is to have all this?

Nathan didn’t expect to be having these conversations. He was a middle-aged man who had worked in financial services in Pennsylvania for years, advising people on investments. One day, he was talking to an educator at a middle school and she explained that the kids she was working with, middle-class, not rich, had a problem. They thought satisfaction and meaning came from buying objects. When their parents couldn’t afford them, they seemed genuinely distressed. She asked, could Nathan come in and talk to the kids about financial realities?

He agreed cautiously. But that decision was going to set him on a steep learning curve, and lead him to challenge a lot of what he took for granted.

Nathan went in believing his task was obvious. He was there to educate the kids, and their parents, about how to budget, and how to live within their financial means. But then he hit this wall of need, this ravenous hunger for stuff. To him, it was baffling. Why do they want it so badly? What’s the difference between the sneakers with the Nike swoosh and the sneakers without? Why would that gap be so significant that it would send kids into a panic?

He began to wonder if he should be talking not about how to budget, but why the teenagers wanted these things in the first place. And it went deeper than that. There was something about seeing teenagers craving apparently meaningless material objects that got Nathan to think, as adults, are we so different?

Nathan had no idea how to start that conversation, so he began to wing it. And it led to a striking scientific experiment, where he teamed up with Tim Kasser.

A short time later, in a conference room in Minneapolis, Nathan met with the families who were going to be the focus of his experiment. They were a group of sixty parents and their teenage kids, sitting in front of him on chairs. He was going to have a series of long sessions with them over three months to explore these issues and the alternatives. (At the same time, the experiment followed a separate group of the same size who didn’t meet with Nathan or get any other help. They were the experiment’s control group.)

Nathan started the conversation by handing everyone worksheets with a list of open-ended questions. He explained there was no right answer: he just wanted them to start to think about these questions. One of them said: “For me, money is …” and you had to fill in the blank.

At first, people were confused. They’d never been asked a question like this before. Lots of the participants wrote that money is scarce. Or a source of stress. Or something they try not to think about. They then broke into groups of eight, and began to contemplate their answers, haltingly. Many of the kids had never heard their parents talk about money worries before.

Then the groups began to discuss the question, why do I spend? They began to list the reasons why they buy necessities (which are obvious: you’ve got to eat), and then the reasons why they buy the things that aren’t necessities. Sometimes, people would say, they bought nonessential stuff when they felt down. Often, the teenagers would say, they craved this stuff so badly because they wanted to belong, the branded clothes meant you were accepted by the group, or got a sense of status.

As they explored this in the conversation, it became clear quite quickly, without any prompting from Nathan, that spending often isn’t about the object itself. It is about getting to a psychological state that makes you feel better. These insights weren’t deeply buried. People offered them quite quickly, although when they said them out loud, they seemed a little surprised. They knew it just below the surface, but they’d never been asked to articulate that latent feeling before.

Then Nathan asked people to list what they really value, the things they think are most important in life. Many people said it was looking after your family, or telling the truth, or helping other people. One fourteen-year-old boy wrote simply “love,” and when he read it out, the room stopped for a moment, and “you could hear a pin drop,” Nathan told me. “What he was speaking to was, how important is it for me to be connected?”

Just asking these two questions, “What do you spend your money on?” and “What do you really value?”, made most people see a gap between the answers that they began to discuss. They were accumulating and spending money on things that were not, in the end, the things that they believed in their heart mattered. Why would that be?

Nathan had been reading up on the evidence about how we come to crave all this stuff. He learned that the average American is exposed to up to five thousand advertising impressions a day, from billboards to logos on T-shirts to TV advertisements. It is the sea in which we swim. And “the narrative is that if you [buy] this thing, it’ll yield more happiness, and so thousands of times a day you’re just surrounded with that message,” he told me. He began to ask: “Who’s shaping that narrative?” It’s not people who have actually figured out what will make us happy and who are charitably spreading the good news. It’s people who have one motive only, to make us buy their product.

In our culture, Nathan was starting to believe, we end up on a materialistic autopilot. We are constantly bombarded with messages that we will feel better (and less stinky, and less disgustingly shaped, and less all-around worthless) only if we buy some specific product; and then buy something more; and buy again, and on and on, until finally your family buys your coffin. What he wondered is, if people stopped to think about this and discussed alternatives, as his group was doing, could we turn off the autopilot, and take back control for ourselves?

At the next session, he asked the people in the experiment to do a short exercise in which everyone had to list a consumer item they felt they had to have right away. They had to describe what it was, how they first heard about it, why they craved it, how they felt when they got it, and how they felt after they’d had it for a while. For many people, as they talked this through, something became obvious. The pleasure was often in the craving and anticipation. We’ve all had the experience of finally getting the thing we want, getting it home, and feeling oddly deflated, only to find that before long, the craving cycle starts again.

People began to talk about how they had been spending, and they were slowly seeing what it was really all about. Often, not always, it was about “filling a hole. It fills some sort of loneliness gap.” But by pushing them toward that quick, rapidly evaporating high, it was also nudging them away from the things they really valued and that would make them feel satisfied in the long run. They felt they were becoming hollow.

There were some people, both teens and adults, who rejected this fiercely. They said that the stuff made them happy, and they wanted to stick with it. But most people in the group were eager to think differently.

They began to talk about advertising. At first, almost everyone declared that ads might affect other people but didn’t hold much sway over them. “Everyone wants to be smarter than the ad,” Nathan said to me later. But he guided them back to the consumer objects they had longed for. Before long, members of the group were explaining to each other: “There’s no way they’re spending billions of dollars if it’s not having an impact. They’re just not doing that. No company is going to do that.”

So far, it had been about getting people to question the junk values we have been fed for so long.

But then came the most important part of this experiment.

Nathan explained the difference that I talked about before between extrinsic and intrinsic values. He asked people to draw up a list of their intrinsic values, the things they thought were important, as an end in themselves and not because of what you get out of it. Then he asked: How would you live differently if you acted on these other values? Members of the groups discussed it.

They were surprised. We are constantly encouraged to talk about extrinsic values, but the moments when we are asked to speak our intrinsic values out loud are rare. Some said, for example, they would work less and spend more time with the people they loved. Nathan wasn’t making the case for any of this. Just asking a few open questions took most of the group there spontaneously.

Our intrinsic motivations are always there, Nathan realized, lying “dormant. It was brought out into the light,” he said. Conversations like this, Nathan was realizing, don’t just happen “in our culture today. We don’t allow space or create space for these really critical conversations to take place, so it just creates more and more isolation.”

Now that they had identified how they had been duped by junk values, and identified their intrinsic values, Nathan wanted to know: could the group choose, together, to start to follow their intrinsic goals? Instead of being accountable to advertising, could they make themselves accountable to their own most important values, and to a group that was trying to do the same thing? Could they consciously nurture meaningful values?

Now that each person had figured out his or her own intrinsic goals, they would report back at the next series of meetings about what they’d done to start moving toward them. They held each other accountable. They now had a space in which they could think about what they really wanted in life, and how to achieve it. They would talk about how they had found a way to work less and see their kids more, for example, or how they had taken up a musical instrument, or how they had started to write.

Nobody knew whether all this would have any real effect, though. Could these conversations really reduce people’s materialism and increase their intrinsic values?

Independent social scientists measured the levels of materialism of the participants at the start of the experiment, and they measured them again at the end. As he waited for the results, Nathan was nervous. This was a small intervention, in the middle of a lifetime of constant consumerist bombardment. Would it make any difference at all?

When the results came through, both Nathan and Tim were thrilled. Tim had shown before that materialism correlates strongly with increased depression and anxiety. This experiment showed, for the first time, that it was possible to intervene in people’s lives in a way that would significantly reduce their levels of materialism. The people who had gone through this experiment had significantly lower materialism and significantly higher selfesteem. It was a big and measurable effect.

It was an early shot of proof that a determined effort to reverse the values that are making us so unhappy works.

The people who took part in the study could never have made these changes alone, Nathan believes. “There was a lot of power in that connection and that community for people, removing the isolation and the fear. There’s a lot of fear around this topic.” It was only together, as a group, that they there were able to “peel those layers away, so you could actually get to the meaning, to the heart: their sense of purpose.”

I asked Nathan if we could integrate this into our ordinary lives, if we all need to form and take part in a kind of Alcoholics Anonymous for junk values, a space where we can all meet to challenge the depression-generating ideas we’ve been taught and learn to listen instead to our intrinsic values. “I would say, without question,” he said. Most of us sense we have been valuing the wrong things for too long. We need to create, he told me, a “counter-rhythm” to the junk values that have been making us mentally sick.

From his bare conference room in Minneapolis, Nathan has proven something, that we are not imprisoned in the values that have been making us feel so lousy for so long. By coming together with other people, and thinking deeply, and reconnecting with what really matters, we can begin to dig a tunnel back to meaningful values.

Also on TPPA = CRISIS

JUNK VALUES. CONSUMERISM LITERALLY IS DEPRESSING

Johann Hari

Just as we have shifted en masse from eating food to eating junk food, we have also shifted from having meaningful values to having junk values.

All this mass-produced fried chicken looks like food, and it appeals to the part of us that evolved to need food; yet it doesn’t give us what we need from food, nutrition. Instead, it fills us with toxins.

In the same way, all these materialistic values, telling us to spend our way to happiness, look like real values; they appeal to the part of us that has evolved to need some basic principles to guide us through life; yet they don’t give us what we need from values, a path to a satisfying life.

Studies show that materialistic people are having a worse time, day by day, on all sorts of fronts. They feel sicker, and they are angrier. Something about a strong desire for materialistic pursuits actually affects their day-to-day lives, and decreases the quality of their daily experience. They experienced less joy, and more despair.

For thousands of years, philosophers have been suggesting that if you overvalue money and possessions, or if you think about life mainly in terms of how you look to other people, you will be unhappy.

Modern research indicates that materialistic people, who think happiness comes from accumulating stuff and a superior status, have much higher levels of depression and anxiety. The more our kids value getting things and being seen to have things, the more likely they are to be suffering from depression and anxiety.

