How the World Happiness Report is measuring our wellbeing

Economist Richard Layard's new book Can We Be Happier? outlines the changes we'd see if government policy focused on improving national happiness

As Blue as our Monday was last week, there are 141 countries that endured a deeper shade. The United Kingdom is 15th on the World Happiness Report, a measurement of wellbeing published via the United Nations. The survey spans thousands of people around the world and using fancy metrics – it’ll improve both your happiness and mine if I avoid trying to explain exactly how numbers are crunched – has produced an annual league table since 2012, the top slots more or less consistently dominated by Scandinavian nations.

The economist Richard Layard is the co-founder of the measurement, drawing upon a lifetime studying happiness and its impact on society. He has long called for the happiness of the population to replace economic growth as the measurement of a country’s success, an idea he introduced to the heart of government. He helped develop New Labour’s social welfare strategy in the 1990s and was behind David Cameron when 10 years ago the then prime minister announced that the government would start taking note of the nation’s wellbeing. Oh, what an idyllic decade followed!

At the age of 85, Layard is a life peer in the Lords and directs the Wellbeing Programme at the London School of Economics. In his new book, Can We Be Happier?, he outlines the evidence that proves what a more wonderful world it would be if a focus on improving happiness was the driver behind government policy and our own day-to-day decisions.

The Big Issue: Can we be happier? Is there an easy answer to that question?

Richard Layard: First, we have to be clear that that’s our objective. The way we should judge the progress of our societies is whether people are having lives they enjoy. If we could agree on that, we could move on to the second stage – using the evidence now available on a large scale about what makes people feel fulfilled and satisfied. Some of those factors are external: human relationships, work and whether we’re feeling comfortable in the community where we live. There’s also income, but actually when you look at the evidence, once people have an adequate income you won’t find a large variation in happiness due to differences in income. Then there are internal factors: our health, physical and mental, and also our general philosophy –
how we manage our mental life.

You want happiness to be the measure of a country’s success. How did we end up in a world where happiness is seen as less important than economics?

A terrible mistake we’ve got sucked into over the post-war period is ever-increasing competition between individuals. Ask what young people are being told they should strive for and it’s largely in comparison with other people – getting better grades, a better job, better income and so on. What everybody’s trying to do is just something better than other people. For every winner, there’s a loser. Obviously, it’s not good for the losers but it’s actually not great for the winners because engaging in that struggle is very stressful.

Competition between organisations is a good thing – it keeps them on their toes – but competition between individuals in most cases is destructive. Radically reordering the objectives of our society is critical if we’re going to have a happier one. We need to get away from the objective of personal success to a situation where our objective is to create happiness for other people – which of course is a very good way of making yourself happier.

How can you measure something as objective as happiness?

The most common method is to ask: “Overall, how satisfied are you with your life these days?” Ten means extremely satisfied, zero means extremely dissatisfied. And it turns out that the answers to these questions make a huge amount of sense. They correlate with measurements you can make on brain activity. They correlate with many forms of behaviour that you might expect.

For example, the answers predict pretty well whether somebody’s going to walk out of their job or their marriage and also predict things like how productive they are at work. You might expect people who are feeling satisfied to vote for the existing government, for example, and indeed that’s what they do. That’s why politicians should take serious note. It’s more important than the state of the economy.

What if a person’s happiness comes at the expense of others? They might think “I would be much happier if there were fewer people of a certain race or religion in
my neighbourhood” and that leads to them making certain decisions.

That’s a very important question and is part of a bigger one: when we say we should judge society on how happy people are, do we mean the average or the happiness of those who are least happy? I strongly believe it’s the latter. The most important kind of progress we need is getting rid of misery.

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A decade ago David Cameron called for a happiness index. I remember the launch but not much about what happened after that.

Well, I think your memory is very good, actually. We got caught up in the austerity programme then we got caught up in Brexit and we took our eyes off the ball. But that said, there has been a lot of progress. Wellbeing has been promoted as a goal in different government departments and a lot of policies are now being evaluated that way so things have been moving in the right direction.

The most dramatic change abroad has been New Zealand’s wellbeing budget [in 2019 the government announced hundreds of millions of New Zealand dollars to tackle mental illness, domestic violence and child poverty]. If our government adopted this it would have a huge impact on how money was spent.

Think about the things that really matter to people – their mental health, the wellbeing of their children. These are things that were hit very hard by the austerity programme. We have been dismantling the social infrastructure of the country. Now we’ve got some money I find it very depressing that people say we could spend it on improving the physical infrastructure – more roads, more railways – whereas an absolute priority is improving the immediate circumstances of people in their personal lives.

The financial market takes physical infrastructure seriously because they think it’s an investment. Social infrastructure is an investment too. Mental health provision pays for itself. I’ve been involved in improving access to psychological therapies and we can show conclusively that has completely paid for itself. These things are much less expensive than grandiose projects like HS2, and we need to focus on them.

Why is Scandinavia so happy?

The factors are often social and personal in their nature. Questions like: do you think you can trust other people? If you are in trouble, do you have anybody that you can rely on to help you? These are very good at explaining the order of countries in the ranking. Scandinavian countries are much less focused on competition between individuals. They stress more than we do the importance in finding things we share with other people rather than always trying to show how different we are from others.

In Britain today, more than one million people haven’t spoken to anybody in the last five days. It doesn’t feel like we’re in the midst of a happiness revolution.

Social media is a growing problem. It encourages everybody to compare themselves to others – a guaranteed source of unhappiness – but there are positives. Crime is much lower than it was 30 years ago and there is a new element of gentleness creeping in. We’ve become more sensitive and aware of issues like child abuse and sexual harassment. Even the royal family has less of a stiff upper lip and is more open about issues to do with mental health.

Living in today’s world is better than any other point in history but life is tough for a lot people. Happiness is tied to family, friends, job security – if you don’t have those things how can you be happy?

Those for whom life is a struggle can learn better mental habits. We are not just prisoners of our feelings. We experience a circular process whereby our feelings affect our thoughts but also our thoughts affect our feelings. The most powerful way to break into that circle is by deciding to adopt new forms of thinking. Notice all the negative thoughts you have, put them to one side and act more on the positive things you can think about and do. We have founded a movement called Action for Happiness, a group of people committed to the promise that they will try to create as much happiness as they can in the world for themselves and others. I would urge anybody reading this article to go to the website and find out if there are Action for Happiness groups in their neighbourhood.

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The World Happiness Report surveys citizens and ranks countries using six factors: levels of GDP, life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom and corruption.

The top five happiest countries:

01. Finland

02. Denmark

03. Norway

04. Iceland

05. Netherlands

The five unhappiest countries:

152. Rwanda

153. Tanzania

154. Afghanistan

155. Central African Republic

156. South Sudan

Can We Be Happier? Evidence and Ethics by Richard Layard (Pelican, £22) is published on January 30.