How Do You Find True Happiness?

There is a public side in the pursuit of happiness, and it is not a laughing matter. It was a touch of genius that made Thomas Jefferson frame the strikingly original phrase ‘The pursuit of happiness’ as one of man’s most inalienable rights. The Declaration of Independence served not only as the formal break of the U.S. Founding Fathers from the British Crown, but it is also an eloquent testament to the glory of freedom and human dignity. “Today, this should be interpreted to mean that public policy should be judged by how it increases human happiness and human misery,” says Richard Layard in his new book Happiness. An economics professor in London, Layard’s insights come from a large perspective. “It is self-evident that the best society is the happiest.” Running after bliss has been the driving force behind the stunning social progress of the past two centuries. But happiness is essentially subjective. Sunshine on his shoulders made John Denver happy, but what about Count Dracula? Instead of a clear dividing line, there is a gray area between ‘happiness’ and ‘misery’. Different folks do different strokes, so not everybody would choose Forbes Park over Fallujah. It is when people draw their own lines that things get complicated. It would be a fairy tale for a masochistic heroine to meet her sadistic Prince Charming, but what about the rest of us? Also, the most fun-filled way of muddling an idea is hiding behind abstractions. Does “Unity” mean that “The people” should be like sheep? Of course not! We need “Justice” to “Move on” and achieve “Peace” so the nation can be “Great” again! The good news is that Layard has penetrated through this strange phenomenon. “Society desperately needs a concept of the common good around which to unite the efforts of its members.” His book is basically a look at the public side of being happy, specifically, its overlooked role in shaping public policy. Happiness is falling in love, getting married and having kids. A lot of people do those, but not necessarily in that order. “To a large extent our social ties define our personal identity and give meaning to our life.” The trouble is, many economists fail to realize that human interaction is both a means to an end and an end in itself. People are essentially social creatures, and they want to trust each other. “So policies that encourage trust are thus extremely important. These include policies to build stable families, communities and workplaces.” Happiness cannot be quantified with money, but happiness from a regular salary can be – especially if the house is loaned from Pag-I.B.I.G. The same is true with marriage: most people welcome only one lover as time goes by. We’re not talking about Hollywood movie stars. “Nor do we want our companies and public services to be repeatedly restructured, with massive lost of trust at every stage.” Nobody wants to be laid off from his job, but it would be nice if power-tripping political appointees get the axe. Happiness is about being productive. “Unemployment causes misery that goes far beyond the effects of loss of income, because it breaks a social tie.” This also works the other way around. If you get promoted to a higher paying job, your friends and relatives multiply, and even strangers want you to become godfather to their kids. Sadly, governments as a whole “disregard the fact that people are deeply attached to the status quo.” But since human beings are just statistics, it would be a lot easier to manipulate the digits. One way to do this is to exhort the citizens to “become more mobile, moving where the jobs are.” Right now, the spotlight is on ICT. You can’t even throw a pebble without hitting a call-center agent these days. But the truth is, most computer programmers would rather be nurses in sunny California. “This would surely increase productivity, but it is not desirable unless the gains from higher productivity would outweigh the costs of family instability. Happiness, not dynamism, should be the goal of public policy.” Happiness is living an affordable lifestyle. The dog-eat-dog rat race can actually back-fire in the long run. If everybody wants to scramble up the corporate ladder, then who would be left to clean up their mess? In this context, Layard sees that taxes “are holding us back from an even more fevered way of life.” As long as they’re not divided among shady technocrats, reasonable taxes serve a useful social function although “cutting them is very much vogue in Western democracies.” Happiness is about reaching out. While the Darwin thing is currently being debated about in U.S. high schools, “We are past the period of evolution where only the fittest can survive. So we should teach our young to give less value to status and more value to helping other people.” Happiness, by definition, means getting rid of unhappiness. “Public policy can more easily remove misery than augment happiness.” The causes of misery are obvious, but so are the solutions: job security, lesser income taxes, lower tuition fees, higher savings interest rates, comprehensive healthcare, quality education, honest elections, to name some. Being in a position to extend a helping hand means having the responsibility to do so. Let the numbers speak for themselves: “The U.S. at present spends 0.13% of its income on overseas aid, Britain 0.31%. If you want to relieve hunger and misery, here is a ready-made route. We should be proud to make this a goal of our affluent societies.” Charity begins at home, goes to Third World countries, then back again. “At home, we should spend more on helping with mental illness.” Layard says this is the greatest cause of misery in the West, “and those who are lucky should help financially and try to understand.” Family is the most fundamental unit of society, and a happy home is the foundation of most law-abiding citizens. “To improve family life, we should introduce more family-friendly practices at work – more flexible hours, more parental leave, and easier access to childcare.” Morality should be taught to children (especially adults) not only on a theoretical basis, but as actual, hands-on, practical tools that will equip them on their way towards a more decent and purposeful life. Happiness is about being wise. True understanding means being able to walk in the other person’s shoes. “We should teach the systematic practice of empathy, and the desire to serve others.” If we don’t lend a hand when it’s needed, then what on earth are we doing here? Happiness is about recognizing real heroes, and by extension, learning to avoid the negative influences that are over-hyped by the media. “We need a proper curriculum from the beginning of school life to the end, including detailed study of role models.” Most of all, happiness is about finding hope and worthy goals. “We should rededicate our society to the pursuit of happiness rather than the goal of dynamic efficiency. We need to take happiness seriously.” Thomas Jefferson photo courtesy of This story originally appeared in Philippine Panorama, September 10, 2006 Your comments and links are welcome