The pressure, in our culture, runs overwhelmingly one way, spend more; work more. We live under a system that constantly distracts us from what’s really good about life. We are being propagandized to live in a way that doesn’t meet our basic psychological needs, so we are left with a permanent, puzzling sense of dissatisfaction.

The more materialistic and extrinsically motivated you become, the more depressed you will be.

JUNK VALUES. CONSUMERISM LITERALLY IS DEPRESSING – Johann Hari

. . .

from

Lost Connections. Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression and the Unexpected Solutions

by Johann Hari

get it at Amazon.com

The Spirit Level. Why equality is better for everyone – Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

“For the first time in history, the poor are on average fatter than the rich.”
How is it that we have created so much mental and emotional suffering despite levels of wealth and comfort unprecedented in human history? The luxury and extravagance of our lives is so great that it threatens the planet.

At the pinnacle of human material and technical achievement, we find ourselves anxiety-ridden, prone to depression, worried about how others see us, unsure of our friendships, driven to consume and with little or no community life. Our societies are, despite their material success, increasingly burdened by their social failings.

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. It is possible to improve the quality of life for everyone. We shall set out the evidence and our reasons for interpreting it the way we do, so that you can judge for yourself.

Social theories are partly theories about ourselves; indeed, they might almost be regarded as part of our selfawareness or self-consciousness of societies. The knowledge that we cannot carry on as we have, that change is necessary, is perhaps grounds for optimism: maybe we do, at last, have the chance to make a better world.

The truth is that both our broken society and broken economy resulted from the growth of inequality. The problems in rich countries are not caused by the society not being rich enough (or even by being too rich) but by the scale of material differences between people within each society being too big. What matters is where we stand in relation to others in our own society.

Why do we mistrust people more in the UK than in Japan? Why do Americans have higher rates of teenage pregnancy than the French? What makes the Swedish thinner than the Greeks? The answer: inequality.

This groundbreaking book, based on years of research, provides hard evidence to show:

  • How almost everything from life expectancy to depression levels, violence to illiteracy is affected not by how wealthy a society is, but how equal it is.
  • That societies with a bigger gap between rich and poor are bad for everyone in them including the well-off.
  • How we can flnd positive solutions and move towards a happier, fairer future.

Urgent, provocative and genuinely uplifting, The Spirit Level has been heralded as providing a new way of thinking about ourselves and our communities, and could change the way you see the world.

Richard Wilkinson has played a formative role in international research on the social determinants of health. He studied economic history at the London School of Economics before training in epidemiology and is Professor Emeritus at the University of Nottingham Medical School, Honorary Professor at University College London and Visiting Professor at the University of York.

Kate Pickett is Professor of Epidemiology at the University of York and a National Institute for Health Research Career Scientist. She studied physical anthropology at Cambridge, nutritional sciences at Cornell and epidemiology at the University of California Berkeley.

People usually exaggerate the importance of their own work and we worry about claiming too much. But this book is not just another set of nostrums and prejudices about how to put the world to rights. The work we describe here comes out of a very long period of research (over fifty person-years between us) devoted, initially, to trying to understand the causes of the big differences in life expectancy, the ‘health inequalities’ between people at different levels in the social hierarchy in modern societies. The focal problem initially was to understand why health gets worse at every step down the social ladder, so that the poor are less healthy than those in the middle, who in turn are less healthy than those further up.

Like others who work on the social determinants of health, our training in epidemiology means that our methods are those used to trace the causes of diseases in populations, trying to find out why one group of people gets a particular disease while another group doesn’t, or to explain why some disease is becoming more common. The same methods can, however, also be used to understand the causes of other kinds of problems, not just health.

Epidemiology is the study and analysis of the distribution (who, when, and where) and determinants of health and disease conditions in defined populations.

Just as the term ‘evidence-based medicine’ is used to describe current efforts to ensure that medical treatment is based on the best scientific evidence of what works and what does not, we thought of calling this book ‘Evidence-based Politics’. The research which underpins what we describe comes from a great many research teams in different universities and research organizations. Replicable methods have been used to study observable and objective outcomes, and peer-reviewed research reports have been published in academic, scientific journals.

This does not mean that there is no guesswork. Results always have to be interpreted, but there are usually good reasons for favouring one interpretation over another. Initial theories and expectations are often called into question by later research findings which make it necessary to think again. We would like to take you on the journey we have travelled, signposted by crucial bits of evidence and leaving out only the various culs-de-sac and wrong turnings that wasted so much time, to arrive at a better understanding of how we believe it is possible to improve the quality of life for everyone in modern societies. We shall set out the evidence and our reasons for interpreting it the way we do, so that you can judge for yourself.

At an intuitive level people have always recognized that inequality is socially corrosive. But there seemed little reason to think that levels of inequality in developed societies differed enough to expect any measurable effects. The reasons which first led one of us to look for effects seem now largely irrelevant to the striking picture which has emerged. Many discoveries owe as much to luck as judgement.

The reason why the picture we present has not been put together until now is probably that much of the data has only become available in recent years. With internationally comparable information not only on incomes and income distribution but also on different health and social problems, it could only have been a matter of time before someone came up with findings like ours. The emerging data have allowed us, and other researchers, to analyse how societies differ, to discover how one factor is related to another, and to test theories more rigorously.

It is easy to imagine that discoveries are more rapidly accepted in the natural than in the social sciences, as if physical theories are somehow less controversial than theories about the social world. But the history of the natural sciences is littered with painful personal disputes, which started off as theoretical disagreements but often lasted for the rest of people’s lives. Controversies in the natural sciences are usually confined to the experts: most people do not have strong views on rival theories in particle physics. But they do have views on how society works. Social theories are partly theories about ourselves; indeed, they might almost be regarded as part of our selfawareness or self-consciousness of societies. While natural scientists do not have to convince individual cells or atoms to accept their theories, social theorists are up against a plethora of individual views and powerful vested interests.

In 1847, Ignaz Semmelweiss discovered that if doctors washed their hands before attending women in childbirth it dramatically reduced deaths from puerperal fever. But before his work could have much benefit he had to persuade people, principally his medical colleagues to change their behaviour. His real battle was not his initial discovery but what followed from it. His views were ridiculed and he was driven eventually to insanity and suicide. Much of the medical profession did not take his work seriously until Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister had developed the germ theory of disease, which explained why hygiene was important.

We live in a pessimistic period. As well as being worried by the likely consequences of global warming, it is easy to feel that many societies are, despite their material success, increasingly burdened by their social failings. And now, as if to add to our woes, we have the economic recession and its aftermath of high unemployment. But the knowledge that we cannot carry on as we have, that change is necessary, is perhaps grounds for optimism: maybe we do, at last, have the chance to make a better world. The extraordinarily positive reception of the hardback editon of this book confirms that there is a widespread appetite for change and a desire to find positive solutions to our problems.

We have made only minor changes to this edition. Details of the statistical sources, methods and results, from which we thought most readers would want to be spared, are now provided in an appendix for those with a taste for data. Chapter 13, which is substantially about causation, has been slightly reorganized and strengthened. We have also expanded our discussion of what has made societies substantially more or less equal in the past. Because we conclude that these changes have been driven by changes in political attitudes, we think it is a mistake to discuss policy as if it were a matter of finding the right technical fix. As there are really hundreds of ways that societies can become more equal if they choose to, we have not nailed our colours to one or other set of policies. What we need is not so much a clever solution as a society which recognizes the benefits of greater equality.

If correct, the theory and evidence set out in this book tells us how to make substantial improvements in the quality of life for the vast majority of the population. Yet unless it is possible to change the way most people see the societies they live in, the theory will be stillborn. Public opinion will only support the necessary political changes if something like the perspective we outline in this book permeates the public mind.

We have therefore set up a not-for-profit organization called The Equality Trust (described at the end of this book) to make the kind of evidence set out in the following pages better known and to suggest that there is a way out of the woods for us all.

PART ONE

Material Success, Social Failure

1 The end of an era

“I care for riches, to make gifts to friends, or lead a sick man back to health with ease and plenty. Else small aid is wealth for daily gladness; once a man be done with hunger, rich and poor are all as one.” Euripides, Electra

It is a remarkable paradox that, at the pinnacle of human material and technical achievement, we find ourselves anxiety-ridden, prone to depression, worried about how others see us, unsure of our friendships, driven to consume and with little or no community life. Lacking the relaxed social contact and emotional satisfaction we all need, we seek comfort in overeating, obsessive shopping and spending, or become prey to excessive alcohol, psychoactive medicines and illegal drugs.

How is it that we have created so much mental and emotional suffering despite levels of wealth and comfort unprecedented in human history? Often what we feel is missing is little more than time enjoying the company of friends, yet even that can seem beyond us. We talk as if our lives were a constant battle for psychological survival, struggling against stress and emotional exhaustion, but the truth is that the luxury and extravagance of our lives is so great that it threatens the planet.

Research from the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation (commissioned by the Merck Family Foundation) in the USA shows that people feel that ‘materialism’ somehow comes between them and the satisfaction of their social needs. A report entitled Yearning for Balance, based on a nationwide survey of Americans, concluded that they were ‘deeply ambivalent about wealth and material gain’. A large majority of people wanted society to ‘move away from greed and excess toward a way of life more centred on values, community, and family’. But they also felt that these priorities were not shared by most of their fellow Americans, who, they believed, had become ‘increasingly atomized, selfish, and irresponsible’. As a result they often felt isolated. However, the report says, that when brought together in focus groups to discuss these issues, people were ‘surprised and excited to find that others share[d] their views’. Rather than uniting us with others in a common cause, the unease we feel about the loss of social values and the way we are drawn into the pursuit of material gain is often experienced as if it were a purely private ambivalence which cuts us off from others.

Mainstream politics no longer taps into these issues and has abandoned the attempt to provide a shared vision capable of inspiring us to create a better society. As voters, we have lost sight of any collective belief that society could be different.

Instead of a better society, the only thing almost everyone strives for is to better their own position as individuals within the existing society.

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.

It is now possible to piece together a new, compelling and coherent picture of how we can release societies from the grip of so much dysfunctional behaviour. A proper understanding of what is going on could transform politics and the quality of life for all of us. It would change our experience of the world around us, change what we vote for, and change what we demand from our politicians.

