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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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World Happiness Report 2018 – John F. Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey D. Sachs.

The most striking finding is that a ranking of countries according to the happiness of their immigrant populations is almost exactly the same as for the rest of the population.

Happiness can change, and does change, according to the quality of the society in which people live.

The countries with the happiest immigrants are not the richest countries, but instead the countries with a more balanced set of social and institutional supports for better lives.

A higher value for migrant acceptance is linked to greater happiness for both immigrants and the native-born, by almost equal amounts.

Human psychology is complicated, and behavioural economics has now documented hundreds of ways in which people mispredict the impact of decisions upon their happiness. It does not follow that we should over-regulate their lives, which would also cause unhappiness. It does follow that we should protect people after they make their decisions, by ensuring that they can make positive social connections in their new communities (hence avoiding or reducing discrimination), and that they are helped to fulfill the dreams that led them to move in the first place.

The World Happiness Report is a landmark survey of the state of global happiness. The World Happiness Report 2018, ranks 156 countries by their happiness levels, and 117 countries by the happiness of their immigrants.

The main focus of this year’s report, in addition to its usual ranking of the levels and changes in happiness around the world, is on migration within and between countries.

The overall rankings of country happiness are based on the pooled results from Gallup World Poll surveys from 2015-2017, and show both change and stability. There is a new top ranking country, Finland, but the top ten positions are held by the same countries as in the last two years, although with some swapping of places. Four different countries have held top spot in the four most recent reports, Denmark, Switzerland, Norway and now Finland.

All the top countries tend to have high values for all six of the key variables that have been found to support well-being: income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, trust and generosity. Among the top countries, differences are small enough that year-to-year changes in the rankings are to be expected.

The analysis of happiness changes from 2008-2010 to 2015-2015 shows Togo as the biggest gainer, moving up 17 places in the overall rankings from the last place position it held as recently as in the 2015 rankings. The biggest loser is Venezuela, down 2.2 points on the 0 to 10 scale.

Five of the report’s seven chapters deal primarily with migration, as summarized in Chapter 1. For both domestic and international migrants, the report studies not just the happiness of the migrants and their host communities, but also of those left behind, whether in the countryside or in the source country. The results are generally positive.

Perhaps the most striking finding of the whole report is that a ranking of countries according to the happiness of their immigrant populations is almost exactly the same as for the rest of the population. The immigrant happiness rankings are based on the full span of Gallup data from 2005 to 2017, sufficient to have 117 countries with more than 100 immigrant respondents.

The ten happiest countries in the overall rankings also are ten of the top eleven spots in the ranking of immigrant happiness. Finland is at the top of both rankings in this report, with the happiest immigrants, and the happiest population in general.

The closeness of the two rankings shows that the happiness of immigrants depends predominantly on the quality of life where they now live, illustrating a general pattern of convergence. Happiness can change, and does change, according to the quality of the society in which people live. Immigrant happiness, like that of the locally born, depends on a range of features of the social fabric, extending far beyond the higher incomes traditionally thought to inspire and reward migration.

The countries with the happiest immigrants are not the richest countries, but instead the countries with a more balanced set of social and institutional supports for better lives.

While convergence to local happiness levels is quite rapid, it is not complete, as there is a ‘footprint’ effect based on the happiness in each source country. This effect ranges from 10% to 25%. This footprint effect, explains why immigrant happiness is less than that of the locals in the happiest countries, while being greater in the least happy countries.

A very high proportion of the international differences in immigrant happiness (as shown in Chapter 2), and of the happiness gains for individual migrants (as studied in Chapters 3 and 5) are thus explained by local happiness and source country happiness.

The explanation becomes even more complete when account is taken of international differences in a new Gallup index of migrant acceptance, based on local attitudes towards immigrants, as detailed in an Annex to the Report.

A higher value for migrant acceptance is linked to greater happiness for both immigrants and the native-born, by almost equal amounts.

The report studies rural-urban migration as well, principally through the recent Chinese experience, which has been called the greatest mass migration in history. That migration shows some of the same convergence characteristics of the international experience, with the happiness of city-bound migrants moving towards, but still falling below urban averages.

The importance of social factors in the happiness of all populations, whether migrant or not, is emphasized in Chapter 6, where the happiness bulge in Latin America is found to depend on the greater warmth of family and other social relationships there, and to the greater importance that people there attach to these relationships.

The Report ends on a different tack, with a focus on three emerging health problems that threaten happiness: obesity, the opioid crisis, and depression. Although set in a global context, most of the evidence and discussion are focused on the United States, where the prevalence of all three problems has been growing faster and further than in most other countries.

