Does mindfulness increase happiness?

In 2020 respected economist Richard Layard made sweeping claims about the relationship between mindfulness and human happiness. How does his thesis appear from a cognitive perspective?

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Book Review: Can we be happier? Evidence and ethics by Richard Layard (Penguin, 2020)

In another week of challenging events, the task of reviewing any book on happiness offered a welcome contrast to depressing accounts of pandemic, politics and poverty. Not that Covid-19, economic decline and the threat from climate change are not important issues, but because the book title suggested solutions to many of the intractable problems we face. Indeed, Layard offers hope that ‘despite appearances, a new gentler culture is emerging’.[1] The musings of our royal princes was used as evidence of this seismic shift, the first of many confusing ideas employed to bolster uncertain and at times speculative science. But let me be clear, there’s much to respect in Layard’s work generally. An opinion former in the economics of happiness, he writes and speaks extensively on the subject. And as a scientist and academic committed to researching the relationship between health and happiness I wanted to be impressed, I wanted to learn more. It didn’t happen.

poverty

In the book’s introductory road map, the paths to greater happiness are explained simply. We inherit two genetic ‘traits’, altruism and selfishness, and by attenuating selfishness and augmenting altruism we increase individual and collective happiness. The omission of evidence to support this model was the core limitation of the whole work. I’m also concerned by the tone of the book, that the happiness of society rests largely on just one concept ‘say no to selfishness’. There’s little acknowledgement of individual psychological differences, epigenetic limitations or the host of external factors that create variability in human behaviour. Several of the illustrative examples provided uncoupled effects from causes. So, while school is more influential in a child’s happiness than their grades, the links between the quality of a school and income or privilege were not discussed. Similarly, the evidence linking poverty to the mental health of school-aged children was generally ignored. [2] If you separate the conditions most likely to cause unhappiness, it can makes scientific models seem more reliable, but this reductive approach doesn’t help us get to the root causes of why people are so desperately unhappy to begin with.

Over 14 chapters Can we be happier? offers a view of how society might transform into a benevolent paternalistic state. It describes the ways each of us (parents, teachers, scientists, politicians, managers, economists, etc.) needs to act to support his (Layard’s) vision. Layard combines his manifesto for a kinder and happier society with an idiosyncratic catalogue of happiness projects, a constellation of ideas originating from sources as diverse as the Dalai Lama and the World Economic Forum. These ideas are loosely grouped around several themes. One of the most persistent is that an increase in income accounts for a minuscule change in people’s experience of happiness (a maximum of two per cent). Leaving aside the scientific reliability of this claim, I’m unsure of its narrative function in a book based on the benefits of altruism. It also tends to the dualistic world view that dominates scientific enquiry into meditation and mindfulness. While almost all of us studying the science of meditation as a long term project would agree materialism per se’ isn’t always correlated with happiness, the effects of long term poverty significantly reduce our potential for positive physical and mental wellbeing.

Hundreds of citations from peer-reviewed scientific papers document essential work in the field of happiness and wellbeing. But the individual insights don’t coalesce; there isn’t a coherent framework. The notion that we have two competing neural networks, altruistic and selfish, mediated by choice isn’t evidenced.[3] As a neuropsychologist, I have grave concerns about using psychometrics to infer universal brain function and structure, no matter how well-intentioned the project. Layard is a knowledgeable and credible source; his motivation is to be praised. But by stretching his field of expertise to cover both Buddhism and neuroscience, his thesis becomes unstable. The main difficulties for the reader arise in trying to understand the vision, how the multiverse of compassionate strands form a unified cord. For brevity, I’ll highlight the two areas of most significant uncertainty.

A balanced view?

Even in popular science, I expect to see arguments for and against a hypothesis, particularly in areas of human behaviour as complex as happiness. That’s what separates evidence-led from opinion-led claims. Testing our ideas is one way to increase both our knowledge and the reliability of our thinking. But even accepting the popular nature of this work, Layard fails to indicate the difference between scientifically reliable and speculative concepts. His use of contested experimental evidence lacked meaningful contrast or clarification. In extolling the virtues of mindfulness meditation, the growing concerns of the scientific community about its methodological reliability are absent.[4] To promote the use of mindfulness beyond its evidential basis risks stalling the progress of this crucial human technology further. There is currently an opportunity to reset the trajectory of meditation research towards new productive areas and not repeat the mistakes from the 1970s and the 1980s. But for this to happen, we need to filter out aspirational science. We have seen over the last fifty years that merging the theoretical frameworks of Buddhism and psychological science causes critical ontological failure. If we are to be serious about a compassionate revolution, we must hold our nerve and face the limits of our current understandings. It’s over a century since Paul Carus embarked on his project to combine ‘the best’ of psychology and spirituality in a monistic philosophy. History shows us that this approach leads to scarcity more often than surplus

