Community Psychology Section

A Community Psychology Section Response to 'The Origins of Happiness'

In his new book 'The Origins of Happiness', Richard Layard argues that the biggest predictor of happiness is not any economic factor, but rather mental health. Based on this, Layard proposes a number of policy recommendations aimed at improving the population's well-being with a focus on individual change. The Community Psychology Section has written this response to Layard's book. 


A Community Psychology Section Response to 'The Origins of Happiness': The fallacy of ‘new science’ and its worrying influence on government policy.


Key points

  • Complex psychological concepts regarding life-satisfaction and well-being have been simplified, leading to policy recommendations that are misleadingly straightforward and problematic.
  • Important social context and structural inequalities are not adequately acknowledged. This leads to policy recommendations which focus on individual change (such as talking therapy) which the authors promote as key to increasing well-being overall.
  • A public health approach to wellbeing-led policies is required to target structural inequalities, using research approaches that are community-led and utilise a range of contextualised research methods.
  • Community psychology is a discipline well-suited to intervening at the social-level to support this work. It would be further supported by other key disciplines such as community development, sociology, social work as well as feminist and critical race theory and interventions.


Authors’ main message

In The Origins of Happiness, the authors use statistical analyses to explore factors that influence ‘life-satisfaction’ across the lifespan (e.g. ‘income’, ‘education’, ‘work and employment’). The authors make a series of recommendations for policy-makers based on these analyses.  As community psychologists, we are in broad agreement with improving population level well-being through improved social and economic policies. However, we argue that The Origins of Happiness presents conceptual misunderstandings about ‘happiness’ and ‘misery’ and the ways in which these might be measured.

In this paper, we present some of our concerns regarding the validity of key concepts underpinning the data presented in the book. We also highlight some relevant areas of research that are missing from The Origins of Happiness and comment on the proposed policy implications of the research from a psychological perspective.



Key concerns with The Origins of Happiness


1. Problematic research methods

Concepts and definitions

The authors have adopted a specific way of measuring well-being throughout the book by asking a single question on life-satisfaction; “Overall how satisfied are you with your life, these days?”, measured on a scale of 0 to 10 (from “extremely dissatisfied” to “extremely satisfied”.) In their view this approach allows people to evaluate their own well-being rather than have policymakers do it for them.

However, this assumes that wellbeing is a solely personal and subjective experience, which people can measure by marking on a scale from zero to ten. Instead, these personal experiences are often multi-faceted, constantly changing and sometimes contradictory, and the way in which they are assessed and measured has been critiqued for never meaningfully capturing this changing nature. The statistical method used in The Origins of Happiness is therefore problematic. The authors use simple regression modelling, in which a relationship is presented between two variables. The key variable of interest in The Origins of Happiness, is ‘life-satisfaction’, which based on their definition is problematic because it is not based on a psychologically plausible account of people’s lived experiences.

Other problematic definitions occur with the authors’ separation of ‘misery’ and ‘mental illness’, which are conceptualised meaningfully as independent from each other;

“if we could abolish depression and anxiety, it would reduce misery by as much as if we could abolish all of poverty, unemployment and the worst physical illness”.

The separation of ‘misery’ and ‘mental illness’ is deeply problematic as misery (defined in The Origins of Happiness as the lowest 10% of peoples’ life-satisfaction scores) relates to the same experiences of suffering present in ‘mental illness’. Psychologists have highlighted the rich literatures dealing with issues of suffering in philosophy, psychology and sociology; yet The Origins of Happiness takes a conceptually naive approach to ‘misery’ leading to equally simplistic policy recommendations.


The way ‘life-satisfaction’ has been measured

If we accept that ‘life-satisfaction’ exists in the first place, does the key question asked in The Origins of Happiness capture the complexity of the conceptual idea? The researchers in The Origins of Happiness have argued that rating scale measures are typically and consistently declared to be scientifically acceptable. However, in this case, one question is used to operationalise the entire concept of well-being which, as we have argued above, is multiply defined. On this basis, one might question whether ‘life-satisfaction’ or ‘well-being’ can be understood as quantitative and measurable.

There are many problems with the processes undertaken when using a rating scale; respondents are assumed to have direct access to their personal and stable meanings of the given scale attribute (in this case ‘life-satisfaction’), accept the assumption of a continuous measure between two points, assume that all respondents understand the scale questions and that their answers mean the same thing. However, we suggest that none of these assumptions hold in practice. Other research shows that both statements and the scale ratings used are actively interpreted by the respondents, they don’t signal a true ‘state of affairs’ and statements do not elicit a consistent response either when the same person repeatedly answers the same question, or when the same question is presented to different people.

To best understand the impact of these complex and intersecting variables, a genuinely interdisciplinary apprach to public health research is required. There are very real challenges to working across disciplines, but also opportunities for a revitalised approach to articulating a vision of how we might organise society to take more account of the social factors of psychological health and ‘well-being’.



