I’ve just listened to Lord Layard talk about children and happiness – the results of his report published recently.

I’ll focus on one aspect of the report – which as a whole seems ranging and unfocussed, a general gripe about modern life. But there are serious issues, and here are some of them.

Lord Layard said there was a problem with too much individualism – by which he seemed to mean the excessive individual pursuit of happiness through material success relative to others’ material success.

This is a ‘zero sum game’ because there is only so much relative material success to go around. What we need is a ‘positive  sum game’ based on gaining happiness through the following:

1) success measured in part in terms of being of use to others;

2) private pursuits that have ‘intrinsic’ (rather than relative) worth.

Lord Layard didn’t explain the link between happiness and these value-laden activities, but here are three linkages:

1) success in being of use to others counters inidividualism; it increases trust and empathy and satisfies us more fully as the social beings we are (and of course, trust and empathy are social goods in themselves);

2) the intrinsic worth of virtuous behaviour satisfies a person in a way that lasts – the satisfaction of buying a new pair of shoes will fade and is reliant on wealth, whereas ‘doing well’ through virtuous activity is less reliant on wealth, and the satisfaction it yields can stay with one for a lifetime (as Aristotle insisted two and a half thousand years ago);

3) values facilitate personal and social efficacy – they are easier to teach and once internalised within individuals and embedded in social norms can be taught and are thus enduring (as opposed to instrumental norms which do not internalise or embed in the same way and are harder to teach).

The problem is that Lord Layard didn’t say anything about how we inculcate such values. He did make an observation: we shoud encourage more psychology graduates to go into teaching. But he didn’t say why. Here’s a suggestion.

The problem with teaching values is twofold:

1) how do we disentangle them from class-based, racial and gender-specific assumptions (the problem of universalism);

2) how do we teach them effectively to diverse communities (the problem of particularism).

Here’s how the behavioural and neurosciences could help:

1) There is a nascent post-individualist picture of human nature emerging from the behavioural and neurosciences: that both in behavioural and evolutionary terms we are dispensed fundamentally towards fairness, justice, empathy and kindess. These are your universal ‘values’ not derived from class, race, or gender.

2) The behavioural and neurosciences show us how important (largely imitative) social cognition is. They can help teachers think about how to make the universal values accessible through localised social models that speak to kids’ contemporary experiences. (Although slightly different, think of the ‘Jade Goody effect’, and how this has facilitated effective behaviour change.)