Book Review: Can we be happier? Evidence and ethics by Richard Layard (Penguin, 2020)

Happiness is one of the most important aspects of human consciousness, however psychological understanding is still at a preliminary stage.

What is happiness and how can we increase it?

In another week of challenging events, the task of reviewing any book on happiness offered a welcome contrast to depressing accounts of pandemic, politics and poverty. Not that Covid-19, economic decline and the threat from climate change are not important issues, but because the book title suggested solutions to many of the intractable problems we face. Indeed, Layard offers hope that ‘despite appearances, a new gentler culture is emerging’. However, opening use of the Royal Princes as commentators on the direction of the UK’s wellbeing is a strange choice. It’s not that William and Harry’s opinions don’t matter, but rather the extent to which the views of two of the most privileged men in Britain reflect the day-to-day experience of life for people in general.  But let’s not get off entirely on the wrong foot; there’s much to respect in Layard’s work generally. An opinion former in the economics of happiness, he writes and speaks extensively on the subject. And as a scientist and academic committed to researching the relationship between health and happiness, I wanted to be impressed; I wanted to share the vision. But unfortunately it didn’t happen.

In the book’s introductory road map, Layard explains the paths to greater happiness in simple terms. We inherit two genetic ‘traits’, altruism and selfishness, and by reducing selfishness and increasing altruism, we make the world a better place for ourselves and others. The omission of evidence to support this model was the core limitation of the work. I’m also concerned by the book’s tone that society’s happiness rests mainly on just one concept, ‘say no to selfishness’. There’s little acknowledgement of individual psychological differences, epigenetic limitations or the host of external factors that create variability in human behaviour. Several of the examples abandoned causality. So, while school is held to be more influential in a child’s happiness than their grades, Layard didn’t address the evidence linking education, income and privilege. Similarly, the correlations between poverty and the mental health of school-aged children were generally understated. Psychological sciences have frequently demonstrated the link between poverty and lifelong unhappiness. If you separate the conditions most likely to cause unhappiness (poverty), it may make scientific models seem more reliable, but this reductive approach doesn’t help us get to the root causes of why people are so desperately unhappy, to begin with.

After a set of controls are added, we document that both persistent levels of poverty and transitions into poverty are strongly associated with levels of and transitions into childhood mental health problems

Emla Fitzsimons et al. [2]

Who’s happiness?

Over 14 chapters Can we be happier? offers a view of how society might transform into a benevolent paternalistic state. It describes how each of us (parents, teachers, scientists, politicians, managers, economists, etc.) needs to act to support his (Layard’s) vision. Layard combines his manifesto for a kinder and happier society with a distinctive catalogue of happiness projects, a constellation of ideas originating from sources as diverse as the Dalai Lama and the World Economic Forum. These concepts are loosely grouped around several themes. One of the most persistent is that an increase in income accounts for a minuscule change in people’s experience of happiness (a maximum of two per cent). Leaving aside the scientific reliability of this claim, I’m unsure of its narrative function in a book based on the benefits of altruism. While almost all of us studying the science of meditation would agree materialism per se’ isn’t always correlated with happiness, the psychology suggests the effects of long term poverty significantly reduce our potential for positive physical and mental wellbeing.

Relationships between poverty and happiness?

Hundreds of citations from peer-reviewed scientific papers document essential work in the field of happiness and wellbeing. But the selective use of evidence combined with personal insights didn’t coalesce; there isn’t a coherent framework. The notion that we have two competing neural networks, one generous and the other self-centred, mediated primarily by choice, isn’t evidenced in the book. The available science illustrates much more complex relationships between selfish and unselfish behaviours.

The underlying neural circuitry differs between psychopaths and altruists with emotional processing being profoundly muted in psychopaths and significantly enhanced in altruists. But both groups are characterized by the reward system of the brain shaping behavior. Instead of rigid assignment of human nature as being “universally selfish” or “universally good,” both characterizations are partial truths based on the segments of the selfish–selfless spectrum being examined.

James W.H. Sonne and Don M. Gash [3]

As a neuropsychologist, I have some concerns about using psychometrics to infer universal brain function and structure, no matter how well-intentioned the project is. Layard is a knowledgeable and credible source; his motivation is to be praised. But by stretching his field of expertise to cover both Buddhism and neuroscience, his thesis becomes unstable. The reader’s main difficulties arise in understanding the vision and how the multiverse of compassionate strands form a unified cord.

Yet the mindfulness movement and empirical evidence supporting it have not gone without criticism. Misinformation and poor methodology associated with past studies of mindfulness may lead public consumers to be harmed, misled, and disappointed

Nicholas T. Van Dam and others [4]

Even in popular science, I like to see arguments for and against a hypothesis, particularly in areas of human behaviour as complex as happiness. That’s what separates evidence-led from opinion-led claims. Testing our ideas is one way to increase both our knowledge and the reliability of our thinking. But Layard fails to indicate the difference between scientifically reliable and speculative concepts. His use of contested experimental evidence lacked contrast or clarification. In extolling the virtues of mindfulness meditation, the widespread critical concerns of the scientific community are absent.

