Tag Archives: Wellbeing

HAPPINESS. Lessons from a New Science – Richard Layard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preface to the second edition

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

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

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

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

Richard Layard, January 2011

What’s the problem?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Philosophy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Psychology?

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

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

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

What Social Message?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Personal Message?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is happiness?

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

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

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

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

The Feeling of Happiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asking People

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

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

Feelings Fluctuate

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brainwaves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Single Dimension

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

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

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

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

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

Qualities of Happiness

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

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

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

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

Happiness Improves Your Health

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

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

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

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

The Function of Happiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . .

from

Happiness. Lessons from a New Science

by Richard Layard

get it at Amazon.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertising is a form of mental pollution.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then came the most important part of this experiment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also on TPPA = CRISIS

JUNK VALUES. CONSUMERISM LITERALLY IS DEPRESSING

Johann Hari

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JUNK VALUES. CONSUMERISM LITERALLY IS DEPRESSING – Johann Hari

. . .

from

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

by Johann Hari

get it at Amazon.com

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

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

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

If we are to gain further improvements in the real quality of life, we need to shift attention from material standards and economic growth to ways of improving the psychological and social wellbeing of whole societies. It is possible to improve the quality of life for everyone. We shall set out the evidence and our reasons for interpreting it the way we do, so that you can judge for yourself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PART ONE

Material Success, Social Failure

1 The end of an era

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHERE THE EVIDENCE LEADS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE ENVIRONMENTAL LIMITS TO GROWTH

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

INCOME DIFFERENCES WITHIN AND BETWEEN SOCIETIES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 Poverty or inequality?

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

Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics

HOW MUCH INEQUALITY?

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

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

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

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

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

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

DOES THE AMOUNT OF INEQUALITY MAKE A DIFFERENCE?

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

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

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

The list we ended up with included:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . .

from

The Spirit Level. Why equality is better for everyone

by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

get it at Amazon.com

The Longing, What does it mean to become aware of a profound spiritual yearning? – Betty Luceigh PhD.

I have felt The Longing beckon me, have searched for its source, and have wept to touch it, but still it remains elusive.
The word Longing first touched my heart because that is where The Longing is most intense in my single human form.
The Longing likewise guides the evolution of the collective heart in which all life participates.
I will continue to explore this deep Longing within myself in the belief that it inspires a perspective more creative than I can now realize.

Psychology Today

The surprising things you do when you’re happiest. 

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

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