Increasingly, we treat private interest as the only motivation on which we can rely and competition between individuals as the way to get the most out of them. This is often counterproductive and does not generally produce a happy workplace since competition for status is a zero-sum game. Instead, we need a society based on positive-sum activities. Humans are a mix of selfishness and altruism but generally feel better working to help each other rather than to do each other down.
Our society has become too individualistic, with too much rivalry and not enough common purpose. We idolise success and status and thus undermine our mutual respect. But countries vary in this regard, and the Scandinavians have managed to combine effective economies with much greater equality and mutual respect. They have the greatest levels of trust (and happiness) of any countries in the world.
To build a society based on trust we have to start in school, if not earlier. Children should learn that the noblest life is the one that produces the least misery and the most happiness in the world. This rule should apply also in business and professional life. People should do work that is useful to society and does not just make paper profits. And all professions – including journalism, advertising and business – should have a clear, professional, ethical code that its members are required to observe. It is not for nothing that doctors form the group most respected in our society – they have a code that is enforced and everyone knows it. So we need a trend away from excessive individualism and towards greater social responsibility.
Is it possible to reverse a cultural trend in this way? It has happened before, in the early 19th century. For the next 150 years there was a growth of social responsibility, followed by a decline in the next 50. So a trend can change and it is often in bad times (such as the 1930s in Scandinavia) that people decide to seek a more co-operative lifestyle. Lord Layard is at the London School of Economics Centre for Economic Performance. He has written ‘Happiness’ (2005) and co-authored ‘A Good Childhood’ (2009)
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