Mini-review: Happiness – Lessons from a New Science

I love reading books. That’s why this site features entries from my video book club, essay-based book club, as well as reviews of individual books. Sometimes, though, I can’t get around to a full fledged review, or the book requires only a few paragraphs of commentary. In those cases, I used to publish mini-reviews on Amazon. But since I’ve started boycotting the company (because of their awful labor practices, destructive near-monopoly, and willful avoidance of taxes), I decided to move this practice to my blog. So here we go with the latest entry.

Who doesn’t want to be happy? Pretty much by definition, happiness, whatever we may mean by that term, is the ultimate intrinsic good. It doesn’t make much sense to ask “why would you want to be happy?”

Richard Layard is an economist who has decided to take a hard empirical look at the question of what makes us happy (and what doesn’t). The result is an interesting, thought provoking book, full of statistical tables and graphs to chew on. Some of the empirical results are more robust than others, of course, as is always the case in social science.

We learn, for instance, that money really doesn’t make you happy, as there is no correlation between the increase in real per capita income and degree of self-reported happiness. We also learn that seven factors account for the overwhelming majority of the degree of happiness perceived by individuals: family relationships, overall financial situation (as in: one has enough money to have shelter and put food on the table), work (as in job security), community and friends, health, personal freedom (as in how oppressive your government is), and personal values (as in: do you have them and hold on to them?).

Layard is at his weakest in the second part of the book, entitled “What can be done?,” because there he switches from social scientist to wannabe philosopher, and it clearly shows that he is out of his depth. Still, definitely a good, even if now increasingly dated, entry in your happiness library.

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Massimo is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at and He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

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