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I posted last week on Lord Layard’s Good Childhood Inquiry – specifically, on the link between values and happiness. Lord Layard argued (and I agree) that there is a link between high levels of unhappiness and contemporary measures of a successful life; that a culture that measures success relative to material wealth is more unhappy than a culture that measures success in terms of more ‘intrinsic’ values. The ‘intrinsic’ values Lord Layard mentioned were: 

1) Concern for others and helping behaviour towards them;

2) Private pursuits with intrinsic worth (Lord Layard didn’t give examples but here are some: educating oneself, growing vegetables, learning a musical instrument).

Now, the second of these might seem contentious. Surely, it is up for grabs what activities have intrinsic worth? Someone might find growing vegetables about as exciting as an Alistair Darling interview on the Today programme. But that’s to miss the point. The intrinsic worth does not lie in growing vegetables being something everyone would find happiness inducing. Rather, it is one of a kind of activity distinguished by the fact that if someone finds it satisfying, she does not do so, in the general run of things, in relation to someone else’s success at it. And moreover, her satisfaction is not particularly connected to material wealth - it’s just the growing and eating of the vegetables that counts. 

The first kind of value – the one that comes from concern for the well-being of other people – satisfies a need in us, as social beings, to feel appreciated and valued by others. The happiness that comes from this is more deeply satisfying than relatively measured success or material wealth. Empathy, kindness, justice and fairness – these have intrinsic worth for humans. In fact, there is growing evidence that we are hardwired to care about one another in these ways. 

So Lord Layard’s conclusion was that a society that was oriented more towards manifesting these two kinds of non-relative values would be happier. That’s almost definitely true. But there is also a lot of evidence that we are hardwired to view our self-esteem (which is a massive determinant of happiness), in terms of how we ‘anchor’ ourselves in relation to the social status of those around us. A very obvious signal of status is the wealth of a person – expressed in the way they dress, the car they drive and so on. In other words, it is all very well saying don’t relate what you value to the material success of those around you, but there is a massive unconscious and cultural pull to do so. 

So on the one hand Lord Layard wants to push us to change our behaviour by engaging in activities with more intrinsic worth. And on the other hand, our brains and our culture are driving us to value ourselves and each other in terms of relative material success. What’s to be done? 

My suggestion is that we harness the way we anchor our values for the sake of promoting the two kinds of activities with intrinsic worth listed above. 

For what has happened recently is that a rampant individualism and materialism in banking and housing markets has gone horribly awry. So we anchor what we value now in relation to this mess.  

This means there is a massive opportunity to tap into the value that has recently accrued to the opposites of individualism and materialism – other-regarding concern and non-relatively valued activities such as gardening, learning an instrument or educating oneself. That is, these can be promoted without fighting against our tendency to anchor value relative to what’s around us. 

I shall write more posts on how to embed such a shift in values in social norms to ensure enduring change, as well as understanding the psychology that might effect such change. I shall even make some concrete policy suggestions.


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