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Book Review - Happiness: Lessons from a New Science


Layard gets started with the fact that happiness is an objective quantity. It can be measured with sophisticated technology by analyzing the electrical wave activity in specific parts of the brain. The book has a lot of research findings like “People are more happy when chatting with friends than spouse or relatives. It is least when interacting with boss”, “The work hours are highest in United states than any other developed nation”, “More than 18% of illness are due to depression” etc..
The income has risen in the west continually for past 50 years still the happiness level has decreased substantially. There seems a weak correlation between income (standard of living) and happiness. So even though our income and standard of living is increasing steadily we are not getting happier. He cites the following reasons:
- Social comparison
- Hedonic treadmill (adaptation to the new environment/technology/standard of living)
- Economic inequality
- Work-life balance

The big seven factors of happiness are (the first 5 are in the order of importance)-
1. Family relationship
2. Financial situation
3. Work
4. Community and friends
5. Health
6. Personal Freedom
7. Personal Values

What should we do to increase our happiness?
- We should monitor the development of happiness like we monitor income. Policies should consider the interrelationship between psychology, social welfare and economics. Economists generally do not have any interest in how happy people are and focus primarily on their combined purchasing power.
- Unemployment causes the most unhappiness. The state should strive to keep the unemployment level at the lowest rate. Also the unemployment benefit policy should be re-considered.
- More family friendly practices like flexible hours, parental leave, better access to child care should introduced.
- We should have manageable goals in life. Having no goals in life is like driving a car with no destination. So we must have goals. However they must not be over aching that they bring stress and unhappiness.
- Activities to promote community life should be encouraged.
- Better health care system and health awareness.
- Direct advertisements directed at children below 12 should not be allowed.

In my opinion having a happy society should be considered at a micro and macro level. At macro level it is the State and its policies which are the main actors. Issues like abortion, personal freedom, justice, political turmoil and the instability play a vital role. The current issue most of the countries are facing is that of the terrorism. The author does not touch upon this issue but it has become the critical threat both in developing and the developed nations. In recent years there are numerous incidents like 9/11 in USA, train bombing in London and recent terrorist attack in Mumbai. These activities have numerous after effects not just that of security. First the citizens lose faith in the system. There is a widespread panic and havoc following such activities. Second is the economic effect. Billions of dollars have been spend on the war against terrorism. It has led to war in Afghanistan which has left tons of dozens dead, injured or displaced. Post 9/11 the fear of airplane hijack reduced the passenger demand. Most of the airlines were on the verge of bankruptcy post 9/11. The economy went through a recession. This led to massive layoffs and thus decreased happiness. At the micro level happiness depends upon individual factors like values, morality, family relationship and work-life balance.
The author describes that the mobility of the workers increases crime in the community but does not back up his statement with valid reasons or studies. Layard supports globalization and describes its effect on the economy. The common man perception is that globalization and outsourcing leads the American jobs go overseas. The author makes strong reasoning proving the fallacy of the statement. Trade is beneficial to both the parties involved. Even though some jobs are lost many more opportunities are created. The new opportunities are based on technology and innovation requiring higher skills and thus higher salary jobs.
The author states that redistribution of the income is necessary with constraints. A country will have higher level of happiness the more equally is the income distributed. Author argues that taxes are essential to maintain work-life balance by some weak reasoning which can be controversial and subjective. Better explanation and analytical reasoning is required to support the claim.
Finally in my opinion happiness is something which is dependent upon you and how you shape your mind and body in this zero-sum game (Darvinism). Happiness is a by-product of an activity which you enjoy. Ultimately, what matters is not what life brings to you but what you bring to the life.

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