rerum cognoscere causas

I’m a fan of podcasts. When I take the dogs out walking in the evening, I’ll often listen to a podcast, since the dogs generally have little to talk about. (In the mornings I’m often still focused on writing, and so I listen to music– not so much because I want to concentrate, but because I want to let my mind wander, and I can’t do that if I’m listening to a podcast.)

Recently I discovered the London School of Economics Public Lectures and Events podcast, and I’m really enjoying it. The audio quality is middling, but the intellectual quality is outstanding. It helps to be familiar with these kinds of events already: they’re not TED talk-level short and smooth, but if the frayed edges of academic conversation strike you as charming rather than irritating, you’ll learn a lot.

I particularly found this event about “the origins of happiness” to be really interesting. It’s a talk by Richard Layard, an LSE economic and the author of Thrive, Happiness, and coauthor of the new book The Origins of Happiness.

The event was to commemorate the publication of the new book The Origins of Happiness, which Princeton University Press is releasing in the US in a couple weeks. Here’s a description of the book:

What makes people happy? Why should governments care about people’s well-being? How would policy change if well-being was the main objective? The Origins of Happiness seeks to revolutionize how we think about human priorities and to promote public policy changes that are based on what really matters to people. Drawing on a uniquely comprehensive range of evidence from longitudinal data on over one hundred thousand individuals in Britain, the United States, Australia, and Germany, the authors consider the key factors that affect human well-being.

The authors explore factors such as income, education, employment, family conflict, health, childcare, and crime—and their findings are not what we might expect. Contrary to received wisdom, income inequality accounts for only two percent or less of the variance in happiness across the population; the critical factors affecting a person’s happiness are their relationships and their mental and physical health. More people are in misery due to mental illness than to poverty, unemployment, or physical illness. Examining how childhood influences happiness in adulthood, the authors show that academic performance is a less important predictor than emotional health and behavior, which is shaped tremendously by schools, individual teachers, and parents. For policymakers, the authors propose new forms of cost-effectiveness analysis that places well-being at center stage.

This resonates with me for a couple thanks to my work on companies that are implementing shorter working hours, for a couple reasons. First, I’ve been struck by how willing people are to trade income for greater control at work, and more free time. Working in a place that has a 5- or 6-hour day requires being able to focus and work harder than at a place where you are there for 8 or 10 hours, and it requires being able to work under conditions where you have a higher degree of autonomy and responsibility.

Second, it strikes me that if income inequality is less of a source of unhappiness than relationships and personal health, then as a matter of public or economic policy, giving people more time– which translates into more time for family and friends, and more time for yourself– could be the more important long-term aim. (This is not to say that inequality should be ignored or tolerated, but I suspect there are plenty of CEOs who’d have an easier time accepting shorter working hours for their company than higher taxes on themselves.)

Their new podcast on solitude versus loneliness is well worth listening to, too. But I need to add Layard’s work to my to-read list.