In this book we show that the quality of social relations in a society is built on material foundations. The scale of income differences has a powerful effect on how we relate to each other. Rather than blaming parents, religion, values, education or the penal system, we will show that the scale of inequality provides a powerful policy lever on the psychological wellbeing of all of us. Just as it once took studies of weight gain in babies to show that interacting with a loving care-giver is crucial to child development, so it has taken studies of death rates and of income distribution to show the social needs of adults and to demonstrate how societies can meet them.

Long before the financial crisis which gathered pace in the later part of 2008, British politicians commenting on the decline of community or the rise of various forms of anti-social behaviour, would sometimes refer to our ‘broken society’. The financial collapse shifted attention to the broken economy, and while the broken society was sometimes blamed on the behaviour of the poor, the broken economy was widely attributed to the rich.

Stimulated by the prospects of ever bigger salaries and bonuses, those in charge of some of the most trusted financial institutions threw caution to the wind and built houses of cards which could stand only within the protection of a thin speculative bubble. But the truth is that both the broken society and the broken economy resulted from the growth of inequality.

WHERE THE EVIDENCE LEADS

We shall start by outlining the evidence which shows that we have got close to the end of what economic growth can do for us. For thousands of years the best way of improving the quality of human life was to raise material living standards. When the wolf was never far from the door, good times were simply times of plenty. But for the vast majority of people in affluent countries the difficulties of life are no longer about filling our stomachs, having clean water and keeping warm. Most of us now wish we could eat less rather than more. And, for the first time in history, the poor are on average fatter than the rich.

Economic growth, for so long the great engine of progress, has, in the rich countries, largely finished its work. Not only have measures of wellbeing and happiness ceased to rise with economic growth but, as affluent societies have grown richer, there have been long-term rises in rates of anxiety, depression and numerous other social problems. The populations of rich countries have got to the end of a long historical journey.

Figure 1.1 Only in its early stages does economic development boost life expectancy.
.

The course of the journey we have made can be seen in Figure 1.1. It shows the trends in life expectancy in relation to Gross National Income per head in countries at various stages of economic development. Among poorer countries, life expectancy increases rapidly during the early stages of economic development, but then, starting among the middle-income countries, the rate of improvement slows down. As living standards rise and countries get richer and richer, the relationship between economic growth and life expectancy weakens. Eventually it disappears entirely and the rising curve in Figure 1.1 becomes horizontal showing that for rich countries to get richer adds nothing further to their life expectancy. That has already happened in the richest thirty or so countries nearest the top righthand corner of Figure 1.1.

The reason why the curve in Figure 1.1 levels out is not because we have reached the limits of life expectancy. Even the richest countries go on enjoying substantial improvements in health as time goes by. What has changed is that the improvements have ceased to be related to average living standards. With every ten years that passes, life expectancy among the rich countries increases by between two and three years. This happens regardless of economic growth, so that a country as rich as the USA no longer does better than Greece or New Zealand, although they are not much more than half as rich. Rather than moving out along the curve in Figure 1.1, what happens as time goes by is that the curve shifts upwards: the same levels of income are associated with higher life expectancy. Looking at the data, you cannot help but conclude that as countries get richer, further increases in average living standards do less and less for health.

While good health and longevity are important, there are other components of the quality of life. But just as the relationship between health and economic growth has levelled off, so too has the relationship with happiness. Like health, how happy people are rises in the early stages of economic growth and then levels off. This is a point made strongly by the economist Richard Layard, in his book on happiness.

Figure 1.2 Happiness and average incomes (data for UK unavailable).
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Figures on happiness in different countries are probably strongly affected by culture. In some societies not saying you are happy may sound like an admission of failure, while in another claiming to be happy may sound selfsatisfied and smug. But, despite the difficulties, Figure 1.2 shows the ‘happiness curve’ levelling off in the richest countries in much the same way as life expectancy. In both cases the important gains are made in the earlier stages of economic growth, but the richer a country gets, the less getting still richer adds to the population’s happiness. In these graphs the curves for both happiness and life expectancy flatten off at around $25,000 per capita, but there is some evidence that the income level at which this occurs may rise over time.

The evidence that happiness levels fail to rise further as rich countries get still richer does not come only from comparisons of different countries at a single point in time (as shown in Figure 1.2). In a few countries, such as Japan, the USA and Britain, it is possible to look at changes in happiness over sufficiently long periods of time to see whether they rise as a country gets richer. The evidence shows that happiness has not increased even over periods long enough for real incomes to have doubled. The same pattern has also been found by researchers using other indicators of wellbeing such as the ‘measure of economic welfare’ or the ‘genuine progress indicator’, which try to calculate net benefits of growth after removing costs like traffic congestion and pollution.

So whether we look at health, happiness or other measures of wellbeing there is a consistent picture. In poorer countries, economic development continues to be very important for human wellbeing. Increases in their material living standards result in substantial improvements both in objective measures of wellbeing like life expectancy, and in subjective ones like happiness. But as nations join the ranks of the affluent developed countries, further rises in income count for less and less.

This is a predictable pattern. As you get more and more of anything, each addition to what you have, whether loaves of bread or cars, contributes less and less to your wellbeing. If you are hungry, a loaf of bread is everything, but when your hunger is satisfied, many more loaves don’t particularly help you and might become a nuisance as they go stale.

Sooner or later in the long history of economic growth, countries inevitably reach a level of affluence where ‘diminishing returns’ set in and additional income buys less and less additional health, happiness or wellbeing. A number of developed countries have now had almost continuous rises in average incomes for over 150 years and additional wealth is not as beneficial as it once was.

The trends in different causes of death confirm this interpretation. It is the diseases of poverty which first decline as countries start to get richer. The great infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, cholera or measles which are still common in the poorest countries today, gradually cease to be the most important causes of death. As they disappear, we are left with the so-called diseases of affluence, the degenerative cardiovascuiar diseases and cancers. While the infectious diseases of poverty are particularly common in childhood and frequently kill even in the prime of life, the diseases of affluence are very largely diseases of later life.

One other piece of evidence confirms that the reason why the curves in Figures 1.1 and 1.2 level off is because countries have reached a threshold of material living standards after which the benefits of further economic growth are less substantial. It is that the diseases which used to be called the ‘diseases of affluence’ became the diseases of the poor in affluent societies. Diseases like heart disease, stroke and obesity used to be more common among the rich. Heart disease was regarded as a businessman’s disease and it used to be the rich who were fat and the poor who were thin. But from about the 1950s onwards, in one developed country after another, these patterns reversed. Diseases which had been most common among the better-off in each society reversed their social distribution to become more common among the poor.

THE ENVIRONMENTAL LIMITS TO GROWTH

At the same time as the rich countries reach the end of the real benefits of economic growth, we have also had to recognize the problems of global warming and the environmental limits to growth. The dramatic reductions in carbon emissions needed to prevent runaway climate change and rises in sea levels may mean that even present levels of consumption are unsustainable particularly if living standards in the poorer, developing, world are to rise as they need to. In Chapter 15 we shall discuss the ways in which the perspective outlined in this book fits in with policies designed to reduce global warming.

INCOME DIFFERENCES WITHIN AND BETWEEN SOCIETIES

We are the first generation to have to find new answers to the question of how we can make further improvements to the real quality of human life. What should we turn to if not to economic growth? One of the most powerful clues to the answer to this question comes from the fact that we are affected very differently by the income differences within our own society from the way we are affected by the differences in average income between one rich society and another.

In Chapters 4-12 we focus on a series of health and social problems like violence, mental illness, teenage births and educational failure, which within each country are all more common among the poor than the rich. As a result, it often looks as if the effect of higher incomes and living standards is to lift people out of these problems. However, when we make comparisons between different societies, we find that these social problems have little or no relation to levels of average incomes in a society.

Take health as an example. Instead of looking at life expectancy across both rich and poor countries as in Figure 1.1, look just at the richest countries. Figure 1.3 shows just the rich countries and confirms that among them some countries can be almost twice as rich as others without any benefit to life expectancy. Yet within any of them death rates are closely and systematically related to income.

Figure 1.3 Life expectancy is unrelated to differences in average income between rich countries.
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Figure 1.4 shows the relation between death rates and income levels within the USA. The death rates are for people in zip code areas classified by the typical household income of the area in which they live. On the right are the richer zip code areas with lower death rates, and on the left are the poorer ones with higher death rates. Although we use American data to illustrate this, similar health gradients, of varying steepness, run across almost every society. Higher incomes are related to lower death rates at every level in society.

Figure 1.4 Death rates are closely related to differences in income within societies.
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Note that this is not simply a matter of the poor having worse health than everyone else. What is so striking about Figure 1.4 is how regular the health gradient is right across society it is a qradient which affects us all.

Within each country, people’s health and happiness are related to their incomes. Richer people tend, on average, to be healthier and happier than poorer people in the same society. But comparing rich countries it makes no difference whether on average people in one society are almost twice as rich as people in another.

What sense can we make of this paradox that differences in average income or living standards between whole populations or countries don’t matter at all, but income differences within those same populations matter very much indeed? There are two plausible explanations. One is that what matters in rich countries may not be your actual income level and living standard, but how you compare with other people in the same society. Perhaps average standards don’t matter and what does is simply whether you are doing better or worse than other people, where you come in the social pecking order.

The other possibility is that the social gradient in health shown in Figure 1.4 results not from the effects of relative income or social status on health, but from the effects of social mobility, sorting the healthy from the unhealthy. Perhaps the healthy tend to move up the social ladder and the unhealthy end up at the bottom.

This issue will be resolved in the next chapter. We shall see whether compressing, or stretching out, the income differences in a society matters. Do more and less equal societies suffer the same overall burden of health and social problems?

2 Poverty or inequality?

“Poverty is not a certain small amount of goods, nor is it just a relation between means and ends; above all it is a relation between people. Poverty is a social status It has grown as an invidious distinction between classes”

Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics

HOW MUCH INEQUALITY?