Throughout the book, Layard uses mindfulness as an example of an approach able to support his happiness revolution. But by acknowledging criticisms that mindfulness may not generate altruism; Layard creates an impasse that undermines his central claim. By failing to establish a scientific link between mindfulness, altruism and happiness, the reader is left in limbo. By the book’s end, it is still no clearer (scientifically) if mindfulness training might lead to increased or reduced happiness. Similarly, the importance of positive psychology to health and wellbeing is highlighted. Yet there is no mention of the extensive body of self-compassion research that promotes self-care as a route to happiness. You don’t have to be a scientist to see the potential confusions if both altruism and self-compassion both lead to increased happiness. I’m not an opponent of secular mindfulness nor positive psychology, but I don’t think the selective use of evidence can be the foundation for a new, kinder era.

The lack of any meaningful reference to the historical development of the science of meditation is a sad omission. An analysis of the foundational studies in the field has much to tell us about the strengths and weaknesses of secular meditation.

The need for an ontology  

thinking about ontology

The range of resources used in Can we be happier? is commendable, but understanding their overarching theoretical frameworks is challenging. In order to bring people together to support the goal of collective altruism, there must be a clearer vision. Layard offers insights that signpost opportunities and challenges, but fundamental contradictions diffuses his passion. He fails to establish the scientific evidence for his central argument, that humans have trait altruism and selfishness, that can be mediated by will alone. We are presented with a highly personal view of individuals and society, a view I found disjointed and often anecdotal. The book is dedicated to the Dalai Lama, and Buddhist ideas are present throughout the text. It’s a given that HH The Dalai Lama is an exemplar of kindness and compassion. But what is the conceptual relationship between ordained Buddhist monks and the dominant economic paradigms which limit happiness in the UK? If Buddhism is part of Layard’s strategy for happiness, he needs to share his thoughts of which Buddhist schools, teachers, ontologies and epistemologies he thinks will help. Buddhism isn’t one set of ideas or practices, rather like views on happiness; it’s a rich spectrum.

The title of the book, Can we be happier? reveals the underlying uncertainty present in the text. We can, of course, be happier; relative happiness is a state mediated by a range of constantly shifting internal and external phenomena. A better focus for this project would have been What I know about happiness. Millions share Layard’s wish that people become happier through altruism. His motivation and commitment to the eradication of ‘misery’ are impressive. But throughout my reading, I was longing for the voices of real people, rather than statistical aggregations of misery to emerge from the data.

We are not yet at the point where science can deliver absolute truths regarding the human condition. A key element in the training of Tibetan Buddhists and contemporary psychologists is the recognition that our own opinions are relative. As such, reflexivity (reflectivity) and a balanced approach to knowledge creation are essential qualities, both for scientists and those that would use science for the common good. I sincerely hope that Layard’s ‘compassionate dawn’ is coming. This doesn’t mean that we can’t be altruistic or work for a more compassionate society today. But it is essential that we understand more about the long term effects of brain training (meditation) before secular mindfulness becomes integrated within social policy as a universal panacea.


Bibliography

[1] Richard Layard, Can We Be Happier? Evidence and Ethics (London: Penguin, 2020). p1

[2] Emla Fitzsimons and others, ‘Poverty Dynamics and Parental Mental Health: Determinants of Childhood Mental Health in the UK’, Social Science and Medicine, 175 (2017), 43–51 <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2016.12.040&gt;.

[3] James W.H. Sonne and Don M. Gash, ‘Psychopathy to Altruism: Neurobiology of the Selfish-Selfless Spectrum’, Frontiers in Psychology (Frontiers Media S.A., 2018), 575 <https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00575&gt;.

[4] Nicholas T. Van Dam and others, ‘Mind the Hype: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptive Agenda for Research on Mindfulness and Meditation’, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13.1 (2018), 36–61 <https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691617709589&gt;.