Andrew Hynes

When Professor Richard Layard enters the interview he shrugs off his puffer jacket, removes his bright orange cap and extends a smile to me from across the room. This is the kind of smile one could easily expect from a man who almost single-handedly dragged happiness economics into the mainstream in the 1990s.

Immediately its easy to get a sense of the man’s character. At 85, he’s still more energetic and humorous than anybody else in the room. Granted, that room happened to be a small seminar room in the basement of St John’s College Fisher building, and inhabited at that time by just the two of us, but you get the picture.

Layard is beaming. When the photographer enters the room behind him, and requests a quick profile, he quickly debates with himself the necessity of a tie. Leaving it on, indeed the one Layard is almost exclusively photographed in, he whispers to me “one mustn’t pretend to be what one is not” and winks over his glasses. Chuckling, he sits down and unbuttons his blazer. This is where our conversation begins.

Given Layard’s occupation – having written a number of landmark books on mental health and income (such as Happiness: lessons from a new science and Thrive: the power of psychological therapy), as well as co-writing the UN’s annual World Happiness Report – his friendliness isn’t surprising. This is an economist who helped double the NHS budget for talking-therapy and helped roll out Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) across the nation, and made mental well-being a priority for both the Blair and Brown New Labour governments.

This isn’t the first time this Labour Peer and happiness economist has been in Cambridge. Indeed, before entering economics in his 30s, at the London School of Economics (LSE), Layard studied History at King’s College after being an officer in the army. This was before converting to medicine, hating it, and returning to the humanities through studying Sociology in his evenings in London.

Overwhelmingly, it comes across that Layard enjoyed his time here: “I spent at least half of my time reading political philosophy and loved it”. When it came to the question of what to do after leaving university, however, he began to find it more challenging. “I thought of so many different things,” he tells me. Nostalgically, he reveals that he had been pally with E M Forster while the novelist was a fellow at King’s and his indecision on the subject of work had led to him doing a week of work experience with a probation officer, a friend of Forster’s.

I was curious to know whether the pressures to go into the City out of Cambridge had similarly existed for him in the late 1950s and early 1960s as it seemed to for students today. “When I was here, almost nobody went into banking, except people who were very thick!” he says with an eye-brow raised. “Most people,” it had seemed to him, “had instead gone into the civil service.″ While put quite bluntly, Layard’s point – he elaborated – was that more and more students have been swept up by the individualistic urge to look after oneself and to get ahead that had not existed for his generation in the same way.

“The correct way to think about your job is how you can make the most difference on the happiness of the world,” he explains. “The Thatcher Revolution” – as he put it – has thrown smoke over this. It “established wealth creation as the goal for societies and for individuals”. The reality, that happiness is the most important thing, for Layard, has apparently been lost as relationships thus break down and young people have gradually stopped caring about values that had seemed commonplace to him and his fellow students half a century ago.

I ask if this means he believes in the notion of a soul mate. “But of course!”

It is at this point in the interview that Layard’s smile wavers. The first thing to bear in mind, he tells me, is would you enjoy what you’re going into. If the answer is no, he implies, pause your psychometric test, close your laptop, and shut down your application to whatever firm offered you free booze and a networking event. The second thing is whether or not you’re capable of doing it properly. By this, he means having a capability to affect not just your own happiness but that of others as well. The sad fact of the matter is, he sighs, is that the idealistic bunch are now all going into NGOs and independent organisations. “They have incredibly little influence!” he exclaims. “True power, for good or bad, lies in the civil service,” yet “young people aren’t following this route anymore”.

The solution? “A change in attitudes”, he argues. His hand goes to his chest. On Layard’s left lapel sits a small badge with the words Action for Happiness boldly written in red. This is a grassroots movement (publicly endorsed by the Dalai Lama, “whom I’ve had some very interesting conversations with,” he tells me) that Layard introduced after attending Quaker meetings with his wife Molly. Although becoming agnostic, Layard has been vocal in lamenting the decline of values he believes are found in many religions, such as a focus on community and care for the wellbeing of others. The Action for Happiness initiative was thus an attempt to introduce a sort of “secular morality” to encourage values around collective wellbeing to return.

“We have one in LSE and one in Oxford already” he assures me. “What we need is to bring the Action for Happiness to Cambridge. Essentially, it involves a quasi-positive-philosophy reframing of individuals’ perspectives. On the movement’s website you can find, conveniently enough, ‘10 Keys To Happier Living’. These appear in the form of simple words spanning ’giving’ to ’awareness’, ’acceptance’, and ’meaning’. At first glance, it all seems a bit wishy-washy. The literature looks like the kind of thing you might expect to find in the self-help section at Oxfam. I ask Layard to explain to me what it would look like for students. He sits forward in his chair, an infectious and warm smile returning.

Andrew Hynes

“First of all,” he tells me, “returning to your first point, it would affect what jobs people went on and did”. The second way that the Action for Happiness would change students he reveals is through how they would conduct their relationships. “Today”, he tuts and his arms fly up at his sides, “it’s remarkable that people don’t focus essentially on how they’re affecting other people”. To him, how students approach relationships today is deeply disappointing. In his eyes, we’re confronted with a highly rationalistic view on coupledom where if a partner doesn’t consistently meet all of our criteria, we deshackle and move on.

“One has to be optimistic,” he pauses for a moment, “always”

I ask if this means he believes in the notion of a soul mate. “But of course!” What about if somebody isn’t making you happy though? He leans back in his chair. “I’ve had some very interesting conversations with Thich Nhat Hanh about this”. Thich Nhat Hanh is a globally renowned Vietnamese Buddhist scholar and poet. “I disguised the fact as one does whose problem I was recounting” he chuckles a little to himself “and I felt quite humbled by his answer [to relationship queries]”. He told Layard that you shouldn’t even think about changing the other person.

I’m skeptical. “I’ve never talked to anybody about this,” he continues a little more sheepishly, “but I’ve found that since I’ve had these sort of conversations that if somebody, let’s not say who, does something that I don’t like – I almost automatically experience a liking of them”. While it feels somewhat cold-hearted to find fault with Layard’s beaming appraisal of unconditional love, it still seems a dangerous line to take when thinking about unhealthy relationships. He continues his appraisal. “To me, if somebody does something you don’t like just love them,” this last bit he emphasises, throwing his hands up and smiling.

But what if something drastically bad happens, I push. “Oh well of course exceptions must be made,” he admits. “People shouldn’t sacrifice their whole remaining life with somebody who isn’t going to make them happy”.


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At this point, the questions I’d prepared run to a close and I switch off the recorder. “I don’t suppose you fancy a coffee before my talk?” he proffers. As we walk from St John’s to King’s Parade, Layard is zipped up to the nose and hidden again under his orange cap. Pausing by a building painted black with the words ‘MERCADO CENTRAL’ emblazoned on the front, just down from Gardenia’s, he looks up pointing. “I used to live here with John Bird and Peter Cook,” the lead comedians in the satire era of the 1960s, he tells me, reminiscing.

The impression I get from Layard is that he is fiercely well-meaning, guided by a genuine desire to improve the lives of others. Although some of his initiatives seem either commonsensical (have better relationships) or often misguided (stay with your partner no matter what), it is difficult to find fault with the gist of his ideas. Considering happiness for yourself but more importantly for others around you, when thinking of careers or relationships, may seem simple but is often neglected in place of individual desires. Particularly in Cambridge. As we reach the entrance to Caffè Nero, I turn and ask if he’s optimistic about the future of happiness in the UK and for students. With his smile returning to full effect, he replies instantly: “one has to be optimistic,” he pauses for a moment, “always”.

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