19 January 2006

On Happiness

I have been reading Happiness - Lessons from a New Science by Richard Layard, Director of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics and a member of the House of Lords. He is among the rising tide of voices advocating that governments should include measures of happiness in devising policy, essentially adopting some form of the Bhutan's pursuit of Gross National Happiness. This is, of course, a wonderful idea, and it seems like a fantastic platform for politicians to pursue as they try to convince voters that they deserve their support. Indeed, some governments are giving consideration to the issue, but the truth is that this is going to be a hard sell.

Layard recounts the evidence that despite the fantastic increase on our material wealth over the last 50 years, we are no happier than we used to be. He offers many reasons for our collective malaise, and it is worth reading to book to get the full picture - his writing
is engaging and I found the book an enjoyable read. One of the insights that Layard emphasizes is the importance that we all place on our relative status with respect to those around us. Essentially, we measure ourselves against others, and we do so with alarming regularity. This exercise had little impact when our brains evolved as members of communities of 150 or so individuals on the African Savannah. Even as industrialization rose to prominence, it was rare for individuals to encounter compatriots who lived lives that were radically different than theirs. But our brains are poorly equipped to deal with today's reality, where the availability of cheap oil allows for us to travel widely, and in so doing observe and inevitably crave the lifestyles of others. Even more pernicious is television which brings the rich and famous directly into our living rooms. Is it any wonder that the real lives of real people pale by comparison?

Anticipating the new science of happiness, Ferenc Mate devoted a chapter in his book A Reasonable Life to the ills of television, concluding that the best thing that you can do with your TV is to pick it up and chuck it out the window. It seems that his advice is sound indeed.

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