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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
. . .
Happiness. Lessons from a New Science
by Richard Layard
get it at Amazon.com