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The Wealth Section

Happy Yet?

Tuesday, February 15, 2005; Page HE03

Money can't buy happiness: That's not a message you'd expect from an economist. But Richard Layard of the London School of Economics dishes it out in his new book, "Happiness" (which can be bought, for $25.95). Though incomes have doubled over the last half-century, he writes, happiness -- "just feeling good," as he defines it -- remains elusive. Why? Layard shared some of his thoughts in a phone interview.

What's an economist doing writing about happiness? Economics was really invented as a way of examining how economic institutions such as markets, taxes and foreign trade would affect the happiness of people. What I'm trying to do is to take on board all the psychology of what we can do to achieve happiness. Yes, I think if we gave more priority to happiness rather than income, the gross domestic product would be less . . . but it's not a tragedy if the economy is a bit smaller.

What's keeping us from being happy?

Success in life has become getting highest up the tree. That is what we are trying to escape from . . . an individual culture where the chief moral obligation is for people to make the most for themselves. Instead, it should be creating happiness around you. I'm interested in public policy that enables people to live as happy lives as possible. We need a much clearer concept of the common good. All kinds of policies would follow from that.

Such as?

Family life is always rated tops in affecting happiness. We ought to be making family life easier. Child support should be available to those who need it. Parenting should be openly discussed and taught in school, so people realize it's a real job. And mental health -- that's the great unspoken source of misery in our society. About a third of us will have a major mental illness at some time in our lives, and most involve more than just the person who is ill. . . . But only 10 percent will see a psychiatrist.

What can I do on a personal level to become happy?

One can learn how to separate oneself from negative emotions that seem to grip them while focusing on what one can do and appreciate what one has . . . I don't meditate, but I am planning to start.

-- Matt McMillen

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