The Layard Report

The following post was submitted by Jonathan Gadsby. As ever, please feel free to comment below.

In December 2016 an electronic version of a new report became available, prior to its imminent publication in book form, by the London School of Economics. Dubbed ‘The Layard Report’ after key author Richard Layard, the actual title is The Origins of Happiness: How new science can transform our priorities. A title like that is about the boldest that could be imagined; one expects a treatise that brings together the biggest questions of philosophy from the past and present and the disciplines of psychology and psychiatry, and all kinds of intriguing demographic research. This is, after all, a 200 page document, packed full with diagrams, graphs and illustrations. In essence, the report makes one central claim: That the government is wrong to focus on lifting people out of poverty. Instead, happiness would be more efficiently created by a focus on the treatment of depression and anxiety.

As a speaker and a writer, Richard Layard historically does not shy away from making ambitious statements about human meaning and experience. His 2014 TED Talk, Our Basic Purpose, appeals to a wisdom with which many nurses will utterly agree: money does not buy you happiness. In fact, his analysis of the failure of wealth-generation over the last 70 years in the UK and US chimes a deep chord with the increasingly anti-capitalist critique that pervades so much contemporary writing and activism. His 2005 book (second edition 2011) Happiness: Lessons from a new science may be found reviewed on anti-capitalist websites. Even back in 2003 he was describing GDP as ‘a hopeless measure of welfare’. In describing the unhappiness associated with unemployment or certain forms of managerialism in the workplace he must also win the hearts of many readers. Young people being encouraged to compare themselves with others leads to misery – tick. Unhappiness in society is linked to the erosion of our relationships with each other, our trust in each other and the ‘atomisation’ of society – big tick. His statement that only a quarter of those diagnosable with a mental illness are receiving treatment and that it is governmental duty to fund proper mental health services to all those who need it might feel like the obvious path of a caring society. Who would argue against his position that schools need to focus not just on academic competence (‘exam factories’) but character development and emotional resilience and support for parents? These are views that many mental health nurses will feel warrant not just further examination but need to be shouted from the roof-tops. Richard Layard is a nice man who wants a society of cooperation not competition. His report arrives as an anti-establishment breath of fresh air.

Or does it? Is this report quite what it seems? Is it a ‘new paradigm’? Is it uncontroversial common sense? Is it scientific? Is it anti-establishment at all?

Phillip Thomas, founder member of the Critical Psychiatry Network, points out that Layard’s view strangely fails to engage with the work of Wilkinson and Pickett, who wrote the much cited book The Spirit Level in 2011 to demonstrate that while income is no guarantor of happiness, inequality is demonstrably relatable. So while money doesn’t buy you happiness, those who have read The Spirit Level (and work like it) will not be ready to see it treated as irrelevant. Since 2011, inequalities of all kinds have escalated exponentially in the UK. The 2014 Oxfam reportA Tale of Two Britains, disclosed that just five UK households owned as much wealth as the bottom 20% of the population. That is 12.6 million people. Psychologists Against Austerity formed in late 2014 and have continued to argue that austerity politics is causing a rise of mental health problems, marching under the banner Equality is the Best Therapy. Yet more recent figures from Oxfam show that eight men in the world own as much as half of the World’s population. In 2016 we arrived at (and sailed on past) the statistic that 1% of the World’s population own the same as the rest.

Layard is an economist; his arguments about happiness are predicated on structural failures driven by economic ideologies at a national and international level. He uses the word ‘atomisation’ as part of his descriptions about the nature of distress. So far, so Marx. Yet what does he propose? It is a well-worn groove for Layard but the briefest moment of reflection shows it to be very strange indeed. One would expect that there would be structural economic ‘new paradigms’ proposed by a report on structural economic failings. If money does not buy you happiness, why not do more to curtail the ability of individuals to inherit it, hoover it up or avoid paying taxes? Instead, we are directed to consider the psychology of (poor) people. Why not the psychology of rich people? Why psychology at all? On p28 of the new report (in my PDF pre-release copy) we learn that ‘many key things which matter for us just happen to us – we do not choose them’. With such a starting point, what drives Layard to find solutions within people? How is it that Layard, applauded on some anti-capitalist sites, does not demand a change to our capitalist system? He always begins by saying that economists have got it wrong but always ends with individuals needing to be given psychotherapy. 