In the last chapter we saw that economic growth and increases in average incomes have ceased to contribute much to wellbeing in the rich countries. But we also saw that within societies health and social problems remain strongly associated with incomes. In this chapter we will see whether the amount of income inequality in a society makes any difference.

Figure 2.1 How much richer are the richest 20 per cent than the poorest 20 per cent in each country?
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Figure 2.1 shows how the size of income differences varies from one developed country to another. At the top are the most equal countries and at the bottom are the most unequal. The length of the horizontal bars shows how much richer the richest 20 per cent of the population is in each country compared to the poorest 20 per cent.

Within countries such as Japan and some of the Scandinavian countries at the top of the chart, the richest 20 per cent are less than four times as rich as the poorest 20 per cent. At the bottom of the chart are countries in which these differences are at least twice as big, including two in which the richest 20 per cent get about nine times as much as the poorest. Among the most unequal are Singapore, USA, Portugal and the United Kingdom. (The figures are for household income, after taxes and benefits, adjusted for the number of people in each household.)

There are lots of ways of measuring income inequality and they are all so closely related to each other that it doesn’t usually make much difference which you use. Instead of the top and bottom 20 per cent, we could compare the top and bottom 10 or 30 per cent. Or we could have looked at the proportion of all incomes which go to the poorer half of the population. Typically, the poorest half of the population get something like 20 or 25 per cent of all incomes and the richest half get the remaining 75 or 80 per cent.

Other more sophisticated measures include one called the Gini coefficient. It measures inequality across the whole society rather than simply comparing the extremes. If all income went to one person (maximum inequality) and everyone else got nothing, the Gini coefficient would be equal to 1. If income was shared equally and everyone got exactly the same (perfect equality), the Gini would equal 0. The lower its value, the more equal a society is. The most common values tend to be between 0.3 and 0.5. Another measure of inequality is called the Robin Hood Index because it tells you what proportion of a society’s income would have to be taken from the rich and given to the poor to get complete equality.

To avoid being accused of picking and choosing our measures, our approach in this book has been to take measures provided by official agencies rather than calculating our own. We use the ratio of the income received by the top to the bottom 20 per cent whenever we are comparing inequality in different countries: it is easy to understand and it is one of the measures provided ready-made by the United Nations. When comparing inequality in US states, we use the Gini coefficient: it is the most common measure, it is favoured by economists and it is available from the US Census Bureau. In many academic research papers we and others have used two different inequality measures in order to show that the choice of measures rarely has a significant effect on results.

DOES THE AMOUNT OF INEQUALITY MAKE A DIFFERENCE?

Having got to the end of what economic growth can do for the quality of life and facing the problems of environmental damage, what difference do the inequalities shown in Figure 2.1 make?

It has been known for some years that poor health and violence are more common in more unequal societies. However, in the course of our research we became aware that almost all problems which are more common at the bottom of the social ladder are more common in more unequal societies. It is not just ill-health and violence, but also, as we will show in later chapters, a host of other social problems. Almost all of them contribute to the widespread concern that modern societies are, despite their affluence, social failures.

To see whether these problems were more common in more unequal countries, we collected internationally comparable data on health and as many social problems as we could find reliable figures for.

The list we ended up with included:

  • level of trust
  • mental illness (including drug and alcohol addiction)
  • life expectancy and infant mortality
  • obesity
  • children’s educational performance
  • teenage births
  • homicides
  • imprisonment rates
  • social mobility (not available for US states)

Occasionally what appear to be relationships between different things may arise spuriously or by chance. In order to be confident that our findings were sound we also collected data for the same health and social problems or as near as we could get to the same for each of the fifty states of the USA. This allowed us to check whether or not problems were consistently related to inequality in these two independent settings. As Lyndon Johnson said, ‘America is not merely a nation, but a nation of nations.’

To present the overall picture, we have combined all the health and social problem data for each country, and separately for each US state, to form an Index of Heaith and Social Problems for each country and US state. Each item in the indexes carries the same weight so, for example, the score for mental health has as much influence on a society’s overall score as the homicide rate or the teenage birth rate. The result is an index showing how common all these health and social problems are in each country and each US state. Things such as life expectancy are reverse scored, so that on every measure higher scores reflect worse outcomes. When looking at the Figures, the higher the score on the Index of Health and Social Problems, the worse things are. (For information on how we selected countries shown in the graphs we present in this book, please see the Appendix.)

Figure 2.2 Health and social problems are closely related to inequality among rich countries.
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We start by showing, in Figure 2.2, that there is a very strong tendency for ill-health and social problems to occur less frequently in the more equal countries. With increasing inequality (to the right on the horizontal axis), the higher is the score on our Index of Health and Social Problems. Health and social problems are indeed more common in countries with bigger income inequalities. The two are extraordinarily closely related, chance alone would almost never produce a scatter in which countries lined up like this.

Figure 2.3 Health and social problems are only weakly related to national average income among rich countries.
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To emphasize that the prevalence of poor health and social problems in whole societies really is related to inequality rather than to average living standards, we show in Figure 2.3 the same index of health and social problems but this time in relation to average incomes (National Income per person). It shows that there is no similarly clear trend towards better outcomes in richer countries. This confirms what we saw in Figures 1.1 and 1.2 in the first chapter. However, as well as knowing that health and social problems are more common among the less well-off within each society (as shown in Figure 1.4), we now know that the overall burden of these problems is much higher in more unequal societies.

To check whether these results are not just some odd fluke, let us see whether similar patterns also occur when we look at the fifty states of the USA. We were able to find data on almost exactly the same health and social problems for US states as we used in our international index.

Figure 2.4 Health and social problems are related to inequality in US states.
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Figure 2.4 shows that the Index of Health and Social Problems is strongly related to the amount of inequality in each state, while Figure 2.5 shows that there is no clear relation between it and average income levels.

Figure 2.5 Health and social problems are only weakly related to average income in US states.
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The evidence from the USA confirms the international picture. The position of the US in the international graph (Figure 2.2) shows that the high average income level in the US as a whole does nothing to reduce its health and social problems relative to other countries.

We should note that part of the reason why our index combining data for ten different health and social problems is so closely related to inequality is that combining them tends to emphasize what they have in common and downplays what they do not. In Chapters 4-12 we will examine whether each problem taken on its own is related to inequality and will discuss the various reasons why they might be caused by inequality.

This evidence cannot be dismissed as some statistical trick done with smoke and mirrors. What the close fit shown in Figure 2.2 suggests is that a common element related to the prevalence of all these health and social problems is indeed the amount of inequality in each country. All the data come from the most reputable sources from the World Bank, the World Health Organization, the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and others.

Could these relationships be the result of some unrepresentative selection of problems? To answer this we also used the ‘Index of child wellbeing in rich countries’ compiled by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). It combines forty different indicators covering many different aspects of child wellbeing. (We removed the measure of child relative poverty from it because it is, by definition, closely related to inequality.)

Figurer 2.6 The UNICEF index of child wellbeing in rich countries is related to inequality.
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Figure 2.6 shows that child wellbeing is strongly related to inequality, and Figure 2.7 shows that it is not at all related to average income in each country.

Figure 2.7 The UNICEF index of child wellbeing is not related to Gross National Income per head in rich countries.
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SOCIAL GRADIENTS

As we mentioned at the end of the last chapter, there are perhaps two widespread assumptions as to why people nearer the bottom of society suffer more problems. Either the circumstances people live in cause their problems, or people end up nearer the bottom of society because they are prone to problems which drag them down. The evidence we have seen in this chapter puts these issues in a new light.

Let’s first consider the view that society is a great sorting system with people moving up or down the social ladder according to their personal characteristics and vulnerabilities. While things such as having poor health, doing badly at school or having a baby when still a teenager all load the dice against your chances of getting up the social ladder, sorting alone does nothing to explain why more unequal societies have more of all these problems than less unequal ones. Social mobility may partly explain whether problems congregate at the bottom, but not why more unequal societies have more problems overall.

The view that social problems are caused directly by poor material conditions such as bad housing, poor diets, lack of educational opportunities and so on implies that richer developed societies would do better than the others. But this is a long way from the truth: some of the richest countries do worst.

It is remarkable that these measures of health and social problems in the two different settings, and of child wellbeing among rich countries, all tell so much the same story.

The problems in rich countries are not caused by the society not being rich enough (or even by being too rich) but by the scale of material differences between people within each society being too big. What matters is where we stand in relation to others in our own society.

Of course a small proportion of the least well-off people even in the richest countries sometimes find themselves without enough money for food. However, surveys of the 12.6 per cent of Americans living below the federal poverty line (an absolute income level rather than a relative standard such as half the average income) show that 80 per cent of them have airconditioning, almost 75 per cent own at least one car or truck and around 33 per cent have a computer, a dishwasher or a second car.

What this means is that when people lack money for essentials such as food, it is usually a reflection of the strength of their desire to live up to the prevailing standards. You may, for instance, feel it more important to maintain appearances by spending on clothes while stinting on food. We knew of a young man who was unemployed and had spent a month’s income on a new mobile phone because he said girls ignored people who hadn’t got the right stuff. As Adam Smith emphasized, it is important to be able to present oneself creditably in society without the shame and stigma of apparent poverty.

However, just as the gradient in health ran right across society from top to bottom, the pressures of inequality and of wanting to keep up are not confined to a small minority who are poor. Instead, the effects are as we shall see widespread in the population.

. . .

from

The Spirit Level. Why equality is better for everyone

by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

get it at Amazon.com

RICH ENOUGH? A laid-back guide for every kiwi – Mary Holm * THE HAPPINESS EQUATION. The Surprising Economics of Our Most Valuable Asset – Nick Powdthavee.

One recent study suggests that beyond a certain point, people with more money are less happy.

What really matters is how you save.

You don’t have to earn a lot to become wealthy. I’ll show you how to get much more mileage out of what money you have.

WHY DO YOU WANT TO BE RICHER?

Books about money and investing are full of info on how to boost your wealth. But I’ve never seen one that also asks ‘why?’.

At first that might seem a silly question. More money buys us more things and more experiences, and that adds up to more happiness, right?

Not necessarily. Lots of research shows that once we have a certain amount of money enough to easily cover the basics and have some fun, having more doesn’t necessarily make us happier. In fact, one recent study suggests that beyond a certain point, people with more money are less happy. More on this later in the book.

