LONDON — Is there a science of happiness?
A growing band of economists, politicians and academics thinks so – and is putting theory into practice by starting a "mass movement for a happier society."
Action for Happiness launched Tuesday in London, encouraging hugging, meditation and random acts of kindness. It is getting under way as the British government asks statisticians to measure the economically battered nation's well-being.
The nonprofit group's founders include a former Downing Street policy chief, Tony Blair's biographer and an eminent economist. They say happiness – long regarded as the preserve of poets, philosophers and spiritual leaders – is a deeply serious issue.
Co-founder Richard Layard, emeritus professor of economics at the London School of Economics, says the group "doesn't have any creed or dogma. It's a secular movement, grounded in science."
"Our happiness levels have been stuck for the last 60 years," he said. "Income does not make a lot of difference. The quality of human relationships at home and in the workplace – there are a lot of ways in which those have been neglected in favor of higher income."
Increasing numbers of politicians are taking up that mantra. Prime Minister David Cameron has said "it's time we focused not just on GDP but on GWB – general well-being."
Cynics say that's just as well, since Britain's economy has been battered by recession and the country is facing deep public spending cuts.
But research suggests money really can't buy happiness – levels of well-being in Britain, the United States and other countries remained static even as disposable income and financial security soared during the great postwar expansion of Western economies.
Global happiness surveys produce surprising results, putting countries like Bangladesh and Nigeria ahead of much richer European and North American nations.
The search to find out why has spurred a growing "science of happiness" movement that has taken root in several countries.
The concept was pioneered by the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, whose king decreed a policy of Gross National Happiness in the early 1990s to promote his people's well-being amid economic development.
Canada has established a national "index of well-being," while both Japan and South Korea include the right to happiness in their constitutions. Lawmakers in Brazil have proposed amending the country's constitution to make "pursuit of happiness" an inalienable right alongside education, health, food, work, housing, leisure and security.
In Britain, the Office for National Statistics has added questions about well-being to its regular household survey to 200,000 homes. Starting this month, the survey asks questions including "How satisfied are you with your life nowadays?" and "How anxious did you feel yesterday?" The answers will help government statisticians refine their happiness-measuring methods.
Action for Happiness is based on the principle that kindness breeds happiness. It encourages people to perform small acts of generosity – from hugging to holding open a door, saying sorry or giving up a seat on the bus.
The group says it already has more than 4,000 members from 60 countries, and hopes millions of "happiness activists" will march forth to spread goodwill around the world.
"It's a movement for radical cultural change, away from a culture based mainly on self interest to one based mainly on promoting the happiness of others," Layard said.
The group's launch in a London conference venue resembled a festival of positivity, attended by throngs of chatting people and representatives of groups ranging from the Happy City Initiative to marriage counseling service Relate.
Inside, attendees held a moment of mass meditation. Outside, a group of "guerrilla huggers" dispensed physical contact to surprised but mostly welcoming passers-by.
Many of those involved think they know the reason for unhappiness – in our hyper-connected world, many of us are starved of human contact.
"We don't have enough touch in every day life anymore," said Majella Greene, 43, a graduate psychology student and one of the guerrilla huggers. "Young people and people who work remotely don't have enough contact with other people."
Her group sets out to remedy that by sweeping down on busy urban locations and offering hugs to office workers and lunch-hour shoppers. While some rush past – "I'm anti-hug," says one man – many stop for a quick embrace.
"It's easy to be cynical about it, but why not?" said James Cowan, 29, a marketing worker. "It puts a smile on people's faces."