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I will try to create more happiness and less unhappiness in the world around me


Why happiness

We all want to live happy and fulfilling lives and we want the people we love to be happy too. So happiness matters to all of us.

Happiness is about our lives as a whole: it includes the fluctuating feelings we experience everyday but also our overall satisfaction with life. It is influenced by our genes, upbringing and our external circumstances - such as our health, our work and our financial situation. But crucially it is also heavily influenced by our choices - our inner attitudes, how we approach our relationships, our personal values and our sense of purpose.

See our Recommended Reading list for useful books which summarise some of the recent scientific findings in an accessible way.

There are many things in life that matter to us - including health, freedom, autonomy and achievement. But if we ask why they matter we can generally give further answers - for example, that they make people feel better or more able to enjoy their lives. But if we ask why it matters if people feel better, we can give no further answer. It is self-evidently desirable. Our overall happiness - how we feel about our lives - is what matters to us most.

In recent years there have been substantial advances in the science of well-being with a vast array of new evidence as to the factors that affect happiness and ways in which we can measure happiness more accurately. We now have an opportunity to use this evidence to make better choices and to increase well-being in our personal lives, homes, schools, workplaces and communities.

The research shows that we need a change of priorities, both at the societal level and as individuals. Happiness and fulfilment come less from material wealth and more from relationships; less from focussing on ourselves and more from helping others; less from external factors outside our control and more from the way in which we choose to react to what happens to us.

See our Recommended Reading list for useful books which summarise some of the recent scientific findings in an accessible way.

What should we be aiming for as a society?

If we agree that for all human beings it is important that they experience happiness and escape misery, then it follows that the best society is the one in which there is the least misery and the most happiness.

On this basis, everyone's happiness counts equally. This includes the happiness of everybody now alive as well as that of future generations. So it is important that we act in a way that takes the happiness of all into consideration. If we can agree on this then we're one step closer to achieving a happier society.

Can Happiness Be Measured?

In recent years, a lot of research is gone into how to measure happiness and identifying the factors that affect it. The most basic way of measuring it involves asking individuals how they feel about their lives - known as subjective well being. A typical question is, "Taking all things together, how happy are you?" - with possible answers from 0 (extremely unhappy) to 10 (extremely happy).

Although it is a subjective phenomenon - measured using people's own reports of their lived experience - there is now growing evidence that our subjective experiences have an objective reality. For example:

  • Self-reported happiness correlates well with measurements of bodily functioning, such as blood pressure, heart rate and immune system responses
  • People's answers also correlate with brain activity - for example the correlation of positive affect with electrochemical activity in the left side of the brain and of negative affect with activity on the opposite side
  • People's answers also correlate well with independent assessments given by friends and family that know them
The philosophy of happiness

The idea that happiness matters is very British in its modern origins. In the mid-18th century, the Scottish philosopher Frances Hutcheson was the first to describe the best society as the one that had "the greatest happiness of the greatest number". Similar ideas were held by his friends Adam Smith and David Hume. But the genius who carried the idea much further was Jeremy Bentham, the English lawyer who inspired so many of the legal and social reforms of the early 19th century. Later in the 19th century the idea was powerfully restated by John Stuart Mill.

It was also widespread elsewhere. It was held by many of the French "philosophes" of the 18th century and by Italian reformers like Beccaria. But it took deepest root in theNew World where Thomas Jefferson asserted that "the care of human life and happiness… is the only legitimate objective of good government".Jefferson also drafted the classic phrases in the American Declaration of Independence about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The philosophy of happiness has continued to have profound influence to this day, both in intellectual discourse and in everyday arguments about what is right and wrong. Most of those who espouse it today are concerned not only with average happiness but also with inequalities in happiness: they consider it more important to reduce misery than to increase happiness (though both are desirable). For criticisms of the theory, see our Answers to Sceptics section.