For five years I taught a course on financial literacy to non-Business School students at the University of Auckland. Worried that students might think my main message was ‘the more money, the better’, I asked every student to attend a discussion group where we looked into what made people happy, and the role of wealth in that.

Before coming to the class, the students were asked to do the following (which I dreamt up one day on a long drive). You might want to try it.

1. Write a list of eight individuals or couples you know well.

2. Give each one a score of 1 to 5 for wealth, with at least one getting a 1 and one getting a 5.

3. Give each one a score of 1 to 5 for happiness again with at least one 1 and one 5.

4. See if the high scorers for wealth are also the high scorers for happiness.

Some students found the two were correlated that wealthier people tended to be more content. But many saw no clear correlation, and every now and then someone saw the opposite their poorer friends and relations tended to have a better time.

On balance, though, the students did tend to know more happy rich people than happy poor people. So is the research wrong?

Nick Powdthavee, a UK professor of behavioural science who looked at a great deal of research for his book The Happiness Equation, raises an intriguing question: Does wealth make us happier, or do happy people get wealthier?

He found that happy people:

– tend to be more creative and productive

– have better health which tends to lead to more wealth

– are more likely to be financially successful

It seems that happiness is more likely to lead to wealth than the other way around.

As Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer put it: ‘Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.’

If you start out with a happy disposition, there’s a good chance you’ll end up well off. If you start out grumpy, you’re less likely to do well financially. Of course, you might get lucky with money, but it’s unlikely to change your outlook on life.

So where does this leave you, as you’re starting to read a book about investing? Why try to get richer if it probably won’t make you happier?

Check back to what I said above. While wealth and happiness don’t seem to be highly correlated after you’ve got the basics well covered, many of you will feel you haven’t covered all the basics yet.

Nobody would argue that if you’re struggling to cut credit card debt, or to get together a deposit for a modest first home, or to save up enough to do some fun things in retirement, having a few more bucks wouldn’t be welcome.

Even if you’re financially comfortable, more money gives you more choices. These might include supporting others, from family members to charities.

So, while it may not make sense to put lots of time, effort and worry into absolutely maximising your wealth, it does make sense to take a few straightforward steps to make your money work better for you.

Read this book, take the steps that apply to you, and you’ll have the money stuff sorted. You can then spend less time working and more time getting on with things that will really improve your wellbeing.

What might that be? At the end of the book, we’ll look a little further into some of the fascinating research about what makes people happy. But for now, let’s get on with making you financially strong enough to make the most of your life.

Step 1

START NOW, IT’S EASY

In which we . ..

– Observe that laid-back investing is good

– Compare savvy Sally and slow Suzy

– Also compare the apprentice and the graduate

– See that you’ll have a lot more than twice as much if you save for 40 years instead of 20

– Learn that compounding is a friend for savers, a foe for those in debt

– Discard those ‘You need a million dollars’ messages

People often ask me if I’ve read the latest book about the share market or investing. ‘No’, I reply. ‘There are too many good novels to read. Besides, a lot of what’s written about investing isn’t much and sometimes it’s actually a big worry. It can persuade readers to take steps that will do them more harm than good. When it comes to investing, laziness is good.

That might sound crazy. In pretty much everything else we do, from running marathons to getting promoted fast at work to mastering the piano to creating a magical garden, the more work we put into it the better we’ll do.

But investing is different.

We all know people who put hours into their investments. They read the financial pages, and listen to the economists who tell them, more like guess actually, what’s likely to happen in the next year. Then they read about which investments have done well lately. On the strength of that they choose which shares or bonds to buy or sell, and when to buy or sell them.

And guess what? Most of them end up with less than you will after you’ve read this book, set up your investments and got on with other things. It’s sometimes called ‘Set and forget’.

Let’s not be misleading here. I’m not saying you should never do anything after the initial set-up. Every few years it’s a good idea to do a quick review of your investments. But the changes you might make are easy half-hour sort of stuff. There’ll be more about this in Step 6: ‘Stay cool’, but for now, let’s look at the basics.

Three ways to get more savings

It’s quite simple, really. The three ways to get more savings are:

1. Earn more.

2. Save more.

3. Be smarter with what you do with your savings.

Of course, it’s also great to get a pay rise either in your current job or by starting a new job.

During my extended OE in the United States, I still recall the excitement of moving from a smalltown Michigan newspaper, the wonderfully named Jackson Citizen Patriot, to the Chicago Daily News. The pay rise meant less than the thrill of knowing I would work with some great journalists. But still, my pay went from something like $US14,000 to $US21,000 a year, not to be sneezed at back then when a dollar was worth a dollar.

Chances are you will get at least one huge pay jump in your life. Fantastic! But that’s not what this book is about. It’s not what you earn, but how much you save that matters. And, perhaps more importantly, what really matters is how you save.

Key message: You don’t have to earn a lot to become wealthy. I’ll show you how to get much more mileage out of what money you have.

Get going

I know the feeling. Practical friends tell me I should get the runners on the sliding door to my deck fixed. I don’t understand much about things like that, and I don’t know who to ask, and it all gets too hard and doesn’t happen.

Maybe you feel that way about your finances. The ‘Don’t Know and Don’t Know Who to Trust’ syndrome finds us doing nothing, week after week, year after year. With my house, it might matter if it all starts falling apart. With your money, there are no ‘ifs’. It will matter. Muck around for a year or two and you can end up retiring with much, much less.

But don’t panic! This book will teach you how to invest your money. It’s not hard I promise. . .

RICH ENOUGH? A laid-back guide for every kiwi – Mary Holm

THE HAPPINESS EQUATION. The Surprising Economics of Our Most Valuable Asset – Nick Powdthavee.

THE HAPPINESS EQUATION. The Surprising Economics of Our Most Valuable Asset – Nick Powdthavee.

What do we do, then? What do we do when our lives are a series of trade-offs between different combinations of ‘what ifs”? What do we do when there is an endless horizon of time and resource constraints constantly telling us that whatever we do, we can’t possibly have it all?

“Happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have.” Rabbi Hyman Schachtel.

Why is marriage worth £200,000 a year? Why will having children make you unhappy?

Why does happiness from winning the lottery take two years to arrive?

Why does time heal the pain of divorce or the death of a loved one but not unemployment?

Everybody wants to be happy. But how much happiness precisely will each life choice bring? Should I get married? Am I really going to feel happy about the career that I picked? How can we decide not only which choice is better for us, but how much it’s better for us?

The result of new, unique research, The Happiness Equation brings to a general readership for the first time the new science of happiness economics.

It describes how we can measure emotional reactions to different life experiences and present them in ways we can relate to. How, for instance, monetary values can be put on things that can’t be bought or sold in the market such as marriage, friendship, even death so that we can objectively rank them in order of preference. It also explains why some things matter more to our happiness than others (like why seeing friends is worth more than a Ferrari) while others are worth almost nothing (like sunny weather).

Nick Powdthavee whose work on happiness has been discussed on both the Undercover Economist and Freakanomics blogs brings cutting-edge research on how we value our happiness to a general audience with a style that wears its learning lightly and is a joy to read.

Dr Nattavudh (Nick) Powdthavee is a behavioural economist at the University of York (shortly to move to the Department of Economics, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore). Discussions of his work on the economics of happiness have appeared in over 50 major international newspapers in the past five years, including the New York Times and the Guardian, as well as on TV, including Channel 5 News and The Wright Stuff. He is originally from Thailand.

CHAPTER 1

THE PURSUIT

Most of us go through life believing we know exactly what we need to make us happy. For the most part, we believe that all we ever need is to have someone we love loving us back. Or it’s a combination of more money, a good job, a stable marriage and perfect health. Sometimes it’s the little things in life, like a day off work; a clear blue sky on an autumn afternoon; a nice cup of cool mochaccino on a hot day; an hour-long foot rub; a day spent laughing with friends and family; 45 minutes of uninterrupted sex with our partner, and the energy to last for the best part of it.

But unfortunately in the words of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards we can’t always get what we want. At least, we can’t always get what we want all the time. A day off work every so often sounds like a good idea until, of course, we realise that we will become a little poorer because of it. And that’s no good because, according to the abstract idea we have in our heads of what makes a good life, money matters a lot. Okay then, in that case, we’ll put in more hours at work. But wait. That will also mean less time to be spent with friends and family, and that doesn’t seem so good either.

So what do we do, then? What do we do when our lives are a series of trade-offs between different combinations of ‘what ifs”? What do we do when there is an endless horizon of time and resource constraints constantly telling us that whatever we do, we can’t possibly have it all? Well, according to economists, who are supposedly experts on decision-making, what usually happens is that we try to do the best we can with our choices. We gather all necessary information about our options. We engage in rationalisation and mental calculations. We quietly argue and debate within ourselves over the potential impacts of each individual decision on our happiness. We cross-refer them to the rule-book of ‘All the things that make me happy’, put each possibility into an order of preference, and then, subject to both time and resource constraints, choose the best combination of bundles that we know would optimise our wellbeing. Easy.

Bounded rationality

But of course, if that were true if we always chose the best possible combination of options according to stable preference functions and the constraints facing them then the way we led our lives would literally be disappointment-free. Whatever decisions we made, we would know exactly well in advance what we were getting ourselves into. After all, our rationality would have already done the homework for us: we would be getting the greatest reward at the lowest cost.

How could we possibly not be happy with that?

The reality, however, is that our lives are too often filled with disappointing and regrettable decisions, whether big or small. The holiday we went on last summer; that antique car we bought; or even the job or college degrees we picked. The following anecdotal evidence from a chance meeting between two economists and a dentist makes it all too clear.

Two economics professors and friends, John Bennett and Chuck Blackorby, were attending an economics conference. On the first evening, they met a dentist at the hotel bar who was at an annual conference for dentists just next door to them. After a brief introduction and a couple of drinks, Chuck, who was known for his sometimes brash and direct manner, decided to ask the dentist, by then a little tipsy, a somewhat personal question.

‘So, tell me, are you very happy being a dentist?’

