How to make the world happier – and why it should be our first priority

Richard Layard

Sunday 19th Jan 2020

There is a wind of change in our society. People are talking about feelings. Even men are doing it. Relatively recently Prince William and Prince Harry talked for the first time about their mother’s death and how it affected their own mental health. All around there is a new undercurrent – a greater concern with our own inner life and with how other people feel. A new, gentler culture is emerging.


By contrast, the older culture, which still dominates, is altogether harsher. It is more focused on externals. It encourages people to aim above all at personal success: good grades, a good job, a good income and a desirable partner. This culture of striving has brought many blessings, and life today is probably as good as it has ever been in human history. But that culture also involves a lot of stress, and people wonder why – if we are now so much richer than previous generations – we are not a lot happier.

The answer is surely the ultra-competitive nature of the dominant culture. The objective it offers is success compared with other people. But, if I succeed, someone else has to fail. So we have set ourselves up for a zero-sum game: however hard we all try to succeed, there can be no increase in overall happiness. An alternative, gentler culture offers a different aim, which can lead to a win–win outcome. It says that we should of course take care of ourselves, but we should get as much happiness as possible from contributing to the happiness of others. Competition, it argues, is valuable in the right context – and that context is competition between organisations. This has been a major engine of progress. But what we need between individuals is mostly cooperation, not competition. We want people who will act for the greater good – at work, at home and in the community. This produces better results for everyone. But above all, it makes life more enjoyable. For people long to relate well to each other – as an end in itself and not just as a means to something else.


My main proposal is that we should each of us, in all our choices, follow the Happiness Principle: we should aim to produce the greatest happiness that we can – and especially the least misery. This noble vision does not go against basic human nature. For all of us have two inherited traits – one selfish and one altruistic. The selfish side believes that I am the centre of the universe and my needs come first. This trait was important for our survival as a race, and we should indeed take good care of ourselves and of our own inner equilibrium. But the altruistic side enables us to feel what others feel and to strive for their good. This is vital for a happy society.


It is a fallacy to think that reputation is a sufficient motivation for good behaviour. We need people with an inner desire to live good lives, even without reward. A happy society requires a lot of altruism, and so it needs a culture which supports our altruistic side. This gentler culture has always been around, in some form or other. It is there in all the great religions. Yet for many people these religions have lost their ability to convince. As religious belief has declined, a void has been created and into that void has rushed egotism, by default. We have told our young people that their chief duty is to themselves – to get on. What a terrible responsibility. No wonder that anxiety and depression are rising among the young. Instead, people need to get out of themselves – to escape the misery of self-absorption. So there has to be a new, secular ethic, based on human need and not divine command.

This basic secular ethics goes back to the 18th-century Anglo-Scottish enlightenment, which proposed a radically new goal for society. The goal, it said, should be the happiness of the people. That Happiness Principle was, I believe, the most important idea of the modern age, with powerful implications for how we should live and how our policymakers should act on our behalf.

This principle inspired many of the great social reforms of the 19th century, but it was soon challenged by philosophies that glorified struggle. Such dreadful philosophies contributed to two world wars and to the ultra-competitive features of today’s dominant culture.

But now the Happiness Principle is making a comeback. There are many reasons for this. One is disillusion with the dominant culture and the stress which people experience at every level of society. But the other reasons are hugely positive. Now, for the first time, we have a science of happiness, which gives us real evidence on how to create a happier society.

At the same time there are new techniques of mind-training that enable each of us to improve our own inner mental state, with evidence-based ways in which all of us can become happier. And more and more people now use age‑old eastern meditation to achieve greater contentment and calm of mind.

These techniques offer the prospect of a society where we take care, more than ever, of our own inner contentment and, especially, the happiness of others.

There are two opposing strands in human nature. One stresses the differences between my own needs and wants and those of others. The other stresses the similarities and what we all have in common. The relative strength of these two influences is determined to a large extent by the prevailing culture in which we live.

In modern culture the selfish strand is now legitimised as never before. The chief goal on offer to young people is success relative to others – better grades, higher pay, more friends and greater fame. Increasingly, young people compete in every possible avenue of life. These trends in youth culture have been studied intensively by Jean Twenge at San Diego State University. She finds that 31% of high school students expect to be famous one day, and an increasing percentage of college entrants think they are above average. Similar narcissistic tendencies are exemplified in the candidate whom American electors knowingly chose as their president in 2016. As Donald Trump elegantly put it: “Show me someone without an ego and I’ll show you a loser.”


It is easy to see how the Me-First philosophy can take root, unless constantly challenged by a more unselfish view of the purpose of life. After all, we mostly live in large cities in which no one has any automatic position. To do anything worthwhile you have to establish your position, and this requires an element of self-promotion.