Answers to the sceptics

Click here to read Richard Layard's answers to the sceptics

20 Happiness Facts
  1. Surveys in Britain and the U.S. show that people are no happier now than in the 1950s - despite massive economic growth.
  2. Some societies are much happier than others. For example, if Britain was as happy as Denmark, we would have 2.5 million fewer people who were not very happy and 5 million more who were very happy.
  3. Trust is a major determinant of happiness in a society. Levels of trust vary widely between countries. The percentage of people who say "Most people can be trusted" is only 30 per cent of people in the U.K. and U.S., compared to 60 per cent some 40 years ago. But in Scandinavia the level is still over 60 per cent, and these are the happiest countries too.
  4. Economic stability has a large effect on the happiness of society, while long-term economic growth has little. Unemployment reduces happiness by as much as bereavement.
  5. People's happiness can be permanently altered. Surveys show that for many people long periods of unhappiness are followed by long periods of happiness.
  6. The most important external factors affecting individual happiness are human relationships. In every society, family or other close relationships are the most important, followed by relationships at work and the community. The most important internal factor is mental health. For example, if we take 34 year olds, their mental health at age 26 explains four times more of their present happiness than their income does.
  7. The subjective levels of happiness which people report are well correlated with objective measures of brain activity. They are well correlated with friends' reports, with obvious causes (like unemployment) and with subsequent behaviour (like quitting a job or a marriage)
  8. Doing good is one of the best ways to feel good. People who care more about others are happier than those who care less about others. When people do good, their brain becomes active in the same reward centre as where they experience other rewards.
  9. Empathy is a part of our nature. If a friend suffers an electric shock, it hurts in exactly the same point of the brain as if you yourself suffer an electric shock.
  10. Being paid can detract from the pleasure of giving. For example, if people interested in giving blood are divided into two groups, one of which is paid if they give blood and the other is not, more of those who are not paid decide to give blood.
  11. Studies have shown that giving money away tends to make people happier than spending it on themselves.
  12. The proportion of U.S.students who think that it is essential or very important to develop a meaningful philosophy of life has fallen from 65% in the 1960s to 45% today.
  13. Surveys of mental health in many countries show no improvement and in some cases worsening. In Britain the proportion of adolescents with emotional or behavioural problems is twice as high as in the 1970s.
  14. New psychological therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy can transform lives. Within 4 months a half of people suffering from clinical depression or lifelong anxiety will return to normality.
  15. People who take 8 sessions of mindfulness meditation training will on average be 20 percentage points happier one month later than a control group and have better responses in their immune system. Such training can lead to structural brain changes including increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection.
  16. In an experiment, individuals with a positive outlook were less likely to get flu when exposed to the virus.
  17. Our happiness influences the people we know and the people they know. Research shows that the happiness of a close contact increases the chance of being happy by 15%. The happiness of a 2nd-degree contact (e.g. friend's spouse) increases it by 10% and the happiness of a 3rd-degree contact (e.g. friend of a friend of a friend) by 6%.
  18. Most people think that if they become successful, then they'll be happy. But recent discoveries in psychology and neuroscience show that this formula is backward: happiness fuels success, not the other way around. When we're positive, our brains are more motivated, engaged, creative, energetic, resilient, and productive.
  19. Positive emotions - like joy, interest, pride and gratitude - don't just feel good in the moment - they also affect our long term well-being. Research shows that experiencing positive emotions in a 3-to-1 ratio to negative ones leads to a tipping point beyond which we naturally become more resilient to adversity and better able to achieve things. The evidence linking an upbeat outlook to increased longevity is actually stronger than the evidence linking obesity to reduced longevity.
  20. Happiness follows a U shape across the lifecycle, on average: we are happier when young and old and least happy in middle age.


  1. For U.S., Gallup Poll and General Social Survey. For U.K., Gallup and Eurobarometer
  2. R. Layard, Happiness, 2011, (second ed.) p32
  3. R. Layard, Happiness, 2011, (second ed.) p64, 68-9, 80-82
  4. R. Layard, Happiness, 2011, (second ed.) p64
  5. B. Headey et al,PNAS Early edition1008612107, 2010
  6. R. Layard, Happiness, 2011, (second ed.) p63 UK National Child Development Study
  7. R. Davidson, American Psychologist, 5:1196-1214, 2003
  8. S. Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness, 2007; J. Rilling et al, Neuron, 35:395-405, 2002
  9. T. Singer et al, Science, 303:1157-61, 2004
  10. C. Mellstron and M. Johanneson, J. of European Economic Association, 6:845-63, 2008
  11. E. Dunn et al, Science, 319:1687-8, 2008
  12. R. Easterlin and E. Crimmins, Public Opinion Quarterly, 5514:499-533, 1991 and updates
  13. R. Layard and J. Dunn, A Good Childhood, 2008, p2-3
  14. R. Layard et al, National Institute Economic Review, 202:90-98, 2007
  15. R. Davidson et al, Psychosomatic Medicine, 65:564-70, 2003. BK Hölzel et al, Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaing, 191(1):36-43, 2011
  16. M. Seligman, Flourish, 2011, Ch 9.
  17. J.H. Fowler and N.A. Christakis,BMJ,337:a2338, December 2008
  18. S. Lyubomirsky et al, Psychological Bulletin,131:803-855, 2005
  19. B.L. Fredrickson, Positivity: Groundbreaking research reveals how to embrace the hidden strength of positive emotions, overcome negativity, and thrive, 2009. E. Diener and M. Chan,Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 3(1):1-43, March 2011
  20. A. Oswald and D. Blanchflower, Social Science & Medicine, 66(6):1733-1749, 2008

Why happiness ?

"We all want to be happy and we want the people we love to be happy. Happiness means feeling good about our lives and wanting to go on feeling that way. Unhappiness means feeling bad and wanting things to change"

Richard Layard

Lord Richard Layard
Founder, Action for Happiness

click to view

Our happiness is not set in stone

Although our genes influence about 50% of the variation in our personal happiness, our circumstances (like income and environment) affect only about 10%.

As much as 40% is accounted for by our daily activities and the conscious choices we make. So the good news is that our actions really can make a difference.

Inspiring words

Winston Churchill

"We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give."

- Winston Churchill

BBC Happiness Challenge

Action for Happiness help BBC Breakfast run a week-long Happiness Challenge.

BBC Happiness