Podcast: Why wellbeing is the new KPI, with author of The Origins of Happiness Professor Lord Richard Layard

wellbeing happiness

And if we judge our society by how happy we are then what implications does that have for business, government and how we live our lives?

Director of the Wellbeing Programme at the Centre for Economic Performance at the LSE, chairman for Action for Happiness and co-author of The Origins of Happiness, Professor Lord Richard Layard, talks about the economic and social effects of happiness, the role of women in driving a “happiness revolution” and whether units of happiness could become a KPI for the future in the new everywoman podcast.



Anna:               Hello and welcome to the everywoman Podcast. I’m Anna, Editor of everywoman and every month we’ll be bringing you the stories, insights, and opinions on a wide range of topics, asking the questions you want the answers to and doubtless prompting some more in the process. Today we’re on the road and we’re at the House of Lords and we’re talking about happiness, which is obviously a big topic. And our guest today is Professor Lord Richard Layard, one of the authors of a groundbreaking book on the subject, The Origins of Happiness. Richard is also the Director of the Wellbeing Programme at the Centre for Economic Performance at the LSE and Chairman for Action for Happiness, which we’ll talk about later. So welcome Richard. 

Richard Layard:     Lovely to be here. 

Anna:               Thank you for joining us. Right. So happiness is a big topic, as I’ve said, and is often seen in a very individual context these days. So how important was it to view it in a more macro perspective? And what was the purpose of this research and of writing the book? 

Richard Layard:     Well, we think the way we should judge our society is by how happy people are, which is, of course, the great eighteenth-century enlightenment idea that progress means an increase in happiness. It doesn’t just mean an increase in wealth, it means that people are enjoying their lives, feeling fulfilled, fully satisfied by their experience. And, of course, if that is the way we should judge our society, it has huge implications for policy. Policies should be aimed at producing conditions for the greatest possible happiness and huge implications for how we should lead our lives. And, obviously, what we should be doing is trying to create as much happiness in the world as we can. That’s the ethical principle that follows from that idea as well. But, obviously, if we are trying to produce as much happiness as possible and policymakers are trying to do the same, we need to know what causes happiness. That’s what this books about. 

Anna:               Well, I was going to say. I mean, what is happiness? It is an interesting topic for debate. I don’t know whether there are specific cultural differences. I understand that you talked to, I think, over 100 different people from 100 different nations about what makes them happy. What can we deduce? Is there a formula for happiness? 

Richard Layard:     Well, happiness means feeling good and unhappiness means feeling bad. 

Anna:               That simple. 

Richard Layard:     And there’s a whole spectrum of that and I think at all times of our waking life, we are somewhere on that spectrum. And, what is important is that, we’re high up at the upper end of that spectrum rather than down in the pits. And, I don’t think that that is a thing which varies between cultures, that’s a human universal feeling good or feeling bad. 

Richard Layard:     Now what causes happiness is a different thing and may vary to some extent between cultures. Actually, the research, which we’ve done shows a huge degree of similarity not only between different advanced countries, which is what the book is mainly about, but actually other research shows that it’s not that different when you get to poorer countries. So there’s a human universal feeling good or bad, and then understanding what causes that. 

Anna:               And importantly, money is quite a low predictor of happiness. The old adage, money can’t buy you happiness, is actually true. 

Richard Layard:     Yes. A huge number of factors, of course, influence whether somebody’s happy or not and money is one, but it only explains about one per cent of the huge variation, actually, in happiness that there is in the population. The main factors that are influencing happiness are, on the outside of our lives, are human relationships. And then, on our inside, our physical health but even more our mental health. And that’s perhaps the most important new contribution, actually, of the book, that it is really highlighting the importance, actually, of diagnosed even mental illness as a factor explaining the huge variation, and the number of people who are in misery is more due to mental illness than to poverty or to unemployment. 

Richard Layard:     So I’m in a funny situation because I spent most of my life working on poverty and unemployment and I think they really matter. But I now think mental health matters even more and perhaps was neglected in the past cause people didn’t think there was anything much that they could do about it. But, of course, we do now know, have really good evidence-based psychological therapies, which can lead to recovery in well over half the cases. So it’s really important to have that side of things, the inside part of the causes of happiness, given equal attention to the external causes, which are perhaps more common in the public debate. But I think the public debate is moving now. It’s really, really good. There are many, many politicians who are really talking now seriously about mental illness as a major social problem. 

Richard Layard:     I come from the London School of Economics [inaudible 00:05:28], Director of the London School of Economics. He identified five problems but what he left out was mental illness, or mental health to put it the positive way. And I think now that a top priority is to get better treatment available for people with mental health problems within the NHS but also, to reorientate our schools so they have a much more explicit goal of the happiness and mental wellbeing of the children. 

