Half-empty glass of 'Happiness' has unpleasant, taxing aftertaste

February 06, 2005|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,Sun Staff

Happiness: Lessons from a New Science

By Richard Layard. Penguin Press. 298 pages. $25.95

The scientist Lewis Thomas wrote that, "statistically, the probability of any of us being here is so small that you'd think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in contented dazzlement of surprise."

But it doesn't. Contented dazzlement requires the mere fact of existing plus a BMW 760Li in the garage. If happiness should be life's default setting, as Thomas suggested, it often gets overridden by experience.

So we write and read books about how to regain it. The disciples of Buddha and Epicurus wrote some of the first. Richard Layard, a British economist and specialist in unemployment and inequality, has written the latest. He does not settle the question.

Happiness is two books, not one. The first, a survey of the latest research on what causes happiness and its opposite, is good. The second, a manifesto for government-induced happiness on a national scale, is terrible.

Layard's subtitle is Lessons from a New Science. In the past half-century, and especially the last two decades, researchers have learned much more about what makes us happy. Some experiments tell us what we already knew. Loving families, close friends, rewarding work and a minimum level of wealth are closely associated with -- and can be presumed to cause -- happiness.

But investigators went further, weighing happiness factors against each other for potency and testing whether increases or decreases in the causes of happiness lead to equal changes in effects.

The results are fascinating. Did you know that of 750 actors and actresses ever nominated for an Oscar, the ones who won on average lived four years longer than the ones who lost? The implication is not only that peer recognition causes happiness, but that happy people live longer. But good looks, gender, age and intelligence all seem to have little effect on happiness. How liberating.

As an economist, Layard focuses on money and employment, which, because they are easily measurable, are subject to some of the best happiness research. The good news from the lab is that happiness doesn't result from the mere possession of money, except at subsistence levels in which small increases in income breed huge improvements in attitude.

The bad news is that happiness and money are indeed joined at the hip and that the key to contentment is having more money than your neighbors and co-workers, or at least not having less. The result is the rat race, which is in many ways the destroyer of happiness.

Layard's solution is to liberate the rats by taxing the heck out of them, removing the ability of anyone to get ahead and thus abolishing envy. He doesn't just see taxes as a means to redistribute income to less-productive members of society -- a justified and necessary purpose. He welcomes high taxes as a way of stifling initiative and uppityness among the citizenry. Don't hate taxes, he says. Love them, because "they are holding us back from an even more fevered way of life."

Yikes! As an economist Layard is required to praise economic incentives and criticize authoritarian, command-and-control economies, and he does. Then he ignores himself.

"Happiness should become the goal of policy," he writes, "and the progress of national happiness should be measured and analyzed as closely as the growth" of gross national product. But he's wrong. The highest truth about happiness applies to governments even more than it does to individuals: The more you aim for it directly, the likelier you are to miss it. Buddha could have told you that.

Jay Hancock is a financial columnist for The Sun.

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