Edited by John F. Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey D. Sachs This publication may be reproduced using the following reference: Helliwell, J., Layard, R., & Sachs, J. (2018). World Happiness Report 2018, New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Chapter 1

Happiness and Migration: An Overview

Increasingly, with globalisation, the people of the world are on the move; and most of these migrants are seeking a happier life. But do they achieve it? That is the central issue considered in this 2018 World Happiness Report. But what if they do? The migrants are not the only people affected by their decision to move. Two other major groups of people are affected by migration: • those left behind in the area of origin, and • those already living in the area of destination.

This chapter assesses the happiness consequences of migration for all three groups. We shall do this separately, first for rural-urban migration within countries, and then for international migration.

Rural-Urban Migration

Rural-urban migration within countries has been far larger than international migration, and remains so, especially in the developing world. There has been, since the Neolithic agricultural revolution, a net movement of people from the countryside to the towns. In bad times this trend gets partially reversed. But in modern times it has hugely accelerated.

The timing has differed in the various parts of the world, with the biggest movements linked to boosts in agricultural productivity combined with opportunities for employment elsewhere, most frequently in an urban setting. It has been a major engine of economic growth, transferring people from lower productivity agriculture to higher productivity activities in towns.

In some industrial countries this process has gone on for two hundred years, and in recent times rural-urban migration within countries has been slowing down. But elsewhere, in poorer countries like China, the recent transformation from rural to urban living has been dramatic enough to be called “the greatest mass migration in human history”. Over the years 1990-2015 the Chinese urban population has grown by 463 million, of whom roughly half are migrants from villages to towns and cities. By contrast, over the same period the increase in the number of international migrants in the entire world has been 90 million, less than half as many as rural to urban migrants in China alone.

Thus internal migration is an order of magnitude larger than international migration. But it has received less attention from students of wellbeing, even though both types of migration raise similar issues for the migrants, for those left behind, and for the populations receiving the migrants.

The shift to the towns is most easily seen by looking at the growth of urban population in developing countries (see Table 1.1). Between 1990 and 2015 the fraction of people in these countries who live in towns rose from 30% to nearly 50%, and the numbers living in towns increased by over 1,500 million people. A part of this came from natural population growth within towns or from villages becoming towns. But at least half of it came from net migration into the towns. In the more developed parts of the world there was also some rural-urban migration, but most of that had already happened before 1990.

International Migration

If rural-urban migration within countries is an age-old phenomenon, large-scale international migration has increased greatly in recent years due to globalisation (see Table 1.2). In 1990 there were in the world 153 million people living outside the country where they were born. By 2015 this number had risen to 244 million, of whom about 10% were refugees. So over the last quarter century international migrants increased by 90 million.

This is a large number, even if dwarfed by the scale of rural-urban migration. In addition, on one estimate there are another 700 million people who would like to move between countries but haven’t yet done so.

Of the increased number of recent migrants over a half comes from migration between continents (see Table 1.3). There were big migrations into North America and Europe, fuelled by emigration from South/Central America, Asia and Africa.

There were also important flows of international migrants within continents (see Table 1.4). In Asia for example there were big flows from the Indian sub-continent to the Gulf States; and in Europe there was the strong westward flow that has followed the end of Communism.

From the point of view of the existing residents an important issue is how many immigrants there are, as a share of the total population. This requires us to look at immigrants as a fraction of the total population. At the world level this has risen by a half in recent years (see Table 1.2).

But in most of the poorer and highly populous countries of the world the proportion of migrants remains quite low. It is in some richer countries that the proportion of immigrants is very high. In Western Europe, most countries have immigrants at between 10 and 15 per cent of the population. The same is true of the USA; while Canada, Australia and New Zealand have between 20 and 30%. The most extreme cases are the UAE and Kuwait, both over 70%.

Figure 1.1 shows the situation worldwide.

The Happiness of International Migrants

As already noted, migration within and between countries has in general shifted people from less to more productive work, and from lower to higher incomes. In many cases the differences have been quite extreme. International migration has also saved many people from extremes of oppression and physical danger, some 10% of all international migrants are refugees, or 25 million people in total.

But what can be said about the happiness of international migrants after they have reached their destination?

Chapter 2 of this report begins with its usual ranking and analysis of the levels and changes in the happiness of all residents, whether locally born or immigrants, based on samples of 1,000 per year, averaged for 2015-2017, for 156 countries surveyed by the Gallup World Poll. The focus is then switched to international migration, separating out immigrants to permit ranking of the average life evaluations of immigrants for the 117 countries having more than 100 foreign-born respondents between 2005 and 2017. (These foreign-born residents may include short-term guest workers, longer term immigrants, and serial migrants who shift their residency more often, at different stages of their upbringing, careers, and later lives).

So what determines the happiness of immigrants living in different countries and coming from different, other countries? Three striking facts emerge:

1. In the typical country, immigrants are about as happy as people born locally. (The difference is under 0.1 point out of 10). This is shown in Figure 1.2. However the figure also shows that in the happiest countries immigrants are significantly less happy than locals, while the reverse is true in the least happy countries. This is because of the second finding.