2. Important areas of research which are missing

Structural inequalities

The Origins of Happiness should include more explicit consideration of structural inequalities, reflected at personal, family and community levels. There is an increasing evidence-base regarding the effect of inequality on physical and mental health. Yet differences in power, and the way societal structures maintain these differences, are obscured by the data and analyses presented in the book, and there is no consideration of the policy implications of this. 

We have chosen gender as an example of how The Origins of Happiness has ignored structural inequality, and in doing so, neglected the potential for change in this area within resulting policy recommendations.  Essentially, the same analysis must be applied to race, poverty, disability and many other structural factors which have not been considered, to the detriment of the book.

For example, The Origins of Happiness focuses upon ‘the mental health of mothers’:

“Mother’s mental health matters relatively little for academic performance but greatly for behaviour and for emotional health”.

Attachment, firmness and involvement are mentioned as important contributory factors in child rearing. However, these factors all take place in the relationship between the child and parent, without consideration of wider societal factors which would influence these. It is important to consider the role of disadvantage or the particular position of women within the family on these factors. Gender has a clear role in experiences of inequality and there is a need to incorporate these factors within policy development, rather than continue to accept the limited decision-making power of many women.   

It is positive that a mother’s mental health “deserves high policy priority”. However, the Origins of Happiness does not adequately address the implications of domestic violence in its analysis. “Family conflict” is briefly referred to, but it is included within the context of unemployed fathers, as a cursory piece. Elsewhere in the literature, there are strong arguments concerning the lack of focus on inequitable allocation of resources, particularly in relation to violence against women. Considering that domestic violence is an endemic concern and identified by the Home Office as a priority, it is essential to include this aspect of analysis, and consider implications for policy when exploring themes of ‘well-being’.


Social Context

The Origins of Happiness contains a chapter that does consider the ‘social norms and institutions’ that impact upon social context and ‘life-satisfaction’, listing the important ones as:

“trust, equality, openness, tolerance, networks of social support, personal freedom, quality of government”

Additionally, social norms (such as openness and tolerance), personal freedom and equality are presented as some of the factors which explain variance in ‘life-satisfaction’ between countries. Indeed, there is an acknowledgement that up to 76% of life-satisfaction, measured at national level, can be explained by factors that are part of the social fabric and not the quality of any one individual. Furthermore, The Origins of Happiness goes on to suggest that ethical movements have an important role to play in society, and that distrust, social dislocations, oppression and inequality impact on social relationships and mental and physical health; a perspective that aligns with community psychology principles.

However, these significant social issues are omitted from the rest of the book, as the authors argue that:

“these are public goods and we can only study their effects by comparing societies”

This excludes consideration of how different groups within the UK experience these factors. For example, marginalised, disempowered and resource-poor groups within the UK are likely to relate differently to concepts such as ‘trust’, ‘equality’ and ‘openness’, impacting their ‘life-satisfaction’ as a result. Moreover, there are no investigations of how wider political ideologies, such as neoliberalism and materialism, interact with the social norms and influences that the authors outline.

Despite the cross-country comparisons of social context, we are asked to accept the final conclusions of the book; that the most common cause of deprivation is ‘mental illness’ (i.e. diagnoses of anxiety, or depression).  The resulting recommendations to ‘treat’ these disorders through individual psychological therapy, or in the case of children, ‘school-based resilience training’, neglects the social context presented as important elsewhere in The Origins of Happiness. Psychologists have highlighted that talking therapies do little to impact on the broader social fabric in which individuals exist or to change the structural inequalities which create oppression and exclusion.

The WHO’s Mental Health Action Plan 2013-2020 includes as one of four major objectives “the implementation of strategies for promotion and prevention”. With this in mind, the recommendation of The Origins of Happiness to ‘treat’ our way out of the pronounced ‘endemic’ of depression and anxiety through one to one therapy, as opposed to moving towards prevention is both unrealistic and out of kilter with contemporary expert thinking.

This pattern of acknowledging social influences but then focusing on individual ‘causes’ and resulting recommendations is a pattern which emerges throughout the book. Another example, is the way in which the authors present criminality in relation to academic performance and behavioural problems. However, these issues, in addition to being related to offending, are highly correlated with experiences of community level violence and abuse.  Across the life course, childhood experiences of adversity and trauma are related to offending behaviour. This is apparent within prisons and endemic, in relation to vulnerability and structural inequalities within the Criminal Justice system. Yet the relationship between offending and experiences of violence and abuse in childhood and adulthood has been omitted from The Origins of Happiness. Once more, individualistic policy-focused solutions are proposed, when policies targeting societal distrust, social dislocations, oppression and inequality are required.


End of extract. 


To read the full document, including responses to specific policy recommendations, please follow the link here


It is interesting to note that the title of Layard's work echoes that of David Smail's 1993 book; 'The Origins of Unhappiness', in which he argues that there is a lack of focus in mainstream psychology on the impact of power structures  and wider social factors on misery and well-being. For those interested in learning more about this topic, Smail's book is available here