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Happiness: not a goal, but a grace

07 August 2020

Richard Peers questions the language of happiness


RELIGION is traditionally the area of life which claims to explain everything. Now, though, there is competition for the title “Queen of the Sciences”, traditionally applied to theology as the summit of knowledge and science, able to explain meaning, and hold together the other areas of knowledge.

The title was also claimed, in the 19th century, for mathematics. Perhaps, in our own time, it could be claimed for economics. Economic models are applied to schools, hospitals, and public services. Economics, we might be led to believe, can explain the whole narrative of human history.

In tandem with this, the “happiness movement” is offering an alternative explanation and an alternative solution to humanity’s restlessness. Not a God to find our rest in, but a solution in ourselves.

Richard Layard, in his book Can We Be Happier?, written before the pandemic, advocates a “happiness revolution”. It is, he says, already occurring. Layard is an economist. His book reminded me of another economist, Yanis Varoufakis, who was briefly Greek finance minister. In his book Talking to My Daughter About the Economy, he says of economists: “We face a choice: we can keep pretending we are scientists, like astrologists do, or admit that we are more like philosophers, who will never know the meaning of life for sure, no matter how wisely and rationally they argue.”

Like Varoufakis, Layard has much larger horizons than simply the working of finance, or even industry. Layard’s book is a narrative of new certainties, of proof and evidence for an argument. Layard is a missionary, an evangelist for happiness, on a programme of worldwide speaking engagements, foundations, and courses, of which this book is just a part.


PERHAPS happiness as a goal seems more precarious than ever. Covid-19 has changed us, and changed our language. As we look back on 2020, it is common to hear talk of BC and AC: not a reference to Jesus but to the virus, which was not (as far as we know) a human-made revolution but a change to our lives and behaviour which was unimaginable even the day before it struck.

In a comprehensive sweep, Layard dedicates a series of chapters to particular aspects of what was accepted as everyday life before the pandemic, including health, management, families, communities, and education.

It is in education that I have some expertise. When I was a teacher, although I enjoyed parents’ evenings, they could be frustrating — not just because of lack of time, but also because of the language that parents and carers used to express what they really wanted for their children.

In front of me, I would have all the data I needed on each child: achievement over the year, areas of progress, areas still to be worked on. Parents, though, would not use that language of data, levels, or grades. Instead, I would hear: “We just want her to be happy,” or “He’s very happy and loves school — that’s the most important thing.” For many parents, happiness is the ultimate: the goal that they seek for their children.

And yet Layard’s happiness chapter for teachers is deeply disturbing. It is a travesty of what many of us would consider education to be about. He ignores the rediscovery in recent years of the significance of memory, knowledge-based curricula, and repetition as a key element of learning.

Layard is attracted to the romantic notion that education is a “drawing-out”, not that the human mind needs to learn content in order to think. He is convinced that children know what happiness is, and what is best for them. Yet schools that have adopted a fully knowledge-based approach to learning are the happiest schools that I know.


IT IS necessary to remember that happiness cannot exist in isolation. Alongside Layard’s book, I have been reading the Czech theologian Tomáš Halík, who sets another word alongside happiness: misery. Halík understands that, although we may yearn for happiness, the reality of our lives includes deep sadness.

When I spent a few years inspecting church schools, I always looked out for those schools where the Christian character was not simply about rainbows and daffodils and lovely stories about helping people, but where the pain and darkness of life were acknowledged. Every school has children who have suffered bereavement, family divorce, or abuse.

As teachers, we could have responded to those parents by agreeing that happiness is the ultimate goal for their children. We could have ditched the data, the progress records, and the charts. But that would not have been good enough. The Christian faith offers a better way, one which recognises the reality of happiness and misery, and which integrates them into a well lived life.

As we emerge from lockdown into the “new normal”, I am disturbed to hear so many people comment on how well children have adapted; that the predicted trauma has not occurred; that they have “taken it in their stride”.

Despite occasional appearances to the contrary, children want to please adults. I know from the death of a brother in my own childhood that the reaction of adults was to be thrilled when, afterwards, my siblings and I played happily. We pleased them by not grieving. It was only years later that we had to face the trauma.

We should expect this, and prepare for it for today’s children.

WHEN life moves on from the pandemic, we know that the world will not be the same. But it also will be the same. We saw that in the very first reopening of pubs: the scenes of crowds mingling, ignoring two-metre rules, no one in masks. Human nature is strong, and we need something other than us, something different, something that recognises our human desires and needs, and offers us the beyond.

This is what Halík offers. He knows full well that atheists have rightly identified the silence of God, and used it as an argument against religion, and he takes that silence seriously. It has created a void to be filled.

Sometimes, in an attempt to use the language of our culture, I have spoken about Christianity as simply a clever way of living a happy life. It is. But that happiness is a side-effect. Happiness may be the language of the new religion, to use a term of Don Cupitt. This Anglican priest and philosopher wrote a series of books in which he examined the language that people use in everyday speech to describe the ultimate, the eternal, the things that endure, “life”, “it all”.

Although I disagree with Cupitt’s conclusion, his work is important. If he were writing now, would he include “happiness” among the idioms that our culture uses to describe the goals that we long for? He is right in his methodology. This is the great Jesuit genius of mission: learn the language, the culture, first. And Layard’s book perfectly describes our culture. He is right that “religions have lost their ability to convince.”

Lanyard calls for a “new, secular ethic”. As a Christian, I want not a new ethic, but Christians to learn to speak a language that can be understood, that meets this basic human desire, need, and longing for what we call happiness.

Layard’s book is not so much the Bible of happiness as the catechism. Reading his book, I am inspired — although, perhaps, not in the ways that Layard would expect. Reading it, I felt entirely alien. It is a book that anyone interested in Christian mission, in speaking to the 97 per cent who do not attend church, should read. It is a book speaking the language of those who don’t go to church, and who don’t understand, or listen to, or are unconvinced by, the language of Christian faith, and yet still seek something.


I HAVE been practising what is now called mindfulness since I was a teenager, and teaching mindfulness to adults and children for more than 30 years. I often begin courses by asking why people have come.

I don’t think anyone has ever said that they have come in order to be happier. Frequently, however, participants describe the things that are making them unhappy: stress, anxiety, busyness.

Mindfulness, however, paradoxically, will make us happier only if we do it without seeking happiness — or anything else. Sitting still and pursuing happiness will lead only to the spiritual constipation that is the problem and the cause of difficulty in so much prayer. Happiness can be experienced only at a tangent, obliquely. R. S. Thomas knew this. It is, like God, “a room I enter From which someone has just gone” (“The Absence”).

Happiness, like love, does not come by trying to grasp it, laying on happiness lessons for teenagers, or making it the goal of a society. When, as Christians, we enter the public square, we need to learn the language, but then communicate something new and distinct.

The gospel is clear: we do not merit happiness, and cannot earn it. It is a free gift; a grace. This gospel, when it is lived, has the side-effect of deep and abiding happiness.


The Revd Richard Peers is the new Sub Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, and is Superior of the Sodality of Mary, Mother of Priests.


Can We Be Happier? Evidence and ethics by Richard Layard is published by Pelican at £22 (hardback only) (Church Times Bookshop £19.80).

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