2. The happiness of each migrant depends not only on the happiness of locals (with a weight of roughly 0.75) but also on the level of happiness in the migrant’s country of origin (with a weight of roughly 0.25). Thus if a migrant goes (like many migrants) from a less happy to a more happy country, the migrant ends up somewhat less happy than the locals. But the reverse is true if a migrant goes from a more to a less happy country.

This explains the pattern shown in Figure 1.2, and is a general (approximate) truth about all bilateral flows. Another way of describing this result is to say that on average a migrant gains in happiness about three-quarters of the difference in average happiness between the country of origin and the destination country.

3. The happiness of immigrants also depends, importantly, on how accepting the locals are towards immigrants. (To measure acceptance local residents were asked whether the following were “good things” or “bad things”: having immigrants in the country, having an immigrant as a neighbour, and having an immigrant marry your close relative).

In a country that was more accepting (by one standard deviation) immigrants were happier by 0.1 points (on a 0 to 10 scale). Thus the analysis in Chapter 2 argues that
migrants gain on average if they move from a less happy to a more happy country (which is the main direction of migration). But that argument was based on a simple comparison of the happiness of migrants with people in the countries they have left.

What if the migrants were different types of people from those left behind? Does this change the conclusion? As Chapter 3 shows, the answer is, No.

In Chapter 3 the happiness of migrants is compared with individuals in their country of origin who are as closely matched to the migrants as possible and are thinking of moving. This again uses the data from the Gallup World Poll. The results from comparing the migrants with their look-a-likes who stayed at home suggests that the average international migrant gained 0.47 points (out of 10) in happiness by migration (as measured by the Cantril ladder). This is a substantial gain. But there is an important caveat: the majority gain, but many lose. For example, in the only controlled experiment that we know of, Tongans applying to migrate to New Zealand were selected on randomised basis. After moving, those who had been selected to move were on average less happy than those who (forcibly) stayed behind.

Migration clearly has its risks. These. include separation from loved ones,. discrimination in the new location, and a feeling of relative deprivation, because you now compare yourselfwith others who are richer than your previous reference group back home.

One obvious question is: Do migrants become happier or less happy the longer they have been in a country? The answer is on average, neither, their happiness remains flat. And in some countries (where this has been studied) there is evidence that second-generation migrants are no happier than their immigrant parents.

One way of explaining these findings (which is developed further in Chapter 4) is in terms of reference groups: When people first move to a happier country their reference group is still largely their country of origin. They experience an immediate gain in happiness. As time passes their objective situation improves (which makes them still happier) but their reference group becomes increasingly the destination country (which makes them less happy). These two effects roughly offset each other. This process continues in the second generation.

The Gallup World Poll excludes many current refugees, since refugee camps are not surveyed. Only in Germany is there sufficient evidence on refugees, and in Germany refugees are 0.4 points less happy than other migrants. But before they moved the refugees were also much less happy than the other migrants were before they moved.

So refugees too are likely to have benefitted from migration. Thus average international migration benefits the majority of migrants, but not all. Does the same finding hold for the vast of the army of people who have moved from the country to the towns within less developed countries?

The Happiness of Rural-Urban Migrants

The fullest evidence on this comes from China and is presented in Chapter 4. That chapter compares the happiness of three groups of people:

• rural dwellers, who remain in the country,

• rural-urban migrants, now living in towns, and

• urban dwellers, who always lived in towns.

Migrants have roughly doubled their work income by moving from the countryside, but they are less happy than the people still living in rural areas. Chapter 4 therefore goes on to consider possible reasons for this.

Could it be that many of the migrants suffer because of the remittances they send home? The evidence says No. Could it be that the people who migrate were intrinsically less happy? The evidence says No. Could it be that urban life is more insecure than life in the countryside, and involves fewer friends and more discrimination? Perhaps.

The biggest factor affecting the happiness of migrants is a change of reference group: the happiness equation for migrants is similar to that of urban dwellers, and different from that of rural dwellers. This could explain why migrants say they are happier as a result of moving, they would no longer appreciate the simple pleasures of rural life.

Human psychology is complicated, and behavioural economics has now documented hundreds of ways in which people mispredict the impact of decisions upon their happiness. It does not follow that we should over-regulate their lives, which would also cause unhappiness. It does follow that we should protect people after they make their decisions, by ensuring that they can make positive social connections in their new communities (hence avoiding or reducing discrimination), and that they are helped to fulfil the dreams that led them to move in the first place.

It is unfortunate that there are not more studies of rural-urban migration in other countries. In Thailand one study finds an increase in happiness among migrants, while in South Africa one study finds a decrease?