‘Happy? I’m miserable as a dentist’, replied the man.

Chuck smiled to himself. ‘What? If you’re so unhappy, why on earth did you choose to become a dentist in the first place?’

‘I didn’t choose to become a dentist.’ The man took another swig of his drink before delivering the final hammer blow. ‘It’s that stupid kid eighteen years ago that chose to become a dentist. Not me.’

And even when we’re not too disappointed; when we actually think we’re fairly satisfied with the choices we made, sometimes there’s just no way for us to know for certain whether or not we would have been happier if we’d gone with the alternatives. Take having children, for example. For most parents, a natural and genuine response to the question, ‘Would you be happier without children?’ would be a screaming ‘No!’ However, there’s no real way of knowing precisely what life would have been like if these parents had decided not to have their little David or Sarah simply because the childless alternative didn’t take place for them. The same argument holds true for partners who choose not to become parents.

One of the main reasons why we aren’t always able to choose the best options for ourselves is that our rationality is often bounded by the amount of information it possesses, the cognitive limitations of our brains, and the finite amount of time we have to make a decision. According to the so-called ‘bounded rationality’ concept, we human beings are only partly rational and downright irrational in the remaining part of our actions. While economists believe that all human beings are approximately Homo economicus (economic man), rational and broadly self-interested by nature, the reality is that we are just as likely, if not more likely, to let emotions overrule rationality and completely dictate the way we behave.

That we are not wholly rational is shown by studies that have identified two distinct sides to our brains: one that is rational controlled, slow, deliberative and deductive; and one that is emotional automatic, rapid, associative and affective. The mesh between the two is extremely complex, and one does not always dominate the other. And while economic theories of decision making have tended to emphasise the operation of the rational side of our brain in guiding choice behaviour, it’s often the case that, when making decisions under pressure or under conditions where information is incomplete or overly complex, we tend to rely on simplifying heuristics or ‘gut feelings’ rather than extensive algorithmic processing. These ‘rules of thumb’ are far from perfect, and it’s precisely why we sometimes spend too much money on food when we go grocery shopping with an empty stomach, or find it increasingly difficult to walk away from a bus stop the longer we have been waiting for a bus to come even if it would have been a lot quicker to walk than to wait for that damn bus to arrive.

The adaptive unconscious and past experiences

But maybe it’s not always such a bad thing to trust our emotions. Research carried out by psychology professor Timothy Wilson suggests that, in situations where we have had a lot of experience, decisions made without thinking (those made on impulses and gut feelings) can often lead to better and happier outcomes than if they had been made under a strict rule of optimisation, simply because this is when the emotional part of our brain works best at detecting that something is out of the ordinary even if we may not know ourselves what that something is at the time and alerts us in the form of emotional alarm bells such as sweaty palms and butterflies in our stomach. And it’s in these scenarios that practice really makes perfect. It’s also where thinking too much about our past experiences can actually hurt rather than help us.

The question is: Why?

One reason. According to psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, the cognitive part of our brain tends to suffer from what he called the ‘peak-end’ effect, which is the tendency to judge past experiences both pleasant and unpleasant almost entirely on how they were at their peak and how they ended.

Kahneman and his colleagues illustrated the core concept of the peak-end theory in a series of experiments, most notably that involving hospital patients and the very painful colonoscopy procedure. While undergoing a colonoscopy, the patients reported their level of discomfort every 60 seconds throughout the procedure. Afterwards, the patients were asked to remember how unpleasant the procedure was, using several different scales including a ten-point scale, and also about the relative unpleasantness of the colonoscopy compared to other unpleasant experiences such as stubbing a toe, or an average visit to the dentist.

What Kahneman and his colleagues found was astonishing. While there was almost zero correlation between the duration of the colonoscopies that different patients experienced and the global rating of the procedure, the relationship between the peak-end average (the average of the peaks and how the patients felt at the end of the procedure) and the global rating of the procedure was simply undeniable. In other words, we are more likely to remember our experience of a colonoscopy as being awful if the peaks of unpleasantness were very high or if it ended awfully for us, than if the entire procedure itself took a long time to finish. What matters is not the duration of an experience; we hardly ever think about it when we try to recall and judge how happy or unhappy we were in the past. It’s how we were feeling at the peaks and at the end of our experience that count the most.

What about frequency? Surely having experienced something often can teach us to repeat only the things that we remember with pleasure and fondness, and avoid those that we remember with embarrassment and regret? The trouble is, according to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, we are just not very good at remembering them correctly. He illustrates his point by prompting the readers of his book Stumbling on Happiness to think about where they were, whom they were with, and what they were doing when they first heard the news about the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

Okay, that sounds easy enough. Closing my eyes, I can still remember that I was standing at one of the check-in counters at London Heathrow airport, trying to get on the evening flight to Bangkok. Sitting behind the Finnair counter was a man in his late 50s who, as I recall, spoke with a very thick Glaswegian accent.

‘So you’re off to Thailand then, eh? Ah, what a beautiful country! Lovely food, gorgeous beaches, very pretty women!’ His eyes twinkled as he said this.

I smiled politely, acknowledging his appreciation of my country of birth. I knew he was just trying to be friendly in what seemed to be a surprisingly empty airport on a Tuesday afternoon.

‘Okay, sir. Here’s your boarding pass. Have a nice flight. Oh, and have you heard? Two planes hit the World Trade Center not half an hour ago. Probably a terrorist attack. But since you’re flying to Finland first, I’m sure you’ll be just fine.’ He ended with a beam while I stood there, rigid as a board.

Like me, most people will be able to remember in fine detail what they were doing when they first heard the news. But, Gilbert added, would the same people also remember precisely where they were, whom they were with, and what they were doing on the morning of 10 September 2001, one day before the attacks?

I personally couldn’t, of course. And I’m confident enough to bet that not many people could either, a fact that is also true for most Americans.

The main reason why it’s relatively easier for us to recall the exact details of 11 September 2001, but nearly impossible to remember what happened a day earlier, is because momentous events like the 9/11 attacks do not happen frequently in our lifetime. While 11 September 2001 defied our every sense of normality, 10 September, by contrast, was like almost any other day. And unless we religiously keep a diary of everything that ever happened in our lives, any other day is nothing more than a blob in our memory bank.

Daniel Gilbert’s message is clear: it is the infrequent and unusual experiences that are most memorable. These are the ones that stick like glue to the clipboard of our memory cortex. Not the other way round.

Conventional wisdom and imagination

There are two lessons we can draw at this stage. The first is that, in situations where we have had a lot of experience, it’s perhaps better to trust our instincts when it comes to making a decision. And the second lesson, related to the first, is that it seems important not to rely completely on emotions in situations where we have had little or no prior experience. The explanation is simple: in these circumstances, the emotional part of our brain will not have had enough chances to adapt and learn from our past experiences, which will inevitably make it impossible for it to distinguish which decision is better for us.

That sounds perfectly reasonable. All we need to do now is follow any great professional’s advice and just practise, practise, practise. Then afterwards, we can sit back in situations where we have had a lot of these experiences and just make snap decisions without having to think too much about the best outcomes.

Two problems, though. First, how do we know when we have had enough practice doing something? How do we know when we can let the rational brain take a back seat and the emotional brain do all the work? Will 10,000 hours of doing something repetitively be enough? Or will it take a lifetime of experience? Second, what about other, more novel situations? How do we know that we will be happier being married than staying single? How do we know whether we will be happier in a job that pays less but is nevertheless much closer to home? How can we be sure that rationality will not fail us when we have to face dilemmas that we have never faced before?

So now we’ve come full circle: economists’ description of how the world works though somewhat incomplete actually turns out to be useful advice on what we should do in situations where we have had little or no prior experience. According to theories on rational choice, there are perhaps two essential ingredients to successful decision-making when a degree of rationality is involved. The first is time. Unlike the emotional part of our brain where all decision-making is done instantaneously, the rational part of our brain needs time to think things over, to mull over the information. The second ingredient is getting the right information. It’s important that we have perfect awareness of all relevant information regarding the outcome of our choice before making a decision, especially one that could change our lives.

Since we can often find time to think things over before coming up with a solution for many of our life problems, could it just be the case that we don’t always have the right information about the choices we plan to make? Going back to the unhappy dentist, could it be possible that he decided to obtain a degree in dentistry on a whim or, worse, on a dare? Maybe. Nevertheless, considering the potentially life-changing impact of choosing the right career, it’s perhaps more likely that he did try to seek all the available information about how happy a career in dentistry would make him in eighteen years’ time. How could he then have been so wrong?

There are usually two ways of getting the information we need about the potential impacts of a novel experience. First, we can do some research about the experience. So in the case of the unhappy dentist, his decision to study dentistry could have been influenced by what he was expecting to get objectively from becoming a dentist, such as financial return, or by other people’s accounts of their subjective experiences as dentists, or even by conventional wisdom passed down from generation to generation.

Second, if all else fails, we can still use our imagination to conjure up the information we need to undertake a decision. We can try, for example, to picture ourselves in the future: what life would be like being married, or having kids, or having so much money we don’t know what to do with it.

. . .

from

THE HAPPINESS EQUATION. The Surprising Economics of Our Most Valuable Asset

by Nick Powdthavee

get it at Amazon.com

Success. Or, the paradox of happiness – Susi Ferrarello Ph.D. – Judged, The Value of Being Misunderstood – Ziyad Marar.

The moral qualities of someone are as important as their expected competence.

A robust sense of self isn’t really possible except as reflected in the eyes of those whose views we care about, whether parents, friends, colleagues or other audiences.

What we really want, but can’t ever ask for, is to be judged well. And we can’t ask for that, because wrapped into that wish is a vulnerable hope that you will not find me wanting.

The judgements we dispense on a daily basis are flawed in many ways and are unfairly distributed because they are driven by seIf-serving, hypocritical and skewed perceptions of each other.

It is hard to admit we want to be judged well, because we need to achieve that happy state without being seen to be seeking it.

You succeeded, so you must be happy, right?

It is somewhat curious to think how we arrived at considering happiness as a byproduct of success. Even in such disparate groups as my clients and my students have come to the same conclusion: that successful people must be happy because they reached what they wanted in life—money, power, social status, public acknowledgment.

