2007 Clare Hall Ashby Lecture: Richard Layard on Happiness and Values

MAY 2, 2007

Today I attended the the Clare Hall Ashby Lecture which was given by Richard Layard on the subject of Happiness and Values.


Four main explanatory variables for level of happiness:

  • Perceived trustworthiness of individuals
  • Perceived trustworthiness of governments
  • … [one i missed]
  • Divorce rate

“Tsunnami of individualism washing across the Atlantic and hitting Britain first.”

Thesis: Individualism is the problem because the statement “You should do the best you can” becomes “You should do better than others” (otherwise you cannot be doing your best). This gives us a zero-sum game. To get to away from a zero sum game want to have increased caring for others (compassion).

Mentions an unnamed famous French Monk who pointed out you need to do a lot of practice to be good at anything – and this applies to being happy too.

Main way we can get this kind of practice is through the school system (“Main institution under social control”).

Seligmann “positive psychology” thinking. 11 studies, one unsuccessful, average reduction in depression of a half, reduction in delinquency by 1/3.

Got to get education onto the same scientific basis as other areas including psychological therary (now have proper double-blind evaluations etc). [ed: a little sceptical here as the data I’ve seen is still pretty inconclusive].

Silent reflection: “What am I like when I most like myself”. “What makes me happy and what makes other happy”.

4 principles:

  1. Moral education in schools. Should be in schools and should not be abstract. Train up emotional reactions more than intellectual evaluation.
  2. Should be taught in secondary schools by experts. Need a single dedicated member of staff to deal with this.
  3. “Will not succeed unless grounded in scientifically grounded truths. Values education has been thought of as ‘woolly’, even as ‘hot air’.” Science is a powerful instrument for persuading people, especially young people, that this is important.
  4. Curriculum. Managing your feelings. Loving and servings others. (Service is not common nowadays but need to reinvent). Work and Money. Sex and Parenting. …


Various. In response to one Layard mentions recent survey which shows people are less likely to say something if they are given too much change.

My question:

  • Most interactions are more anonymous because of increasing social and technological complexity of society.
  • We generally trust strangers less than those we know well and have more social and empathetic connection with those in our immediate community than a large multinational.
  • But then many of these changes in trust (and happiness) may not be a result of changing values but indirect results of the changing systems of production and exchange.
  • That is values are changed by these systems not the other way round.
  • Won’t these changes involve some fairly radical reorientation of the economics and social systems of the modern world – more localized production and interaction.