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The Pursuit of Happiness

I commend to you Richard Layard, Lord Layard of Highgate, Co-Director of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, and author of the just published Happiness: Lessons From A New Science.

This evening I attended a lecture at the Great Hall of Cooper Union, given by Lord Layard, moderated by Paul Krugman, with special guest appearance by Princeton's Daniel Kahneman -- the only psychologist to have ever won a Nobel Prize in economics.

And it was there that I learned about the new science of Happiness Studies. I think that's what it's really called, too. It isn't just economics, though it is oriented toward public policy; it's a blend of disciplines including psychology, economics, political theory, philosophy, neuroscience, and more.

This is fascinating stuff. You will be hearing more about it. The lecture was... well... it made me happy. I later bought Layard's book and I now look forward to settling down with it for some reading and thinking happiness. I therefore will leave you to your own devices, for the moment, in puzzling this thing out. To aid you in your project, however, I further commend to you a series of three lectures Layard gave in March of 2003, the Lionel Robbins Memorial Lectures delivered at the London School of Economics. (NOTE: all are .pdf files.)

I will have more to say later, I think, but for now I will simply say that this evening confirmed for me a suspicion I have had for some time regarding the wounded state of the American Left. I don't think it will be a particular candidate or wing of the party that will bring us back into power. What will bring us back will be the charge of a new idea, maybe several of them. It might be that tonight I stumbled into the presence of one of those ideas, though it could take years, even decades for it to find its way into our political lives.

Though with the mess the right is making of things, that schedule might well be bumped up considerably.

Update: See Radio Headz Up.


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I think people underestimate the strength to be found in joy, and yes, even mere happiness. I would be fascinated to hear about this new science -- as much as you feel up to passing on.


I just started the book so I don't want to flap my gums too stupidly (yet) but I think I'm safe in saying this much...

As we know, as a general principle, we seek to feel happy, we seek to avoid feeling unhappy.

It turns out that "happiness" and its opposite are conditions that can be reliably measured -- through self-reporting, reporting of your friends about you, reports of impartial outside observers, and through neuroscience. The results are highly correlative.

It turns out that while western societies have had a massive increase in our standards of living over the last 50 years, we have had little or no increase in our average happiness. What the heck is that about?

That's what they are looking into. And what they are uncovering is a new way to look at the relationship between economics and public policy.

All of which is a gross simplification and leaves out many of the most interesting (and, interestingly, the most progressive) ideas. Take a look at those lecture-links. I skimmed them and they seem to contain the general outline of what I've seen of the thing so far.

There will be a lot of people who will attack this thing on the basis of the sort of simplified description I've given above. I'm confident it can withstand these attacks, but I'm not sure I can contribute to its defense at this point without making things worse.

I find Layard's writings on happiness at odds with his economic theories, in particular, his belief that reducing unemployment benefits helps to reduce unemployment. Not only is there no evidence whatsoever to support this contention, in most cases a reduction in income only exacerbates the misery of the unemployed. What's more, reductions in benefits only help employers drive down the wage floor, which means in the long run we all get our incomes reduced. I fail to see how a philosopher of happiness can endorse policies which only increase the sum of human misery.

I'm no economist, and all I know of Layard is what I've read by him (plus a little bit of what I've read about him), but it's true that his views on unemployment surprised me at first. On this subject, he does, at first, sound a little bit like Ronald Reagan.

But upon reflection, I'm not sure his theories on unemployment necessarily conflict with his views on happiness. I think his emphasis is clearly on getting people back to work -- hopefully some sort of work that gives their lives meaning, but in any case, work of one sort or another in the hope they will "get back in the game" and move upward until they do find meaningful work.

Unlike those who advocate welfare-to-work and set about severely limiting benefits without actually doing anything to help people beyond that, Layard seems to believe that you have to make unemployment not particularly remunerative AND AT THE SAME TIME work hard to help people find work.

Sadly, I've had the displeasure of seeing a number of people around me go unemployed for a while and I have to agree, based simply on observation, that unemployment is an incredibly dispiriting experience. I also have to say that these people could have used a great deal more help finding meaningful work. In that sense, Layard's theories on unemployment and his views on happiness don't seem at odds to me. Unlike the Reaganites, he doesn't place the blame for extended unemployment solely on Welfare Kings & Queens. He places it on government and corporate real world indifference to it, indifference inspired perhaps by the reasons you mention -- driving down the wage floor, and so forth.

But as I say, I'm no economist. I only know what I see -- the unemployed around me, and so forth. If you are an economist, I'd love to hear more about your views on Layard.

His book is full of interesting ideas, I think, but also a lot of stuff that seems to border on just so much airy-fairy hoo-haw. I am not yet convinced we can adjust the Happiness Index upward through the tax policy changes he proposes. However, I can well believe his questions about "if we're so rich, how come so many of us are so unhappy?" offer some hope in getting people to actually think about what's wrong with some of our economic policies. It's an approach that seems to affect people right where they live, as opposed to abstract theories that people just tune out.

In short, in my view, the questions he raises at least offer some promise of getting people to actually rethink some of the way we're doing things around here.

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