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Lessons from a New Science

By Richard Layard
  • Read in 19 minutes
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  • Contains 12 key ideas
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Happiness by Richard Layard

In Happiness, economist Richard Layard examines what it is that makes us happy and how anyone can achieve greater happiness. Basing his studies on insights from such diverse fields as psychology, philosophy and neuroscience, Layard presents compelling arguments that are great food for thought, encouraging readers to question their daily habits and practices.

Key idea 1 of 12

Contrary to popular belief, happiness can be measured.

Most of us believe that happiness is a mysterious phenomenon – a feeling or state of being that eludes measurement and explanation. Yet, in fact, there are several scientific ways to measure happiness.

In most studies, participants are asked to simply assess how happy they are with their life situation in general. For instance, the General Social Survey – a longitudinal study conducted in the United States – asks participants the following:

Taken all together, how would you say things are these days – would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy or not too happy?

The resulting data of such studies suggests that the average rating of US citizens’ happiness hasn’t significantly increased since 1945.

Clearly, such studies depend on rather subjective assessments of one’s own happiness. However, neuroscientists have also experimented with some more objective methods.

Using EEG, for instance, they were able to identify certain areas of the brain that were active whenever subjects were happy or when they encountered things associated with increased happiness – like receiving a gift or compliment, or when presented with images of people they like.

Such studies have revealed that positive feelings – such as pride, joy or gratefulness – usually correspond to greater activity in the left frontal area of the brain. In contrast, negative emotions – like fear, anxiety or anger – are linked with the right frontal area.

The EEG approach can even work with infants: when they suck on sweet foods, their brains’ left frontal area is activated. Sour tastes, on the other hand, lead to greater activity in the right frontal area.

Moreover, it’s even possible to directly induce human emotions. For example, experiments have demonstrated that stimulating the left frontal part of the brain with a strong magnet can automatically lift a person’s mood.

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