Happiness: lessons from a new science by Richard Layard<br/>Making Happy People by Paul Martin

The bureaucrats of bliss
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It may be "the greatest gift that I possess", as that beloved and antic sage, Kenneth Dodd of Knotty Ash, once sang. Yet one yearns for his tickle-stick when faced with these two gravely deliberated volumes on happiness. Their ambition is not just to explain one of the oldest and fuzziest of human mood-states, but to erect it into the rationale for a new social regime.

Much of the context for these books comes from the biographies of the writers. Richard Layard is a 40-year resident of a stable academic institution, the LSE; Paul Martin a respected Cambridge bio-scientist. Both have, in their time, been advisers and operators within Westminster and Whitehall. In a climate where politics is leaking credibility by the day, there's an acute need for a new big idea to justify governance itself. Faced with an unpredictable and self-determining populace, who whirl hyper-materialism and meta-spirituality easily together in their daily lives, it had better be a good one.

Thus the "happiness agenda". Appropriately, in their bids for influence, these authors present it as a statistical problem. Both Layard and Martin are concerned with the gap between the flat-lining of reported levels of happiness over the past 50 years, compared to the rise in incomes over the same period. The disconnection between wealth and happiness is as old as Midas, and as new as the latest reports on sickie culture and credit-card debt.

How can we "really exploit the end of scarcity that science makes possible?" asks Layard. That's the right question. But the answers presented here are mostly wrong, out-of-touch and rooted in some rather expedient research. Both writers propose that advertising and television are together major generators of unhappiness, and with roughly the same explanation. Our savannah-era instincts for comparing ourselves with our peers are hyper-stimulated by images of social and physical perfection. A marching column of ill-health and under-performance statistics lead Martin and Layard to the same conclusion.

Given the social aim of general happiness, advertising is a "cultural pollution" that should be taxed. Television, which portrays society as a fractious, intolerant, fissile zone of extremes, should be more tightly regulated. Martin suggests that, in order to increase children's emotional literacy, conflicts on TV should be resolved by "negotiation" and "jokes", rather than "shouting and swearing and kicking ass".

There is something of Grumpy Old Men punditry about all this, showing a tin ear to the forces for change that these books agonise about. As for children looking at stories in which voices are raised and asses kicked, let's make sure the tales of the Brothers Grimm, let alone the Beano, are locked up in the vaults of the Ministry of Happiness.

If these authors paid any attention to media itself, rather than hanging onto their familiar longitudinal studies, they would see an industry in a state of panic. Many recent surveys are showing that older children and young adults are trying to avoid ads, and television, as much as possible - whether using their screens for console games and DVDs, searching out information and peers with internet terminals, or arranging meetings with friends through mobile phones.

It's striking that neither book engages with these digital networks that dominate the experience of "Generation Y". Indeed, Layard is sharply antagonistic, muttering darkly about "changing the values of the whole youth culture". Perhaps this is because the facts of digital self-empowerment subvert the incessant litany of happiness research - that is, our supposed inability to cope with the choices and resources affluence has brought. What if we can cope, or at least are evolving to cope, with our plenitude? And what if the real problems are the sclerotic institutions, and impoverished public language, within which our energies and intentions are framed and regulated?

Layard in particular is explicit about his conservative aim for happiness studies: to revive the idea of the "common good", after the privatisation of religion and the collapse of socialism. There is indeed a Methodist whiff about Layard. One could hardly disagree with his ethical injunction that "the true pilgrim fights the evils in the world out there and cultivates the spirit within".

One senses that, for all his eclectic investigations, this is a solid Keynesian fellow, uncomfortably facing a fluid and deeply reflexive world. His response, it has to be said, is typically LSE-patrician. After a familiar sprinkle of question-begging reports about our "inconsistent behaviour", Layard concludes that "people might sensibly decide not to make every big decision for themselves but to hand some decisions over to experts or to the government, depending on whom they trust". To borrow a phrase from the connected generation: yeah, right.

There are some positives in both authors' core ambition. Essentially, it is to shift the direction of public policy away from crude economic indicators of progress to more sophisticated measures, involving "well-being" and "quality of life". One wouldn't want to discourage politicians from swallowing much of this argument, hook line and sinker. On the way, there will have to be some humanistic reforms of education - well argued by Martin, with an expert justification of the power of play - and a firming-up of regulations on working time. As a means of nurturing the consciousness and autonomy of citizens, this can only be welcomed.

Part of the fun of reading Layard's book is the spectacle of an economist staggering around in the ruins of his discipline. He is resigned about the end of Homo economicus - that self-interested, coolly rational maximiser of value - yet tries on more complex models of the self like ill-fitting ceremonial robes. Layard quotes from the experiments of the Nobel prizewinner Daniel Kahneman, which aim to prove a range of sententious axioms about how mean-spirited we are: "we fear loss more than we desire gain", and so on. Yet he also strongly advocates - as does Martin - a range of mental practices, from Buddhist meditation to cognitive psychology, so that we can develop "the inner feeling of a positive space that is ultimately impervious to outside events". Developing the self in this way is an unarguable good. Yet perhaps that imperviousness might include resistance to the "outside event" of reductive chunks of social science falling upon our happy citizens like tablets of stone?

Happiness is not a warm gun, contrary to what John Lennon sang. But it might well be widespread access to some powerful tools for living - whether social, technological or educational. Our fretting legislators, and their gurus, should provide these, then stand well back and let the multitude decide their own paths to joy, rather than seek to impose a presumptive "common good". We need to remember the "happ" in happiness - which means, in the old Norse, "luck or chance". Sustain the conditions for happiness, sure. But let happiness happen, too.

Pat Kane's 'The Play Ethic' is published by Macmillan

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