Anna:               So in terms of happiness and how it affects society, is it incumbent on government, or who is it incumbent on to make sure that the people in their country, or the people in their company, or whatever organisation we’re talking about, are happy and how can that benefit economic performance? 

Richard Layard:     Well, it’s incumbent on everybody, isn’t it? So I mean, if you ask, what is the purpose of a firm, I think we should think of the purposes of a firm in an ethical context, is to give value to the shareholders, surely, but it’s also to increase the wellbeing of the customers and, really importantly, to give a good experience of work to the workers. And it’s now becoming obvious that actually there’s no conflict between these objectives and that’s helpful because, basically, happy workers are more productive, they give more value to the customers and they give more value to the shareholders. 

Richard Layard:     But we are now seeing a real change in business where people are thinking A, that work needs to be reorganised in a way which appeals more to the better side of people. People are a bit fed up with the kind of work organisation which uses fear as a motive, and understanding that actually a bit of joy is one of the best sources of productivity. And also, of course, employers are realising that mental illness is costing them a packet, it causes half the absenteeism, half of what they call presenteeism, that’s people not having their mind on the job. And, of course, from the government’s point of view, it also causes a half of all disability benefits. So that’s a big cost to us as taxpayers. 

Anna:               Why should governments care about people’s wellbeing? And, you know, how would policy change if that was the main objective? 

Richard Layard:     Well, they should care about it because they should have a view about what is progress. And I’m excited that many countries are beginning to ask that question, in particular, the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development, OECD, you know, which is a rich country’s club. They have adopted wellbeing as the goal for member countries. That is, it requires a real rethink of priorities so that it doesn’t just say that we’ve got to be economically [inaudible 00:08:38]. We’ve got to give a satisfying life to our population. 

Richard Layard:     The other interesting thing is, why would politicians take this seriously? Actually, if you study the outcomes of elections, statistically I mean, Clinton said, you know, the economy is [inaudible 00:08:57] when actually it’s not. Happiness … the happiness of the people is a better predictor of whether the government gets re-elected than all the economic variables you can think of. So, politicians, it’s in the interests of them, to rethink what it is that they’re aiming at. 

Anna:               So, how we feel is the most powerful imperative to do anything, really, I guess. 

Richard Layard:     Yes. It is. 

Anna:               Yeah. What was progress previously then? Was it this idea of … I mean, you’ve talked about the fear and fear is often a much easier thing to access than happiness for a lot of people. How do we change that? How do we change it from the top down? 

Richard Layard:     Well, I think we have a very crude theory of incentives has been imported into the West mainly from American Business Schools, that money is really the only motivator, and you have to have high powered financial incentives to get people to do anything because, otherwise, why would they do anything? Well, the answer is they would do things because people like doing things well, and they enjoy doing a good job, and they find that satisfying if they’re put in the way where they’re able to do it. 

Richard Layard:     So the better principles of work organisation are clear goals for people, which show a part of some big whole trying to achieve something, that they’ve personally got a role in that. But then some autonomy about how they do that role and, of course, some support, and then at the end, of course, recognition. But what recognition do people want? They’re much more appreciative of people saying, “Goodness. That was fantastic what you did.” Rather than, “Oh, by the way, I’m going to give you three per cent extra because that was the contract, which we made six months ago.” 

Richard Layard:     And, I think, the worst thing of all, of course, is it’s become quite fashionable to say your job is on the line. This is an appalling way of thinking and speaking about how a worker should deliver good service to their clients. 

Anna:               So, you mentioned earlier that schools needed to take a different role in creating the conditions for happiness and then the understanding of that. Why is that? 

Richard Layard:     One of the most interesting things we found in this book is that, if you want to predict whether somebody is going to have a happy life as an adult, the best predictor is that emotional health when they are, let’s say, sixteen. That actually predicts better than everything we know about the qualifications they get even right up to university. So we must have a more balanced approach in schools. 

Richard Layard:     The other really interesting thing we found in the book was that schools do make a huge difference to the happiness of their children. Some people sometimes say schools don’t make a difference, it’s all parents. It’s not true. The impact which schools make on the happiness of their children is almost as great as the impact they make on their academic learning. But, of course, that impact can be good or it can be bad, and we need a much more systematic approach to how we teach children how to live, as well as how to earn a living. And we do now have some very good programmes and curricula for teaching life skills. We’re involved in one at the London School of Economics for children from 11 to 14 one hour a week. I think that’s a revolutionary programme, which we’re going to be launching later this year, having done the trial and shown the effect of it. 

Richard Layard:     And the same sort of thing is needed throughout primary schools. We’ve got to just get back to an idea that we are trying to produce whole people in schools, that a whole person is not somebody who’s just focused on the test and on the GCSC  English baccalaureate, or whatever. Music, art, drama … these things are really important for children and for their development, and what they carry into their adult life. 

