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At last we are having a real national debate on values – on how we should live our lives. This is particularly important for young people, since the mental habits we acquire at that age determine the kind of society we then live in.

What is needed is one single principle which can guide and inspire us in all that we do. In a secular age that principle should be “Produce as much happiness in the world as you can, and as little misery”. That is the great Enlightenment idea that brought Europe out of the Middle Ages and needs to be at the centre of our culture for the 21st century. It should guide us personally in the decisions we make about our families and our work. And it should guide our politics. The whole debate about specific values and specific policies should be conducted with reference to that objective.

But why, you might say, should people’s happiness be the ultimate touchstone. There are of course all kinds of goods we value: health, freedom, accomplishment, wealth and so on. But for each we can ask why we value it, and we can have a reasoned discussion. For example, health is good because sickness makes you feel dreadful. Or freedom is good because oppression makes you feel awful. But if we ask why it matters if we feel bad, there is no answer. It is self-evident. It is basic to the way we are, as humans.

But won’t talking of happiness encourage selfishness? On the contrary, for there can be no morality without the idea that ultimately everyone is of equal importance. If we combine that idea with the central importance of happiness, we reach the fundamental principle of how we should live – to produce as much happiness in the world as we can, and as little misery.

We all, and especially the young, need a fundamental principle to guide our lives. Surveys show that young people are increasingly at sea – twice as many are emotionally or behaviourally disturbed as in the 1970s. So it is of urgent importance to develop a strong and convincing message to offer.

That is why Anthony Seldon, Geoff Mulgan and I launched a mass movement called Action for Happiness in April 2012. It now has some 22,000 members drawn from over 120 countries and from all political parties. Its members pledge themselves to “try to create more happiness and less unhappiness in the world around me”. The movement’s website links them to the best evidence, ancient and modern, on how to achieve that objective. As part of this, the movement has separate activities on better values at work and in schools.

The idea in schools is to develop a code in which a school would promote, as a major objective of the school, both the happiness of the pupils and their capacity to become happiness-creating adults. As part of this each school would work hard at its overall ethos, and at making Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) a really well-taught part of the curriculum.

Evidence suggests that when children are happier, they do better at school. So nothing could be more absurd than the view of some Ministers that there is a conflict between improving children’s wellbeing and their academic achievement. However improving PSHE is not straightforward. It is best done by using the well-evaluated programmes that are now available in the US and Australia, and a group of us are looking to pilot these in 30 British schools.

When I outlined this overall approach recently at the annual meeting of the Boarding Schools’ Association, it was well-received by many heads. But some complained that it involved turning our backs on two thousand years of Christianity. I do not see that. One cannot believe that God would will anything other than what is good. So it is totally legitimate to discuss what is good in human terms. Surely the happiness of your fellow-beings is about as good an objective as you could imagine.

The majority of young people will, for good or ill, have lost their religious faith by their 20s. Yet is it is vital they have a fervent belief about what kind of values they should live by. In a secular age there can be no better rule than as Jeremy Bentham put it, “Create all the happiness you are able to create: remove all the misery you are able to remove”.

Richard Layard is a Labour peer and Director of the Well-Being Programme at LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance. His book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science has sold 150,000 copies in 20 languages. 

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