In recent years, the rise in competitiveness has been made much worse by the advent of social media, which have encouraged self-advertisement and made more young people feel inadequate, anxious, depressed and “left out”. In addition it has encouraged populism, which is an increasing challenge to a cohesive and loving society.

None of these trends will be easy to alter. But there are many hopeful trends too, both among citizens and among policymakers. The first is the spectacular fall in crime of all kinds in recent decades in most advanced countries. This new degree of gentleness is one of the least noticed and least well understood changes of our time, but it is deeply significant. My own guess is that it reflects the increased influence of women in our society: women commit fewer crimes than men do, and they tend to avoid men who are criminals. Moreover, most women care more about inner feelings than men do on average, while typically men have been more focused on externals.

This shift of perspective is central to the happiness movement, which is about the overarching importance of our feelings – our quality of life as we actually experience it.

A third trend is the growing toleration of diversity. That has already transformed the happiness of minority groups, including people who are LGBT, disabled or (until recently) immigrants.

So the ground is fertile. But are our leaders up for implementing the Happiness Principle?

One hero in the political sphere is Enrico Giovannini, an enterprising Italian who was once the chief statistician of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The OECD is the club of rich nations, and it started the standard measurement of GDP in the 1950s. In 2004, Giovannini persuaded the OECD to open a public debate on the nature of progress – the issue often referred to as “Beyond GDP”. Since then the OECD has held another five major conferences to “push forward the boundaries of wellbeing measurement and policy”. In 2012, it recommended that its member countries should measure the subjective wellbeing of their adult population each year, and all of them now do so.

The UN too has been active. In 2012 it established an annual International Day of Happiness (20 March), and the UN general assembly called upon its members to give more attention to the happiness of their people. At the same time a leading development economist, Jeffrey Sachs, who was an adviser to the UN secretary general, proposed the idea of an annual World Happiness report. This is now presented each year at the UN.

But what are individual governments doing? In January 2019, Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, was addressing world leaders at Davos. She announced that her government had adopted wellbeing as its goal and would use it as the basis of her budget for wellbeing the following May.

Many other countries, local governments and cities have been taking steps in the same direction, including the governments of France and Britain. In 2008, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, set up a distinguished commission to report on the measurement of progress, and following on from that, French law, like that of Sweden, now requires that all major policy changes must be analysed for their impact on (among other things) wellbeing.

Britain has in many ways gone further than this. It was the first country to measure national subjective wellbeing as an official statistic, and its top civil servant for many years, Gus O’Donnell, pushed for subjective wellbeing as a goal of government policy. After leaving government he chaired a committee that produced the best available account of how that might be done.

The movement for change is strong. Governments make the decisions, responding to a growing alteration in the public mood. But can each one of us become more effective as creators of happiness, both as citizens and within our own occupations? Who can do what? Here are a few examples, all of them based on the new science of happiness.

In the end it is each of us as individuals who will determine the levels of happiness in our society – by everything we do. It is not easy to live well, but it is very much easier if you are in regular contact with people who are trying to do the same. In the west this used to happen when people went to church. They were reminded that there was something bigger than them. And they were inspired, uplifted and comforted. But today people are much less likely to define ethical behaviour as conforming to the will of God.

That is one of the reasons why, in 2011, we founded Action for Happiness, a secular movement for a happier society. The patron is the Dalai Lama, and members make the following pledge: “I will try to create more happiness and less unhappiness in the world around me.” So far, more than 150,000 people from 175 countries have made that pledge – promising to live according to our ethical principle.

Action for Happiness offers them 10 Keys to Happier Living, and it is forming thousands of groups worldwide who meet regularly to inspire each other, using standard materials which the movement provides. The 10 Keys are presented as an acronym (Great Dream) and divided into five day-to-day actions and five “habits of mind”. The daily habits are Giving (doing things for others); Relating (connecting with people); Exercising; Awareness (living mindfully); and Trying Out (learning new things). The philosophical habits are: Direction (having goals to look forward to); Resilience (finding ways to bounce back); Emotions (looking for what’s good); Acceptance (being comfortable with who you are); and Meaning (being part of something bigger).

A new culture has to be based on individuals – what we each value and how we behave. We need to address the moral vacuum which has been left by the retreat of religion. Where egotism has replaced it, we need instead the generous philosophy embodied in the Happiness Principle. And to live well, we need to cultivate the positive side of our nature which can nourish us and help us reach out to others. For many people it will help to belong to a community of people who share our outlook. Together we can build a happier society and each of us will contribute in our own unique way.

What they discovered was remarkable. How happy children are at 16 depends as much on which secondary school they are at as on everything we know about their parents. It is also profoundly affected by which primary school they attended, all those years earlier.