In a recent talk, Jay Watts draws our attention to Layard’s past roles in shaping government ideas surrounding unemployment, including ‘the nudge unit’. None of this ‘psychocompulsion’ is the innocent support and assistance for the unhappy in society of Layard’s fantasy world. It is frequently nothing more than telling unemployed people that their misery is of their own making, and that they don’t have a job because they are looking at it all wrong, or perhaps even that they have an employment-resistant personality, as modern-day eugenicist Adam Perkins would have it. There is no ‘new paradigm’ here, this is Layard’s long-standing basic instinct – that although systems have failed us, the solutions must be found within the thoughts and behavior of individuals. In his TED talk, Layard suggests that if we took seriously the idea that a good society is one which values happiness instead of wealth, then it would be ‘a society in which every individual pursued ways to increase societal happiness’. Despite his earlier claim that much of what is important ‘happens to’ us, now it is as if society were only the product of individuals’ actions, not able to influence or limit them in any way. It is almost as if a white heterosexual man, educated at Eton and Cambridge, a baron married to a baroness, has failed to notice that not everybody has had quite the same experiences of empowerment that he has. Layard’s general definition of unhappiness, found in much of his writing, is ‘feeling bad about your life and wanting things to be different’. Who, not in need of psychological therapy, could ever want life to be different?

This double victimization is then wrapped in the language of care and a pretended anti-establishment rhetoric that is actually fully supported by the political mainstream. The reason for their whole-hearted support could not be articulated more clearly than in a response to the report by Anne Cooke (editor of the Understanding Psychosis document previously mentioned on this blog) in the Guardian, published at the end of December 2016: 

It lets politicians off the hook, it lets austerity off the hook, it says that all that doesn’t matter, making a better society doesn’t matter, just offering technical treatments.

As Peter Kinderman (chair of the British Psychological Society) says later in the same article, the Layard report requires an ideology that human misery and mental illness are two separate categories. That is the same simplicity that colludes with abuse whether it be within a family or within a society and has profited pharmaceutical companies so well. If they are separate, we don’t need to protect people with rights, we don’t need to think about power in society at all. What was all that feminist and Foucault stuff about anyway? If they are separate, the responsibility for an individual’s feelings is their own, or else through the tragedy of a mysterious illness to which they are unlucky enough to have succumbed. When such prominent psychologists are saying that psychology is being over-used, it is reasonable to ask whether something important is amiss. When a 200 page report only makes sense when one accepts an unacceptable simplicity, it is not a ‘new kind of science’, it is a blend of science and a very particular ideology. In 2005, Daniel Pick, professor of cultural history at another London university, found Layard lapsing into

…social Darwinism, speculative anthropology and reductive psychology.

It seems nothing has changed.

Finally, a section of this new report, entitled Causes of Misery (p77), articulates a new theme. Papers by critics like Friedli and Stearn, Jay Watts and many survivor groups such as Recovery in the Bin and the Mental Health Resistance Network have long argued that views such as Layard’s support the psychocompulsion of the unemployed and are driving the politics of the Work Capacity Assessment and the increasing marriage of psychology and job centres. Citing mental health activist Maddog, Jay Watts claims that the power of the job centre is becoming more significant than the power of the Mental Health Act. However, despite it being the key outcome measurement of the IAPT services that he was instrumental in bringing about, Layard now clarifies (a u-turn?) that a government focus on unemployment is not effective in making people happy, either. Will Layard’s new report enable job centres to wash their hands of ‘the unhappy’, since now even a job won’t help? What will happen to the ‘Recovery Colleges’ that place employment as their most important measure of outcome?

And so we see the shape of our neoliberal ‘care-pathway’ for those caught in the economic and structural failings Layard articulates. First, we are all precariously well, so much so that the 1 in 10 of us taking anti-depressants is, for Layard, just a quarter of those who could be diagnosed. Then we are all precariously ill; however life-changing one’s diagnosis and treatment the only acceptable outcome is a swift recovery and service ‘throughput’. Coinciding with this we must all be vigorously nudged into employment, with the fragility and inhumanity of the job market recast as our own. Finally even employment does not help us and we are at risk of being described as having an ’employment resistant personality’ – the ultimate trash-heap of a capitalist society. At what point do we become ‘useless eaters’?

When it is published, expect the Layard Report to be embraced by mental health services and its political masters. Like so much of our best work it is unaware of its assumptions and mixes the rhetoric of the uprising with ideologies of suppression. 

2 thoughts on “The Layard Report

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  1. Interesting commentary. It seems that structural answers to structural questions seem so passé these days. Lifeworlds so thoroughly colonised by uncritical epistemologies it’s frightening. This has enormous implications for education as it will probably feed into curriculum development. This blog needs to be published as critique.

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