The Happiness of Families Left Behind

In any case the migrants are not the only people who matter. What about the happiness of the families left behind? They frequently receive remittances (altogether some $500 billion in 2015), but they lose the company and direct support of the migrant. For international migrants we are able to examine this question In Chapter 3.

This is done by studying people in the country of origin and examining the effect of having a relative who is living abroad. On average this experience increases both life-satisfactlon and positive affect. But there is also a rise in negative affect (sadness, worry, anger), especially if the migrant is abroad on temporary work. Unfortunately there is no comparable analysis of families left behind by rural-urban migrants who move to towns and cities in the same country.

The Happiness of the Original Residents in the Host Country

The final issue is how the arrival of migrants affects the existing residents in the host country or city. This is one of the most difficult issues in all social science.

One approach is simply to explain happiness in different countries by a whole host of variables including the ratio of immigrants to the locally born population (the “immigrant share”). This is done in Chapter 2 and shows no effect of the immigrant share on the average happiness of the locally born. It does however show that the locally born population (like immigrants) are happier, other things equal, if the country is more accepting of immigrants.

Nevertheless, we know that immigration can create tensions, as shown by its high political salience in many immigrant-receiving countries, especially those on migration trails from unhappy source countries to hoped-for havens in the north.

Several factors contribute to explaining whether migration is welcomed by the local populations.

First, scale is important. Moderate levels of immigration cause fewer problems than rapid surges,

Second, the impact of unskilled immigration falls mainly on unskilled people in the host country, though the impact on public services is often exaggerated and the positive contribution of immigrants is often underestimated.

Third, the degree of social distress caused to the existing residents depends importantly on their own frame of mind, a more open-minded attitude is better both for immigrants and for the original residents.

Fourth, the attitude of immigrants is also important if they are to find and accept opportunities to connect with the local populations, this is better for everyone. Even if such integration may initially seem difficult, in the long run it has better results, familiarity eventually breeds acceptance, and inter-marriage more than anything blurs the differences.

The importance of attitudes is documented in the Gallup Annex on migrant acceptance, and in Chapter 2, where the migrant acceptance index is shown to increase the happiness of both sectors of the population, immigrants and the locally born.

Chapter 5 completes the set of migration chapters. It seeks to explain why so many people emigrate from Latin American countries, and also to assess the happiness consequences for those who do migrate. In Latin America, as elsewhere, those who plan to emigrate are on average less happy than others. Similar to themselves in income, gender and age. They are also on average wealthier, in other words they are “frustrated achievers”.

But those who do emigrate from Latin American countries also gain less in happiness than emigrants from some other continents. This is because, as shown in chapters 2 and 6, they come from pretty happy countries. Their choice of destination countries is also a less happy mix. This combination lessens their average gains, because of the convergence of immigrant happiness to the general happiness levels in the countries to which they move, as documented in Chapter 2. If immigrants from Latin America are compared to other migrants to the same countries, they do very well in relation both to other immigrants and to the local population. This is shown in Chapter 2 for immigration to Canada and the United Kingdom, countries with large enough happiness surveys to permit comparison of the happiness levels of immigrants from up to 100 different source countries.

Chapter 6 completes the Latin American special package by seeking to explain the happiness bulge in Latin America. Life satisfaction in Latin America is substantially higher than would be predicted based on income, corruption, and other standard variables, includIng having someone to count on. Even more remarkable are the levels of positive affect, with eight of the world‘s top ten countries being found in Latin America.

To explaIn these differences, Chapter 6 convincingly demonstrates the strength of family relationships in Latin America. In a nutshell, the source of the extra Latin American happiness lies in the remarkable warmth and strength of family bonds, coupled with the greater importance that Latin Americans attach to social life in general, and especially to the family. They are more satisfied with their family life and, more than elsewhere, say that one of their main goals is making their parents proud.

Conclusion

In conclusion, there are large gaps in happiness between countries, and these will continue to create major pressures to migrate. Some of those who migrate between countries will benefit and others will lose. In general, those who move to happier countrIes than their own will gain in happiness, while those who move to unhappier countries will tend to lose. Those left behind will not on average lose, although once again there will be gainers and losers. Immigration will continue to pose both opportunities and costs for those who move, for those who remain behind, and for natives of the immigrant-receiving countries.

Where immigrants are welcome and where they integrate well, immigration works best. A more tolerant attitude in the host country will prove best for migrants and for the original residents. But there are clearly limits to the annual flows which can be accommodated without damage to the social fabric that provides the very basis of the country’s attraction to immigrants.

One obvious solution, which has no upper limit, is to raise the happiness of people in the sending countries, perhaps by the traditional means of foreign aid, and better access to rich-country markets, but more importantly by helping them to grow their own levels of trust, and institutions of the sort that make possible better lives in the happier countries.

Download the full report, Pdf

World Happiness Report

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