So schools make a huge difference to children’s happiness at 16. They also have a significant impact on their behaviour. In fact they make about as much difference to their happiness and their behaviour as to their academic performance. And so do individual teachers. In primary schools children are mainly taught by one teacher over the whole school year, so that in the Bristol survey we can trace how each teacher affected the happiness of the children in their care over the year. We found that the teacher made a greater difference to the children’s happiness than to their performance in maths.

Remarkably, we can also see the long-lasting effect of individual primary school teachers on the children they taught right up to the age of 20. But how well, one might ask, does a child’s happiness predict her subsequent happiness as an adult? Or shouldn’t schools concentrate mainly on “what they do best” – academic learning? The answer is a clear “no”. For the best predictor of a happy adult life is a happy childhood. Evidence also shows that happier people learn better. And they contribute more to the happiness of the world.

Schools and universities can become society’s secret weapon for improving our culture. For the best outcomes, five things are needed:

• Schools must be judged, in large part, by how they promote the happiness and behaviour of their students.
• Schools should measure how the happiness of their pupils is progressing.
• The ethos should promote happiness and virtue; students should be nonviolent and mindful.
• All educational institutions should teach life skills and values in a fully professional way.
• Schools should recognise when students have mental health problems and get them help.

Teachers can do a lot. But when their students eventually go out to work, will their managers offer them an environment which fulfils or disheartens them?

The Nobel prize laureate Daniel Kahneman has pioneered the study of time-use to find out which times of day are happiest for people, and the answer is quite shocking. The worst time of day is when you are with your boss. The person who should be inspiring you and appreciating your work makes you feel lousy. There must be something deeply wrong with our philosophy of management. Another depressing finding is that most people don’t much like their work – compared to almost anything else they might be doing. This is not of course true for everybody. But for the average American citizen it is just that, and the same has been found in Britain.

How can we produce better ways of working? In a capitalist society, most businesses make a big positive difference. And some things are improving. Customer care is hugely better than it was 30 years ago. There is growing concern with worker morale and mental health, and many new consultancies form each week to offer advice on this. Google, for example, offers meditation to all of its workers and prides itself on its happiness “Googlegeist” [the company’s wide-ranging annual employee opinion survey].

On the other hand, the old macho culture is still strong – setting worker against worker. The former CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch, practised “rank and yank” – find out who the worst 10% are each year and sack them. This may be less orthodox today, but it is still common. It will require a new generation of managers, believers in the Happiness Principle, to bring a quite different philosophy to the workplace.

There are clear, evidence-based methods that improve happiness among employees. These include giving workers more influence over how their work is organised, paying team workers on the basis of team, not individual, performance, measuring worker wellbeing, appointing managers who can inspire and lead, running courses on wellbeing at work for all workers and taking mental illness seriously, with managers who can spot it and get the necessary help. Firms that do these things will gain both higher productivity and greater profits. And they will make the world happier.

For this reason, there is now a strong push back against extreme liberalism. People are calling for a society based on “reciprocal obligation”. In this view, we do not enter this world as independent, fully fledged adults, but as people highly dependent on support from our family, our government and the whole of our society. In return for this, we should ourselves feel bound to help others when we can. We want a free society, but one where people feel a duty to help.

It is the vision of society that politicians should champion, and it is the principle that should guide their priorities in government. It is also the principle that will get them re-elected. So the aim of politicians, as of private individuals, should be to create as much happiness in the world as possible and as little misery.


The quality of the government has a huge impact on the happiness of the nation. Ministers should plan long-term, use evidence from past experience, avoid unnecessary reorganisations, and resist witch-hunts. Power easily corrupts, so we are right to scrutinise our politicians. But this scrutiny, like everything in life, should be sensible. If honest mistakes are allowed to wreck careers, we shall not get good people to go into politics. Politicians should be judged more by the amount of good they do, than by the number of mistakes.

As we become richer, the size of government is bound to grow. This applies to the traditional roles of the state, such as education and physical health care. But it is also because the public now demand help with mental health, addiction, domestic violence, child abuse and loneliness – not as a nanny state but as a state that helps people to help themselves. Finally, the big threat for the future is populism and the politics of division. So we have to regulate social media, limit the power of private money in politics and expand state funding of parties.

Will the happiness revolution succeed? I believe it will. There is no reason why, in less than 40 years from now, the culture of gentleness could not displace the dominant culture of excessive individualism. The world happiness movement can indeed bring in a better, gentler culture and do it fast. But what happens will ultimately depend on each one of us. We can all be heroes in the happiness revolution.

• This is an edited extract from Can We Be Happier? Evidence and Ethics by Richard Layard