What is the secret to a happy lifestyle? This assembly discusses Professor Richard Layard’s governmental research on the state of the nation’s happiness, and asks student what happiness means to them in this secondary assembly


  • “Happiness” by Ken Dodd (available on various 1960s pop compilations)
  • 6 volunteers (ideally 2 staff, 2 male students, 2 female students – prompt them 5 minutes before the assembly starts so they are ready to answer the question)
  • Professor Richard Layard’s research is detailed in an interview in The Guardian G2 24/06/08)



[As students enter, play “Happiness” by Ken Dodd]

Leader: I hope you enjoyed that little item of nostalgia. Well maybe not! “Happiness, Happiness, the greatest gift that I possess.” That’s what the man sang. But what is happiness? I’ve invited 6 members of the assembly to give their answers to that question.

[Interview briefly each of the 6 volunteers asking them: “What does happiness mean to you?”]

Thank you for those revealing answers to my question.


Professor Richard Layard has also been asking that same question, and his answers may affect us all. He’s the director for economic performance at the London School of Economics, and is responsible for running its Wellbeing Programme. For him, happiness is about feeling good: enjoying life because our misery has been reduced or because our feeling that life is wonderful has been increased.

Professor Layard has been conducting research on behalf of the government to investigate whether we are more or less happy than we were 50 years ago. He’s concluded that we are richer, healthier, have better homes, cars, food and holidays than 50 years ago and that both unemployment and inflation are lower. However he thinks it is very clear that we are far less happy, and are in fact consumed with envy and insecurity about status.

But why are we less happy if we have so many benefits compared with our grandparents? Professor Layard suggests it’s because of the interplay of a variety of reasons.

  • Socially, he cites the breakup of the traditional family and the fracturing of communities.
  • Personally, he says we’ve lost our sense of trust. This runs alongside a focus on extreme individualism.
  • Finally, he says that we’ve moved away from the religious values that were shared 50 years ago, but have failed to find a set of secular values with which to replace them.

I can see some of you are a little sceptical of his conclusions. You want to point out that happiness is only an emotion and can’t be scientifically tested. You’d argue that his evidence is merely anecdotal. Well, that’s where you’d be wrong.

Psychologists are making huge advances in our understanding of how the brain works. We put many of these new discoveries into practice within education. We encourage the drinking of water and the value of omega 3 oils. We use brain gyms and techniques such as mind-mapping, which help make the best use of the connections in the brain.

We also understand more about what makes the brain happy. It’s now possible to measure a person’s happiness by examining the activity in the cerebral cortex, a part of the brain. The happier we are, the greater the activity.

Unfortunately however, this insight has indicated that, in the UK, 1 person in 6 suffers from depression or chronic anxiety. Evidence like this confirms Professor Layard findings that on average we are less happy.

So what can we do about it? Are we on a slippery slope that leads to a national epidemic of depression?

Professor Layard’s initial proposal is that we invest in Positive Psychology. This comes in many forms. Some call it Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. Many schools are pursuing a scheme known as SEAL, or Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning. This is also known as Emotional Intelligence. What it comes down to in the end is encouraging everyone, those who are genetically predisposed to depression and those who are natural optimists, to concentrate on positive values, such as trust, respect, love, friendship, humility, hope, courage, simplicity and tolerance.

Some schools take these values individually as a different daily focus, encouraging students to notice when others display them in their behaviour, and also to act that way themselves. Having done this, some schools are reporting decreases in bullying, vandalism and aggression, coupled with increases in personal satisfaction and community cohesion. In other words, the students are becoming happier.


It’s interesting to compare this list of positive values with something that it says in the Christian Bible. Listen for a moment to these words:

Reader: But the Spirit produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control . (Galatians chapter 5 verse 22. Good News Bible)

The qualities described are part of a description of the character one would expect to see in someone who’s become a believer in Jesus. If you like, they’re a religious recipe for a happy life, both personally and socially. They are very similar to the list given by Professor Layard, and have been around for 2,000 years. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to look again at the religious beliefs of our grandparents and see if they provide us with models for Positive Psychology.


Meanwhile, think about the words of this prayer. Make it your own if you wish.

Dear God

We want to be happyHappiness feels like a good target to aim forIf I’m happy then my happiness can be contagiousSo then we’ll all be happyIf happiness comes from you then we ask for a shareIf happiness lies in what we do then we make a commitment to try

If others find happiness hard to come by then we commit ourselves to be their guide


This e-bulletin issue was first published in July 2008

About the author: Brian Radcliffe