This means that since happiness seems a reasonable goal to pursue my students and clients tend to imitate those models to chase that success.

My suspicion is that this attitude leads to the opposite result, especially if we do not define the word happiness precisely but rather define it only by its means.

Psychology Today

Judged

The Value of Being Misunderstood

Ziyad Marar

So, did you judge this book by its cover? Or were you intrigued by the title? The subtitle? And now you encounter these lines are you drawn in or put off by this attempt to engage you directly? It’s complicated now I think of it. As I write, I’m conscious of different audiences who might want different things and equally that there is no way to deliver on such a wide range of expectations.

Are you judging me? There is a quick heat in the question which is revealing. Implicit in my tone is chagrin and accusation. ‘Don’t be so judgemental’, I’m saying, in a quite judgemental way. To call someone ‘judgemental’ always seems like a negative judgement, doesn’t it? After all I wouldn’t say it after a round of applause, or a compliment. Those more positive appraisals just don’t have the same impact. When it comes to judgement, criticism weighs much more heavily than praise.

Calling you ‘judgemental’ is a defensive move on my part, an accusation that you are being critical and asks you to explain yourself. My question, ‘Are you judging me?’ is loaded with the discomfort of being scrutinized and found wanting and invites me to judge you in return as a form of protective retaliation. I’m asking what your status is in relation to me and what relevance my actions have to you. ‘Who do you think you are anyway?!’

But do I really want you to stop judging me? Sure, right there and then, I do. I want to avoid negative appraisal, so I’d like it to stop. The safer language of ‘live and let live’, ‘each to their own’ is where we turn when we feel exposed to the harsh glare, and wish to escape scrutiny.

But true escape from judgement is a fantasy. How can we live meaningfully without being judged at all? Even criticism is necessary to living well. Without it we’d be playing tennis with the net down. Other people are necessary for our survival on many levels. They are sources of pleasure, goods, information, but most of all they shape our self-image and self-esteem. While it can be painful at times, the judgement of others is also a source of significance and a necessary path to feeling justified. A robust sense of self isn’t really possible except as reflected in the eyes of those whose views we care about, whether parents, friends, colleagues or other audiences.

Alongside the tribulations and unfairnesses of critical judgement lies the tentative hope for kinder appraisals. Raymond Carver, in the poem ‘Late Fragment’, written at the end of his life, concluded that he got what he wanted from this life, namely ‘To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.’ With Carver we want to feel beloved or at least admired, or respected or just recognized. So, what we really want, but can’t ever ask for, is to be judged well. And I can’t ask for that, because wrapped into that wish is a vulnerable hope that you will not find me wanting, quite independently of that hope. I don’t want your charity, or sympathy, or to turn you into a puppet or to generate mere canned applause. It is hard to admit we want to be judged well, because we need to achieve that happy state without being seen to be seeking it.

The psychoanalyst Leslie Farber describes our attempts at willing what cannot be willed. His examples (I can will knowledge, but not wisdom; going to bed, but not sleeping, eating, but not hunger, meekness, but not humility . . . ) are troubling enough. But this is worse. In the case of receiving good judgement, even if I could will it to happen, the judgement resulting wouldn’t be worth having. If there is no attendant risk of receiving bad judgement, then the good judgement we receive loses its value. Judgement worth having needs to be fraught with the possibility of painful failure if it is to matter. And this is why we feel so deeply ambivalent about it, and will often pretend to wish our need for it away. It is really why my question contains emotional heat.

By ‘judgement’ I’m thinking of the social and moral judgements we make of each other in different forms, mainly evaluations of character or action, including the appearance and status, of another person especially around their competence or motivation. These ways of seeing each other pepper our interactions, whether through barely perceptible flinches and gut feels through to more conscious assessments, sometimes negative and sometimes positive, but judging all along. Throughout this book I’ll be exploring how this capacity, while necessary, is often partial, inconsistent, self-serving, skewed and for these reasons unevenly distributed. And that this unreliability applies as much to how we judge ourselves as it does to how we judge each other.

The unreliability of our judgements ensures that the understanding we have of each other is similarly limited, which is why no one will ever truly understand you. Much of this book is an exploration of the limits to the knowledge we can have of each other and the corresponding feeling that most of us, for much of the time, can feel unknown, alone and other.

When I was nearly 10 years old, my family moved from Beirut to Purley in south London. We had left after the civil war in Lebanon started in 1975 and headed to be near my mother’s parents in Croydon. Our first British summer was the famously hot drought of 1976, with temperatures up in the 30s and people needing to ration water. This at least gave us all, my brother, sister and me, some familiar context in what felt an otherwise very unfamiliar country, a country with people who only had one pair of shorts! We all struggled with the adjustment in various ways, my Jordanian father tackling the idiosyncrasies of ‘British middle management’ and having to commute to and from the Middle East for work, my mother after fifteen years abroad finding us schools and somewhere to live. The primary school we went to was just up the road from our house in Purley, so an easy commute at least. But it was a disorientating experience nevertheless, not least because the teachers, seeing that I had a Christian middle name, decided to call me Paul, and I didn’t have the courage to correct them for over a year.

I remember one afternoon getting the results of a maths test. I had got nine out of ten on the test and should have been pleased with that. Unfortunately, the mark I lost was because I had written the correct answer in Arabic. The answer was six, which written in Arabic is indistinguishable from an English seven. Rather than just let it lie, I decided to mention it to the teacher during the lesson. Too seIf-conscious to put my hand up, I can remember walking up to the front of the class and leaning over to whisper to him what had happened. He looked at me with disbelief, and clearly thought I was trying to cheat. I felt embarrassed, and falsely accused during my slow walk back to my chair, my ears reddening with shame. I could hear sniggering. The sense of alienation I had in this new terrain was thus underscored, and I gained a painful insight that is expressed well by the writer and psychotherapist Adam Phillips in his book Monogamy:

“We work hard to keep certain versions of ourselves in other people’s minds; and, of course, the less appealing ones out of their minds. And yet everyone we meet invents us, whether we like it or not. Indeed nothing convinces us more of the existence of other people, of just how different they are from us, than what they can make of what we say to them. Our stories often become unrecognizable as they go from mouth to mouth.

Being misrepresented is simply being presented with a version of ourselves, an invention that we cannot agree with.”

My maths test episode stays with me as just one example of being misunderstood in this way. The story being told of me was unrecognizable to me. Yet I still internalized enough of the criticism to judge myself harshly for having made a fuss, and being foolish enough to get out of my chair. Pathetic! This kind of vivid example is thankfully relatively rare. But misjudgements, misunderstandings, misrecognition on a more banal level, are very common. Slight crossings of wires, mismatches in assumptions, desires, social missteps, all create a web of miscomprehension that shadows, and isolates us within, our daily lives. Even when written in lighter ink, these experiences of misjudgement and misconstrual, it seems to me, are a central feature of what it is to be human.

While this is a sobering thought, I’ll be arguing later that the story is not necessarily a bleak one. There is something hopeful that can come from our misapprehensions. In fact the gaps in knowledge between you and me often provide creative spaces in which our protean selves can develop and grow. Too much knowledge would be claustrophobic, predictable and bland. As Leonard Cohen puts it in the chorus of his song ‘Anthem’, a message echoed in the cover of this book,

“Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Judging in the digital age

If you want to see how the terrain of judgement has become more complicated in recent years, just look at how much time and effort we invest in expressing ourselves online. And those who think we have become anti-social with an addiction to screens have got it backwards. As my daughter Anna once reminded me when I complained, ‘it is called social media, Dad’.

In presenting ourselves through digital lenses, only seemingly locked away from everyday life, we are instead locked into networks of others who communicate with and assess each other’s presentations of ourselves in a quite intense way. This is not always easy to see. We may focus on connection, relationships and gathering information as we communicate this way but this view tends to require we avert our gaze from how online performances are often set out with the hope we will be assessed well by others, who in turn respond in a similarly deliberate way, creating a hall of mirrors of mutual, hopeful, selfconscious reflections. It is hard to feel good about yourself when you now have a window on to a world of people presenting themselves in their best light, for comparison.

The way self-esteem is fed or starved through this medium can be seen with the rising rates of self-harming and online bullying alongside the everyday flow of selfies, gossip and the growth of tools like Instagram and Snapchat. And, of course, there can be harmful consequences for people who have yet to find out there is no delete button on the internet, who might say and show things they later regret.

Our culture has been so permeated by new forms of communication that we are no longer shocked to hear numbers that would have left us openmouthed in disbelief a decade ago: two billion people on Facebook consume 500 years of video every day; 350,000 tweets are produced every minute and 650 million blogs are written each day. And all of them adorned with metrics that give you some basis for comparison. You can count how many friends a person has, or how many ‘likes’ their post receives, their followers and subscribers, their retweets, Tumblr re-posts and YouTube views. And much as we deny the significance of such simplistic measures of success, it is very likely they have some kind of skewing effects on most people’s behaviour.

When you get out of an Uber you are invited to score the driver by clicking on one of five stars, but you need to remember that they are scoring you too. The first episode of Black Mirror, season 3, by Charlie Brooker takes this mutual scoring into a satirical dystopia in which people whose scores are constantly changing and constantly visible to all, panic as their rating falls below 4.2, which then limits their access to highstatus goods. Those who have fallen catastrophically to under 2 become the underclass. The power of the programme comes in echoing the ubiquity of digitally mediated social judgement that has so quickly become part of contemporary lives.

Take Twitter. Who can honestly say they have no idea how many followers they have? Who won’t feel a little blip of satisfaction to see new followers or re-tweets appearing under that little blue sign dubbed ‘notifications’. And who doesn’t send out a tweet wondering whether it will get acknowledged in some way? Why tweet at all unless you hope to be noticed and acknowledged? Three hundred and fifty thousand tweets per minute adds up to over half a billion attention-seeking messages every day.