Poverty, education and happiness

Throughout the book, Layard uses mindfulness as an example of an approach able to support the (his) happiness revolution. But by acknowledging criticisms that mindfulness may not generate altruism, Layard creates an impasse that undermines his central claim. The reader is left in limbo by the failure to establish a scientific link between mindfulness – altruism – happiness. By the book’s end, it is still no clearer (scientifically) if mindfulness training might lead to increased or reduced happiness, and if so, how? Similarly, the importance of positive psychology to health and wellbeing is highlighted. Yet, there is no mention of the extensive body of self-compassion research that promotes self-care as a route to happiness. You don’t have to be a scientist to see the potential confusion if altruism and self-compassion lead to increased happiness. I’m not an opponent of secular mindfulness nor positive psychology, but I don’t think the selective use of evidence can be the foundation for a new, kinder era.

To promote the use of mindfulness beyond its evidential basis risks stalling the progress of this crucial human technology further. There is currently an opportunity to reset the trajectory of meditation research towards new productive areas and not repeat the mistakes from the 1970s and the 1980s. But for this to happen, we need to filter out aspirational science. Over the last fifty years, we have seen that merging the theoretical frameworks of Buddhism and psychological science may cause ontological limitations. If we are serious about a compassionate revolution, we must hold our nerve and face the limits of our current understandings. It’s over a century since Paul Carus embarked on his project to combine the best of psychology and spirituality in a monistic philosophy. History shows us that this approach may not best support the scientific method.

The lack of references to the historical development of the science of meditation is a sad omission. An analysis of the foundational studies in the field has much to tell us about secular meditation’s strengths and weaknesses. The range of sources used in Can we be happier? is commendable, but understanding their overarching theoretical frameworks is challenging. But to bring people together to support the goal of collective altruism there must be a clearer vision. Layard offers insights that signpost opportunities and challenges; unfortunately, contradictions diffuses his passion. He fails to establish the scientific evidence for his central argument that humans have trait altruism and selfishness, mediated primarily by will alone. Instead, the author presents us with a highly personal view of individuals and society. The book is dedicated to the Dalai Lama, and Buddhist ideas are present throughout the text. It’s a given that H.H. The Dalai Lama is an exemplar of kindness and compassion. But what is the conceptual relationship between ordained Buddhist monks and the dominant economic paradigms which limit happiness in the UK? If Buddhism is part of Layard’s strategy for happiness, he needs to share his thoughts of which Buddhist schools, teachers, ontologies and epistemologies he thinks will help. Buddhism isn’t one set of ideas or practices, rather like views on happiness it’s a rich spectrum.

How well does psychology measure happiness?

The title of the book, Can we be happier? reveals the underlying uncertainty present in the text. We can, of course, be happier; relative happiness is a state mediated by a range of constantly shifting internal and external phenomena. A better focus for this project would have been ‘What I know about happiness’. Millions share Layard’s wish that people become happier through altruism. His motivation and commitment to the eradication of ‘misery’ are impressive. But throughout my reading, I was longing for more voices of people, rather than statistical aggregations of misery to emerge from the data. We are not yet at the point where science can deliver absolute truths regarding the human condition or consciousness. A key element in the training of Tibetan Buddhists and contemporary psychologists is the recognition that our own opinions are relative. As such, reflexivity (reflectivity) and a balanced approach to knowledge creation are essential qualities for scientists and those who would use science for the common good. I sincerely hope that Layard’s ‘compassionate dawn’ is coming. However, we don’t need to wait; each of us can be inspired by the sentiments of such a work, we can be altruistic and strive for a more compassionate society today. But the book left me concerned that we still don’t know enough about brain training (meditation) for it to be recruited by social policy as a panacea.

This review was first published on the Critical Mindfulness website in October 2020.


[1] Richard Layard, Can We Be Happier? Evidence and Ethics (London: Penguin, 2020). p1

[2] Emla Fitzsimons and others, ‘Poverty Dynamics and Parental Mental Health: Determinants of Childhood Mental Health in the U.K.’, Social Science and Medicine, 175 (2017), 43–51.

[3] James W.H. Sonne and Don M. Gash, ‘Psychopathy to Altruism: Neurobiology of the Selfish-Selfless Spectrum’, Frontiers in Psychology (Frontiers Media S.A., 2018), 575

[4] Nicholas T. Van Dam and others, ‘Mind the Hype: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptive Agenda for Research on Mindfulness and Meditation’, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13.1 (2018), 36–61.

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