Action for Happiness!
I just came back from the launch of a new positive social movement (it’s not every day you can say that.)
People were queuing outside to get in, and the launch has been so successful that the website of Action for Happiness have been overwhelmed by the traffic (which is why I am not linking to it).
Rather than give a detailed and worthy account of what it’s all about, I thought I would give a kind of phenomenological pastiche instead:
I saw that Geoff Mulgan(Young Foundation) Lord Layard(LSE) and Anthony Seldon(Wellington College) were involved and I expected a seminar.
…instead I walked into a massive hall with a huge screen and lots of stalls of people who, if not quite selling happiness, were certainly promoting it in various ways. I was too late for the sandwiches but I grabbed an apple and tried to eat it discretely, while feeling a bit guilty not to be networking.
The talks began, hosted by the BBC’s Sian Williams. She did a good job, but I couldn’t help but think that BBC presenters are still a bit monolithic. I hope this can be viewed as a compliment, but if I had heard her speak on stage and had been asked to guess what she did I would have said: BBC broadcaster.
Andy Puddincombe from Headspace led a five minute meditation. In a hall of at least two hundred people, I was on the front row of the upper deck, overlooking the hall. One minute into the meditation, the phone of the retired church going lady sitting next to me went off, and although she looked embarrassed, it appeared she didn’t know how to turn it off, and just waited for it to ring out…meanwhile I was asked to concentrate on my in-breath and notice the sensations in my body….While doing so I honestly felt a degree of compassion for my neighbour, and almost touched her shoulder and said: “It’s ok”, but decided discretion was the better part of valour, and gave her my RSA card instead.
Lord Layard began with an amusing but perhaps over-used joke about a search engine reporting back “Your search for happiness produced no results.”…but proceeded to impress- he embodies his message of happiness, and reminds me of the grandfather in the Worthers Originals adverts.
I felt a pinch of envy on hearing Geoff Mulgan’s biography, and became even more intrigued when I learned that he trained as a Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka.
Anthony Seldon was impassioned, and launched an excoriating attack on meaningless league tables and suggested that neither Ed Balls (ex Education secretary) or Michael Gove (current) ‘got it’ on wellbeing in education, and argued, to great amusement, that they both needed more hugs.
I was very impressed by Siobhan Freegard’s discussion of family life, especially the stat: 62% of couples with children live away from extended family, and only 60% of them compensate by actively forming new support networks-this felt very close to the home for me and I texted my wife to share the statistic. She texted back: Does more information make you unhappy?
Henry Stewart spoke on the workplace and mentioned a great survey question from Gallup: Did you do today what you are best at? Only 20% answered affirmatively. The obvious implication is that is should be higher, but that means much more proactive Human Resources, and enlightened senior management.
Gail Gallie spoke partly as an advertiser and partly as an advertising reformer-suggesting that images from adverts, sitcoms and films undermine happiness by creating impossible expectations. One of her slides quoted HG Wells saying that advertising was ‘legalised lying’.
I held a large fluffy yellow microphone and asked a question from above, which boiled down to: “How do you turn information into habits?” The point is that the action points in action for happiness: (Do things for others, connect with people, take care of your body, notice the world around, keep learning new things, have goals to look forward to, find ways to bounce back, take a positive approach, be comfortable with who you are, be part of something bigger) are presented in the form of information, and information itself doesn’t change behaviour.
Indeed information is not really the problem and almost all the action points are familiar injunctions that our better selves know only too well. As I have argued before, the key to meaningful change is to make such actions habitual.
Anthony Seldon didn’t seem to get it, thinking that spreading the information is necessary and sufficient, but I was pleased that both Mark Williamson, The Director of Action for Happiness, and Geoff Mulgan responded in a way that suggested they appreciated the centrality of the point. I wanted to reply to them, but the fluffy yellow microphone had gone elsewhere.
Liz Zeidler of the Happy Cities Initiative left a lasting impression with the comment: “We are drip fed just enough unhappiness to keep us buying stuff”, suggesting that capitalism almost depends upon misery to sustain itself…
A curious thought, and one of many I took away…as I decided to leave before the end to get back to write this blog. As I walked back to RSA I couldn’t shake the idea that all of these insights paled into insignificance compared to the simple fact that the sun was shining.