We have all become broadcasters and now can reach much larger audiences with a click of a button than would have been possible for anyone outside of the media industries only a few years ago. And this leaves us open to much faster judgements if we get it wrong. The intensity of judgement is refracted brightly through a digital lens and makes it quite clear that those who thought the internet was a place to express yourself privately got it completely wrong. When Emily Thornberry MP sent out a tweet including an image of a house in Rochester swathed in England flags she was immediately judged harshly for the apparent sneer she was directing at a patriotic working-class voter.

This led to her resigning her post as shadow attorney general within days.

I’ll advised comments made can now race around the world in a Twitter storm as happened to Tim Hunt, the Nobel laureate, whose career was ended within days of making sexist remarks during a conference in Korea.

Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been (Publicly) Shamed works through many cases of disproportionate punishment meted out to witless Twitterers who have crossed a line. The digital world may have intensified our proneness to judging and being judged in return. But it didn’t create that need, it just feeds ancient appetites. Rather like cheap fast food, so ubiquitously available today, that satisfies ancient evolved cravings for sugar and fat, we now can access mechanisms on a scale never seen before that feed the deep yearning we have for giving and receiving social judgement.

I was caught by a simple question recently, from a man who lives in difficult conditions in Zimbabwe. ‘Why do people in the West ever commit suicide?’ he asked. The question asks how it could be that life could seem unliveable when the profound hardships and deprivations that so many in the world still face have been so abundantly overcome. But we also, despite a culture that encourages us to fill up on luxuries, sense that consumption and material needs met do not ultimately satisfy. This observation also invites us to think about the comparisons we make with others and the standards we are then set by which we might see ourselves as failing. The internal judge of ourselves, based on such comparison, is often the hardest critic we face. In looking at and judging others’ lives, we can value our own by those lights, and this can lead to imagining their judgements of us in return. This in turn can lead to internalizing those verdicts, and often to finding ourselves so wanting as to make life seem worth less. Far from the optimistic assumption that our needs become more optional as they move from the primitive basics of food, clothing, shelter and ascend into the more abstract domain of self-esteem and recognition (as Maslow’s pyramid suggests), the need to feel justified in our lives, however physically comfortable, is just as profound as the need to thrive on a more basic level.

There is something poignant in Samuel Johnson’s observation that ‘every man, however hopeless his pretensions may appear to all but himself, has some project by which he hopes to rise to reputation; some art by which he imagines that the notice of the world will be attracted’. It is poignant because we can picture such hope with no guarantee that it will be well met. Or maybe that we picture it will be met with harsh critique or possibly worse indifference; the vulnerable hoper is exposed callously to the depleted language of being ‘a nobody’ instead of ‘a somebody’, let alone a VIP.

As with economic and other resources, the judgement of others is very unevenly distributed. Some are rich with recognition, applause, goodwill, trust, reputation and others are starved of a good word. This would be bad enough if this uneven spread of good judgement were based on something approaching a fair and rational set of assessments. The courts dispensing ‘blind justice’ claim to be the emblem, if not the reality, of this ideal. But the worst of it is that the judgements we dispense on a daily basis are flawed in many ways and are unfairly distributed because they are driven by seIf-serving, hypocritical and skewed perceptions of each other, as I will explore in detail in this book.

This unequal distribution is intimately tied up with other kinds of inequality. Recent newspaper articles have talked about how the middle classes create a glass floor for their children. They have resources to ensure no child of theirs falls below a certain level of attainment and expectation in life no matter their lack of intellectual or other merits, and crucially this is because they have opportunities to increase their confidence in the world: their preparedness to expect to be well judged. As the acutely observant sociologist Erving Goffman commented over fifty years ago:

“In an important sense there is only one complete unblushing male in America: a young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual, Protestant father of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight, and height, and a recent record in sports . . . . Any male who fails to qualify in any of these ways is likely to view himself during moments at least as unworthy, incomplete, and inferior.”

By this account the vast majority of people are stigmatized one way or another. They have ‘spoiled identities’ in Goffman’s language. I don’t imagine this inequality will change any more easily than other entrenched unfairnesses that plague our society, but there may be benefit in exploring the strange texture of social judgement so as to avoid at least some of those pitfalls. In this book I want to explore the mechanisms of social judgement which happen every day so as to better understand the uncomfortable outcomes we seem to take for granted. And one of these uncomfortable outcomes is the feeling of isolation arising from the uneasy sense that people don’t truly understand us.

A tour of this book

When assessing claims it is understandable to ask for the evidence, and this often means scientific evidence. Evidence and argument are critically important in supporting claims, and it is thanks to this scientific principle that we can distinguish between effective medicines and magic, between bridges that will carry the weight of traffic versus those that will not. But these are relatively ‘tame’ problems. The scientific method will not always offer satisfying explanations of more complex phenomena, which are not so tame. By contrast many of our concerns in social life have instead the characteristics of ‘wicked problems’. ‘Wicked problem’ is a term used to describe a problem that does not have right or wrong answers (though hopefully better or worse ones); it is usually so uniquely set in a context that you can’t easily generalize from it; and the attempt to identify the dense array of underlying causes changes dramatically depending on what frame of reference you are using.

Many of the major social concerns of our times, such as inequality, good relationships, satisfying work or general well-being fall into the category of ‘wicked’. If you want to understand why unhappy families are unhappy in their own way (as Tolstoy said in the opening line of Anna Karenina) the sources of evidence and the nature of the argument will be a much wider array than falls within the ambit of experimental science.

And so it is with judgement in my view. Our ambivalent relationship with judgement, our often partial and unreasonable mechanisms for deploying it, and our flawed dreams of escape from that kind of scrutiny certainly can be illuminated by the work of experimental psychology. And I will be drawing on this work throughout the book. But this is also true of the more qualitative insights to be gleaned from philosophy, psychoanalytic traditions, anthropology, sociology, as well as those other deep repositories of human knowledge, popular culture and literature.

To deny this is to resemble the drunk man who leaves a pub one night and goes to the carpark to find his car. On his way, he realizes he has lost his keys. So he goes over to the nearest lamppost to search around for them. A policewoman looking on starts to help him, but after a few minutes of fruitless searching asks whether that’s in fact where he lost them and the drunk answers, ‘No, I lost them over there’, pointing over to an area in the surrounding darkness. The policewoman, puzzled asks him, ‘Then why are you looking for your keys here, if you lost them over there?’, to which the man replies, ‘Ah, because this is where the light is good.’ It is understandable to look for more certainty than can be had when investigating a phenomenon, and this ‘streetlight effect’ is a tendency to rely on what is more measurable than what might be more insightful even if harder to explore rigorously. Wicked problems often require that we peer into the dark.

Experimental psychologists nevertheless can help us see some features of human nature that generalize across human experience, and shed light on this by arranging the world to show up these daily illusions. They ask people to imagine a stone being dropped from a plane and then to guess where it would land. By showing the gap between our guesses (straight down) and the reality (miles ahead, we overlook the fact the plane is moving so fast), they can skilfully illuminate the biases and preoccupations that can fuel our outlook on the world. But in looking for such common features it is easy to overlook the very particular experiences that we as individuals encounter every day. An ultra-social animal trades in judgements because reputations are of the highest importance, but the particular experience of such judgement is highly contextualized and unique to the setting in question. To develop some insight into these it is valuable to look to films and novels and other forms of popular culture which tell particular stories set in a particular context. To understand the choices involved in developing a reputation we might turn to the compelling and specific story of Walter White in the hit TV series Breaking Bad as much as to generalizable experimental data. As the psychologist Dan McAdams puts it, ‘As artists we each fashion a singular, self-affirming life. As scientists, we notice how the life we have fashioned resembles certain other lives; we detect similarities, regularities and trends.’ Emphasizing the general over the unique, psychology tends to lump while literature splits.

In the spirit of a multi-level approach I draw on these diverse sources to build a picture that I hope more faithfully reflects the complex, ‘wicked’ reality, rather than to boil it down merely to what can be determined in the lab. I hope that this diversity of enquiry will also make for a more interesting read and help to justify the judgement you made in picking this book up in the first place.

I start with a tour of the social minefields in which we operate. As we tiptoe our way through convention and expectation, the threat of being judged ill plagues us and exposes us to many forms of social pain. Anxieties about awkwardness, embarrassment and guilt, shame’s fellow travellers, police our behaviour in profound ways, leading us to find ways to cope by hiding; by veiling our speech and our behaviour. People vary in the skill and knowledge they can use to develop good enough technique. Most of us move somewhere between seeming cool or chic on the one hand, and awkward and gauche on the other, micro-managing impressions as best we can along the way.

Zoom out from the micro-analysis of impression management and you start to see how reputations rise and fall over time. This is the subject of the next chapter. Reputations are some of the most valuable assets a social animal can accrue. In particular, the best reputations need to manage an unlikely tradeoff between being seen as well motivated on the one hand, and as competent or skilled on the other: both moral and able, to put it simply. But no one builds a reputation in isolation. It is granted. Whether you are deemed moral or able, both or neither of these of course lies in the eye of the beholder.

Unfortunately, the beholder’s eye is an unreliable one; the subject of Chapter 3. The lessons learned about how we deploy social and moral judgements on each other are sobering. We are laden with implicit biases, moral flinches and yuk reactions, alongside self-serving and hypocritical judgements which are coloured by the group allegiances to which we subscribe. Recent research in social and moral psychology, which I’ll explore in this chapter, reveals the scale of these tendencies. Our judgements of each other are far from a fair-minded and neutral assessment, however much we might persuade ourselves to see them in that light.

. . .

*

from

Judged, The Value of Being Misunderstood

by Ziyad Marar

get it at Amazon.com

The surprising things you do when you’re happiest. 

In a new study published in the journal ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’ researchers find that, contrary to popular belief, we actually don’t spend all of our time going after activities that make us feel good. In fact, it’s at times when we’re feeling our best that we tend to gravitate toward doing the least pleasurable tasks on our lists, like laundry and chores. So maybe we forgo things that’ll make us feel happy immediately, like happy hour, for duller things that have the potential to make us feel satisfied in the long term, like housework. The findings could have big takeaways for our understanding of happiness and motivation.

“Our positive emotion, perhaps, can be seen as a resource. When we don’t have enough, we need to replenish it, but as soon as we have enough, we can potentially use that to get things done.” WeForum