Growing incomes in western societies no longer make us happier, and more individualistic, competitive societies make some of us positively unhappy. Public policy should take its cue once more from Bentham's utilitarianism, unfashionable for many decades but now vindicated by modern neuroscienceby Richard Layard / March 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2005 issue of Prospect Magazine
Over the last 50 years, we in the west have enjoyed unparalleled economic growth. We have better homes, cars, holidays, jobs, education and above all health. According to standard economic theory, this should have made us happier. But surveys show otherwise. When Britons or Americans are asked how happy they are, they report no improvement over the last 50 years. More people suffer from depression, and crime—another indicator of dissatisfaction—is also much higher.
These facts challenge many of the priorities we have set ourselves both as societies and as individuals. The truth is that we are in a situation previously unknown to man. When most people exist near the breadline, material progress does indeed make them happier. People in the rich world (above, say, $20,000 a head per year) are happier than people in poorer countries, and people in poor countries do become happier as they become richer. But when material discomfort has been banished, extra income becomes much less important than our relationships with each other: with family, with friends and in the community. The danger is that we sacrifice relationships too much in pursuit of higher income.
The desire to be happy is central to our nature. And, following the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, I want a society in which people are as happy as possible and in which each person’s happiness counts equally. That should be the philosophy for our age, the guide for public policy and for individual action. And it should come to replace the intense individualism which has failed to make us happier.
Utilitarianism has, however, been out of fashion for several generations, partly because of the belief that happiness was too unfathomable. In recent years, that has begun to change. The “science” of happiness, which has emerged in the US in the last 20 years, supports the idea that happiness is an objective dimension of experience. (One of its fathers, Daniel Kahneman, won the 2002 Nobel prize in economics.) At every instant we feel good or bad, on a scale that runs from misery to bliss. Our feeling good or bad is affected by many factors, running from physical comfort to our inner sense of meaning. What matters is the totality of our happiness over months and years, not just passing pleasures. The new science may enable us to measure this and try to explain it.