Anna:               Do you think … I mean, you talked earlier about, you know, the sort of theory, incentives that’s come from primary places like American Business Schools, this sort of idea of money, money, money … Do you think in terms of schools that we’re teaching the wrong incentives through testing and, you know, are laying the foundation for …

Richard Layard:     I think the fundamental issue is, what are we saying to children about the purpose of their life? Are we saying, the purpose of your life is to be more successful than anybody else, which is, of course, a completely hopeless goal for society cause it’s impossible for everybody to be more successful than other people. If one person is more successful, somebody else is less successful. It’s what you could call a zero-sum game. We need people to be educated to create a greater positive sum of happiness. 

Richard Layard:     So that’s why we founded this thing called Action to Happiness, because we think that the goal for people in life should be to contribute to creating the most happiness in the world that you can. So the members of this organisation, there are now a hundred thousand of them, they pledge to lead their lives so as to create as much happiness as they can and as little misery. That, of course, is just a one-off pledge, but we know that people don’t lead good lives unless they meet regularly for inspiration. Like, when people go to church, they come out on the whole feeling inspired and uplifted. But very few people go to church. Many of us can’t believe the creeds but we still need the inspiration to lead good lives and to be inspired to contribute and to give rather than just to focus on what we can get. 

Richard Layard:     So Action to Happiness is creating hundreds and then thousands of groups of people who meet regularly around these issues, and it’s providing them with materials to conduct their events. So it starts with a course, which is called Exploring What Matters. It’s really amazing. I take no credit for it. 

Anna:               Mmm.

Richard Layard:     But this is an eight-session course, very well structured. Volunteers are leaders, but we’ve evaluated the impact of it on people’s life satisfaction, an extraordinary and bigger impact than the impact of getting a job, for example. But also an impact, of course, on their desire to contribute to the rest of society, and we have great hopes of this. 

Richard Layard:     The funny thing is that, if you look around and you ask people, you know, there’s a sort of void associated with the decline of religious belief. What organisations are there that are now trying to plug that void around the central issue of what is the purpose of your life. There really aren’t many organisations. There are lots of organisations that do brilliant work on particular human problems and there’s a lot of idealism around, of course, but there are very few organisations whose chief focus is to keep on fueling that idealism, that desire to contribute, and a sense of perspective that you get when you realise you’re part of something that’s an awful lot bigger than yourself. 

Anna:               It’s the idea of happiness being a group effort, a social effort … 

Richard Layard:     Yeah, exactly. 

Anna:               … rather than just an individual, egotistical, I’m going to try and be happy type thing. 

Richard Layard:     Exactly. No, I mean, the search for individual, personal happiness, if that’s the only thing that you’re trying to do, is not likely to be very successful. 

Anna:               On your own, no. 

Richard Layard:     I mean John Stuart Mill said … and John Stuart Mill was a great believer in happiness … but he said, you know, if you spend your time thinking about whether you’re happy you’re not going to be happy. You’ll become happy by thinking about the happiness of others and how you can contribute to it, and be part of something bigger. 

Anna:               I wanted to return to this idea of success and how, possibly, in order to be happier as people, and as organisations, and as a country, and as a world, you know, that we may have to redefine what we consider to be success. So how can people marry up the idea of success with happiness? 

Richard Layard:     Well, no problem is there? 

Anna:               Well, you have to define … 

Richard Layard:     A successful person is somebody who makes the most contribution to the happiness of others that they’re capable of. I mean, some people obviously have more talents than others but, if you’re doing the most that you can to make the world a happier place, you’re a successful person. 

Anna:               Right. So, that is the new success. 

Richard Layard:     Yeah. 

Anna:               So, you talked in the book about measuring in units of happiness as a sort of KPI for the future. I mean, units of happiness, tell the people listening a little bit about that. 

Richard Layard:     Well, for example, in Britain, the Office of National Statistics is asking people, overall, how satisfied are you with your life these days? That’s a good measure, and we can see whether we’re moving towards a better society by how the answer to that question change. And I think what’s really interesting about this whole movement is that it is about giving more weight, more importance to people’s inner feelings rather than their external wealth or anything else. 

Richard Layard:     And, if you ask where is this coming from, I think it’s coming from what’s the support, where’s the support for this great movement? This is a world happiness movement that we’re all part of, those of us who are engaged in this. I think it’s coming from the increased position of women in public life of the world and the fact that women have and always have been more interested in people’s inner feelings than men have been. I think this is why the world happiness movement will succeed. 

Anna:               That’s a fascinating point. I mean, are women more interested in happiness then? Men presumably want to be happy but have they traditionally been, perhaps, corralled into incentives that possibly weren’t making them happy? 

