Here’s an interview with Lord Richard Layard, one of the contemporary thinkers I most admire for his ability to turn ideas into policies. Perhaps his greatest success was persuading the Brown government to pass Improving Access for Psychological Therapies (IAPT), a policy which doubled the NHS budget for talking therapies. We began by discussing Action for Happiness, the grassroots movement Layard began to promote happiness science, which he hopes might one day become a secular alternative to Christianity.
Jules Evans: Is it true one of the inspirations for your idea for Action for Happiness groups around the country came from a Quaker group you attended?
Richard Layard: Yes. My wife, Molly, and I started going to a Quaker meeting in the mid-1990s, in Hampstead. The group went through a pack of 10 sessions produced by Friends House, and then we just carried on meeting and chose our own reading. That was where I first read Thich Nhat Hanh. It made me think that we need, today, something secular that provides the support religion used to provide – something that brings people together to experience uplift and spirituality, and to affirm what people believe. That was one of my inspirations for Action for Happiness – I hoped it would lead to groups of people inspiring and supporting each other. And the Alpha Course was another inspiration – it’s done a lot to build up evangelical Christianity. We want to launch an ‘H Course’.
JE: So you basically think Christianity is a busted flush?
RL: In the long-term, Christianity will be gone. It’s completely incredible. The scientific spirit, and basic ideas of cause and effect, are slowly taking root in more and more people. The idea that miracles happen, that we can pray for people and they’ll get better, has been disproven experimentally. So religion can’t continue in its present form. But religion has enormous value as a way of promoting the values of Stoicism – acceptance, gratitude and so on.
JE: Yes, although the problem with Stoicism is it didn’t really bring people together through myths or rituals or festivals and so on. Like most philosophical movements, it was rather rational and not very emotive, or good at community-building.
RL: We’re still looking for a really powerful image to motivate people. It’s all very well to say ‘produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number’. It doesn’t have the same force as ‘Your will, not mine, Oh Lord’.
JE: But it’s a pretty ambitious operation to invent a new religion. Weren’t you ever tempted to try and work within the existing religion?
RL: I’ve tried talking to bishops about running meditation classes in churches, but on the whole they’re not into that sort of accommodation. And it’s interesting that the Quakers haven’t grown into this void. They’ve failed, I think, because they don’t give any guidance on how to manage your mind. Meditation is the nearest thing we have to fill that void. Apparently something like 10% of the population meditate now. People need two things which religions gave: firstly, a form of spiritual discipline, which teaches you how to manage their minds. And secondly, imagery. I don’t know if we’ll all become Buddhists, but Buddhism has good imagery, and doesn’t assume the existence of miracles. I guess we’re looking for a bit more excitement, these days. Alpha offers people excitement.
JE: My own feeling is that Positive Psychology to some extent points the way to religion. It emphasises the importance to our flourishing of community, meaning, positive affect, relationships, self-discipline and so on, and the best way to achieve these things, to my mind, is membership of a religious community. The Aristotelian ethics of Positive Psychology point towards God, in my opinion. If we’re ‘designed for happiness’, then it suggests some sort of Designer. I’m also interested in how communities coalesce around a sense of the sacred, and how successfully something like Alpha builds community. So I’m not sure Christianity is finished just yet.
RL: I’ve been hugely influenced by Christianity, and regularly go into a Catholic church and look on the Cross. Though I think Christianity no longer means anything to most people. The chance of a revival of Christianity is minimal.
JE: OK, so I’d like to know why, in the noughties, you suddenly got so into happiness?
RL: As you may know, my father was a Jungian psychologist. [His father was the anthropologist John Layard, who suffered from depression and shot himself in the head. He survived, and was treated by Carl Jung. He later became a Jungian psychologist.] I’d thought of becoming a psychiatrist at Cambridge. In the 1980s, I published an article looking at the Easterlin paradox and developing the policy implications. But at that time, there wasn’t much evidence for happiness economics. Meanwhile, unemployment was so high, and we were well-placed to work at that at the LSE, so I spent the whole of the 1980s doing that. Then, in the 1990s, I discovered there was a bigger evidence base for happiness economics, mainly through the work of Daniel Kahneman.
JE: So, in 2003, you were writing a book looking at happiness economics and its policy implications. And obviously one of those policy implications was the expansion of mental health services.
RL: Yes, it’s the most obvious conclusion, because we know so much about mental health and how to improve it.
JE: So had you heard of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy when you met David Clark in 2003?
RL: Yes, I’d heard Louis Appleby [a leading professor of psychiatry appointed National Director for Mental Health in 2000] talk about it on Radio 4. So I rang him up and said, is it really true you have these success rates, and he said it was.
JE: So then you happened to meet David Clark [the psychologist who, together with Layard, master-minded Improving Access for Psychological Therapies] at a tea-party when you both became fellows to the British Academy in 2003?
RL: Yes. It was a timely and fortuitous meeting.
JE: And you decided at that tea-party to massively expand the provision of CBT?
RL: Well, I’d sent off the book on happiness to the publishers in July 2004. And I thought the next thing I might do was get something done about mental health. I talked to Ed Miliband, and he suggested I write a paper on it, for Number 10. So I wrote a paper called Mental Health: Britain’s Biggest Social Problem. That led to a seminar at Number 10 in 2005, chaired by David Halpern [who was then chief analyst in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit]. David told me no one would believe what I was saying unless we also had some practitioners at the seminar. So I rang up David Clark, who was at Stanford at that point, and said would you come to London to talk for five minutes at Number 10. He said he would.
JE: Who else was at the seminar?
RL: Ed Miliband, Louis Appleby, David Halpern, David Nutt, and senior figures from the Treasury and Department of Health. David Clark was brilliant at that seminar. He answered people’s questions for 30 minutes or so. Then I think the project was greatly helped by Alan Millburn, who is married to a psychiatrist. So we managed to get a section in the 2005 election manifesto, about the need to expand mental health services. That meant that, after the election, the Civil Service had to implement it. In 2006, David and I worked out how it would work in practice – the idea of stepped care, the idea of rolling out the service in waves, the idea of measuring outcomes, and so on.
JE: How much political opposition was there to this plan?
RL: No one was interested really. The Treasury had set up a working group on mental health and employment, because we believed the project could pay for itself. There was no support for it at all. And then word went round Whitehall that this policy was not evidence-based and was expensive. That made me very angry, so I went round various civil servants complaining about what was being said. There was no political supporter of the policy at that stage. I spent a huge amount of time trying to see Gordon Brown, and finally did, and his support was important, probably. These things are very chancy. We were told there was no money, right up to the moment we got some money.
JE: How do you think IAPT has done in its first five years?
RL: I think it’s remarkable that it’s developed so closely along the lines that David Clark envisaged. He’s a visionary.