Happiness is a sought after goal by many people, but it remains more elusive than ever, it seems. Americans in particular have become wealthier—generally speaking—live longer lives than our historical antecedents, and do not—again, generally speaking—have to worry about material survival. That said, however, according to Richard Layard, author of “Happiness: Lessons from a New Science,” the overall happiness of the population has not been positively correlated with material wealth nor has happiness increased in the past 50 years. Layard writes: “Human beings have largely conquered nature, but they have still to conquer themselves.”
Happiness, it appears, has stalled or even reversed in recent years.
The modern story of happiness really begins in the 18th and 19th centuries with the works of the utilitarian philosophers, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. For them, happiness remained a communal concept. Layard, too, discusses the utilitarian philosophers in his book. Bentham and Mill conceptualized happiness as acts and behaviors that promote the greater good. Contrasted with today’s staunch individualism, the utilitarian idea of happiness takes others into account.
As the 19th century came to a close, so too did the utilitarian concept of happiness. As the 20th century progressed, and as the prosperity of the post-WWII spread among western countries, happiness became more and more conflated with money and materialism . . . that is, until certain scientific knowledge began to question this assertion. Cognitive therapy, for one—a therapy that emerged after behaviorism and psychoanalysis begun to lose favor among established, mainstream psychology—places the responsibility for one’s happiness on one’s lap. Finally, other areas of the social and behavioral sciences, such as in survey research, began to confirm long-held conceptions of happiness over modern materialistic ideas.
Layard’s book lays out the current empirical evidence of happiness, what it is and how it is measured. Amazingly, although happiness has be discussed since ancient times—mostly through a religious guise but also in works of the stoic philosophers—empirical science, through psychology, neuroscience and others, has only begun to probe the depths of this very important, often misunderstood idea.
According to Layard, one of the things that could be said about happiness is that it does not correlate positively with material wealth. In other words, as Layard makes clear, “once subsistence income is guaranteed, making people happier is not guaranteed.” Many individuals mistakenly equate happiness with great material wealth, but that notion does not appear to hold water. If put in some kind of simplistic mathematical terms, the equation for happiness in the minds of many people may look something like this:
money x wealth x material gain = happiness
For centuries, philosophers and religious mystics have been preaching against this idea, as the many and even more ancient, oft-quoted passages from the Bible bear out. And although religion and science have few things in common, the two paths do appear to converge on this point . . . that more money does not mean more happiness.
For Layard, then, happiness is effected by both one’s internal and external circumstances.
Although much more can be said about happiness, it appears that previous notions about the subject remain accurate . . . that after a certain subsistence level income, money and wealth do not create more happiness. Moreover, happiness, as the utilitarian thinkers proposed, also appears to remain rooted in individual and communal dimensions. Put another way, individual happiness in some ways remains tied to others. The quality of one’s relationships with others appear to improve an individual’s level of happiness as does one’s attitude about life in general. Some of these factors remain within the control of the individual, some do not.
Finally, as science probes further into his fascinating subject, perhaps one day a bigger, more detailed picture of happiness can be illustrated. Until then, one’s own happiness can be said to dwell in the hearts of ourselves . . . and in the heart’s of others.
Layard, Richard. Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, Penguin Books, 2005.