Richard Layard:     They’ve never been so interested in actually looking at and talking about how you feel. Of course, they want to feel good but they don’t address it directly, they typically don’t address it directly. They find it quite difficult to talk about. They find it much easier to talk about objective, external things. I think the situation is changing because men, as well as women, are becoming much more open, much more psychologically aware, much more willing to talk about what really matters and less satisfied with talking just about external cars, houses, income, and the thought of typical conversation about things which are not actually so central to people as their relationships. 

Anna:               But I suppose it’s harder to measure relationships and, actually, a question I’d written here is … in the book is the science of well-being over the life course.

Richard Layard:     Hmm. 

Anna:               And I was really interested in the use of the word science because science and happiness seem to be maybe not the most obvious bedfellows. But how important was it to take a scientific approach in the book, for example, to the idea of happiness? 

Richard Layard:     I mean, it is a scientific study. 

Anna:               Yes. 

Richard Layard:     Based on numbers. 

Anna:               Yeah, yeah, of course. 

Richard Layard:     Science is about measuring things and we can measure happiness and, therefore, we can have the science of happiness. And that has been one of the great things, of course, that’s happened in the last 30 years, that this science has developed from almost nowhere to being a proper science in its own right and, without that, any aspirations that we could have as a society would’ve been much more difficult, the happiness revolution, if you like, that’s around the corner, is going to be based on, one, an element of dissolution with the economic growth. How is it that we’re so much richer but we’re not happier? Two, the emergence of the new science of happiness. Three, the increasing world of women making it acceptable to talk about feelings as the ultimate reality for humans. These are the three forces that are producing a revolution.

Anna:               In terms of the research you did for the book, what was the most interesting or unexpected thing that came about for you? 

Richard Layard:     Well, the most unexpected thing was this extraordinary role of schools in affecting how happy children are. People have been so sceptical. They were at one time sceptical about whether the school is actually producing learning in children and it was said, you know, you really learn if your parents read to you and if they do this, that, and the other, and the school doesn’t make that much difference. That’s been shown to be complete nonsense. 

Richard Layard:     So, I mean, we can identify individual teachers, the effect of the individual teacher you have at the age of eight, we can see the effect of that, for example, on how happy you are at sixteen, or how likely you are to get a job at twenty. 

Anna:               That’s incredible. If people don’t get that kind of input, is it too late for them then when they hit their twenties or thirties to find happiness? Do they have to relearn? 

Richard Layard:     No, no. People’s happiness does change, of course, due to circumstances and to things happening inside them. And people can change their own happiness by both routes. And I do think that we are now finding that for many people, the idea that you can actually gain control over your own thought processes in a way that will improve your mental wellbeing, that is taking [inaudible 00:24:33] route. And I think, practices like mindfulness are the types of meditation therapies, and things that people have learned from various types of therapy, have given people a control over their mental life, which people hadn’t realise they could have. 

Anna:               You talk about schools, investment in schools, and investment in programmes like the one that you run in the [LSE? inaudible 00:25:00]. 

Richard Layard:     Yes, I mean, there’s a great trial going on now on mindfulness in schools. Let’s hope that that gives good results and we can then train teachers, all teachers should be trained in the element of what affects a child’s happiness and mental wellbeing should be a central part of teacher training. 

Anna:               And those principles then can be carried on through the different stages of the life course, through work… So, how long is it going to take the revolution, do you think? And will it happen all over the world at the same time? Or what does it look like? What does the picture of happiness look like at the moment, in ten years, in twenty years time? 

Richard Layard:     I think, the bottom up is the best form of revolution. 

Anna:               Yeah. 

Richard Layard:     And it’s going to be mainly that way because people will demand it. And I think that it’s going quite well. We will see more and more interaction between politicians and the population with the politicians responding to pressure to do things that make more sense in terms of happiness, and not just in terms of somehow getting people faster from London to Birmingham for fifty billion pounds, which, if you think what that would do if it was spent on mental health and children’s education. There has to be a new concept, really, of the role of government because, if you go back to before 1870, basically government just maintained law and order and defence. And then from 1870 onward, it was the idea that governments could help people to be productive workers, and now I think we have to have the idea that government can help people to be good parents, good partners, and people who have enjoyable lives. 

Anna:               Wonderful. Professor Layard, thank you so much. 

Richard Layard:     My pleasure. 

Anna:               If you want to get involved with Action for Happiness, then go to actionforhappiness.org where you can enrol in an Exploring What Matters course. And thank you all for joining us, as well, on this everywoman Podcast, and we look forward to continuing the conversation with you next time. Don’t forget, in the meantime, there’s a wealth of information, interest, and further talking points on the everywomanNetwork, and app if you want to access on the move. So, until we meet again, have a great day and keep on living your best life. 


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