Is A Happier Society Possible?

If we do want a happier society, the first thing we have to do is to reassert the Enlightenment ideal – to agree that happiness is the objective for our society. But that has to translate into individual behaviour, which means that everybody has to make that their personal objective in life. In other words if we ask the question “how should we live?” the answer is: we should each aim to produce the most happiness we can in the world around us, and the least misery.

But then of course there is the question of how we do that, in our own lives and through the kinds of policies and institutions that we advocate.


That depends on what determines happiness. The central aim of social science should be to determine the conditions that produce happiness and how these conditions can be generated. But we do already know a good deal, as a result of the huge burgeoning of ‘happiness studies’ in the last 30 years. So let’s review some of what we know and what follows from it:


We will begin with income, because we suppose the dominant idea in post-war culture has been that if we could all become richer, that would be the best measure of progress. And it is certainly true that in every single society that has ever been studied, richer people are happier than poorer people. It is also always found that extra income does more for a poor person than for a rich person, and the impact of extra income is roughly inversely proportional to the income the person already has. So if you focus on income you would want to increase average income and to reduce the inequality. That would just about sum it up.

But the shocking finding is that over time in rich societies like ours, the huge increase in average income since the 1950s has not been accompanied with any increase in average happiness – not even in the golden age up to the 1970s when inequality was actually falling. We know the reason for this: what people in rich countries care about is not their absolute income but their income relative to other people. Although some economists deny this, their results depend heavily on evidence from poor and middle-income countries.

In more advanced countries, we have abundant evidence that relative income is what people care about. And it is of course impossible to raise the average level of relative income. If one person goes up, someone else has to go down. It is a zero-sum game. So, at the level of society, raising average income is a fruitless goal. It will happen anyway but we should not sacrifice to that goal other things that really could produce a happier society.


Those things are all to do with the quality of our human relationships – in the community, in the family, and at work. In our external world the most important single factor affecting our happiness is whether we feel other people are on our side.

We are suffering from a philosophy of excessive individualism, in which many people are encouraged to believe that their proper goal in life is to do the best they can for themselves rather than contribute to the lives of others. This is quite the wrong message to send to our children.

But none of this is inevitable because, as we have said, some societies are much more trusting than others. As Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have shown, the trusting societies are also more equal, and our societies in Britain and the U.S. have become less equal. We do not think that more inequality is causing lower trust or vice versa. We think that both are reflecting the growth of individualism.


But can we reverse this? The first point is that social trends can be reversed. Britain in the 18th century was increasingly anarchic and licentious but this trend was sharply reversed in the early 19th century, which ushered in an era of much more social responsibility.

We also know that there are important elements in our nature which we can build on to produce a more altruistic society. Clearly we have a dual nature. On the one side is the strongly egotistic nature based on the struggle for survival and to be the alpha male or female. On the other side there is the biological basis of altruism.

Here are two interesting experiments. The first is about empathy. Two friends (A and B) are put in a laboratory and Person A’s brain is wired up. First he is given an electric shock on his hand and then his friend is given the same shock. In each case, person A’s brain is activated in the same brain area. Fellow-feeling is a real feeling based on identification with the friend.

The second experiment is about good and bad behaviour. People play a game which tests if they are trustworthy by whether they share their money with another person. When a person behaves well, his brain is activated in exactly the same place as when he receives some other reward like chocolate.

This is a crucial experiment for the theory of morals. For it shows that virtue can be its own reward. As they say, if you want to feel good, do good. That of course was the basis of Aristotle’s theory of good behaviour – that good behaviour has to be learned as a habit and then the virtuous person will experience pleasure when he behaves virtuously (not always of course, but generally so). In our view that should be the foundation of moral education rather than the dreadful Kantian doctrine that you cannot do your duty from habit. The revival of altruism in the 21st century cannot be based on the hair shirt, but it can be based on a warm-hearted understanding of human psychology.


Obviously it is important to have work if you want it. But the quality of work is also crucial. One of the most depressing things is this: that when people make a diary of the previous day, recording how happy they were in each episode, they were least happy when spending time with their boss. What a dreadful situation.

We know from psychology that the three main factors which make for satisfying work are:

Mastery. Doing work which is challenging but which you can manage successfully.

Control. Having enough discretion in how you do the job.

Purpose. The feeling that what you do is worthwhile and part of some wider whole.

So the time is ready for radical cultural change, away from a culture of selfishness and materialism, which fails to satisfy, towards one where we care more for each other’s happiness – and make that the guiding raison d’être for our lives.