It’s World Poetry Day.
As an English Literature undergraduate, I spent many a happy hour absorbed in the modernist poetry of William Carlos Williams. More or less a celebrity in his native USA, he’s relatively unknown here.
His poems often convey a certain haecceitas – the quality of ‘thisness’ – capturing something very particular. In the Social Brain Centre, we’re interested in the importance of attention, and one of the possibilities offered by Carlos Williams’ poetry is to focus attention very acutely. In a way, I think his poems illustrate mindfulness in action. It’s especially clear in these two of his most famous poems:
The Red Wheel Barrow
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
This is Just to Say
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
What is all this stuff? Books, chairs, clothes, cutlery, bags, shoes, shelves, kitchens, computers, bracelets, shoes…what’s it all for?
Julian Baggini whose RSA event I chaired a few months back… recently penned a thoughtful and amusing piece in The Independent: Is Osborne’s Dad worth a £19,000 desk? The article explores how we use our ‘stuff’ to make sense of ourselves:
“A good desk is a kind of proof that you take your writing seriously, and hence, by implication, are a serious writer. A decent computer monitor might be just as important, of course, but such technology is not the preserve of the person of letters, and so cannot provide the same kind of psychological support.”
Lest you think this is a politically motivated attack disguised as a casual philosophical insight, the point goes to the heart of many of our most pressing challenges. In a previous post on the madness of economic growth in the context of climate change I made a passing reference to Tim Jackson’s phrase ‘the social logic of consumption’. The basic idea is that, increasingly, we are what we buy. Through our consumption patterns we tell stories to ourselves about ourselves, and try to convey those stories to the people around us. It is not so much that we need status symbols to fuel our egos, but rather we need to surround ourselves with material objects to give our egos function and form. It is not that our objects are inherently meaningful, but rather through the process of identifying with them we make them so.
As with anything psychologically insightful, the Buddhist’s are way ahead of the game. In Buddhist epistemology, ‘rupas’ are those objects we use to reinforce our sense of self: “We commonly impose distortion on to the object world. We take it as implying ourselves, and in the process create self-material in relation to it. . . . We see in the object signs that lead us to construe a self, and from this create a sense of self. We can say that the object is an indicator of that self. The object is called a rupa” (Caroline Brazier 2003, 62).
Of course in Buddhism this construction of a self is, at the very least, something to be aware of, and usually considered somewhat problematic because it can lead to various forms of maladaptive attachment, and this viewpoint is largely shared by many aspects of modern cognitive science. In addition to Baggini’s reappraisal of Hume’s bundle theory of the self in the talk above, I would strongly encourage readers to take a look at the work of Francisco Varela who combines cognitive science, buddhism and continental philosophy to give a deliciously rich theory of self and consciousness.
Changes in our fundamental processes of consumption, self-creation, and social comparison are not going to happen overnight. However, the link between the social logic of consumption that is the engine of capitalism – driving economic growth, and the Buddhist insight that our selves are in some ways nothing but these things that we identify with and attach to, are closely linked. One thing that might follow, as was suggested by my colleague Egidijus Gecius in a previous post and in many other sources (and as is the mission underpinning the Garrison Institute in New York State) is that sooner or later you realise that the problems can be understood and, with practice, even experienced, as manifestations of our wayward minds.
And the more that insight sinks in, the more you feel the most productive place to work for social change is at the level of the mind. I was reminded of this while chairing the Matthew Johnstone event on meditation here last week. At the end, I felt moved to say to the audience that the Social Brain Centre is keen to develop work in this area. There are lots of people out there teaching meditation in various forms, and we are keen to start thinking about how to make meditation more mainstream, and socially supported. I would like it to become normal, in the literal sense of being a conventional social norm. What that might look like I am not yet sure, but examples include: meditation on the primary and secondary curricula, a meditation room in every major office building, doctors regularly subscribing meditation on the NHS. All of these things already exist in nascent form, but we haven’t reached a tipping point, and meditation is still viewed by many, wrongly, as a somewhat fringe activity.
Coming back to the breath, as it were, it seems I started with material objects and ended with meditation.
Or should that be Om?
Addendum: At lunchtime Matthew Taylor mentioned an RSA event on sustainable consumption featuring two people who had given away virtually all their stuff, and an anthropologist who studied how people related to their stuff. The anthropologist shared his finding that, based on his years of research, the main conclusion was that those who liked their stuff were happier than those who didn’t. Somebody in the audience apparently then asked, in the context of an event on sustainability, a question that Matthew considered to be one of the best ever in an RSA event:
“So are you saying we should we should care more about our stuff or less?”
The case for caring less is that we would therefore buy less of it, which is better for the environment. The case for caring more, which Matthew had more sympathy for, was that if you really care about your stuff you look after it, and are more likely to reuse and repair it…which might be even more important.
“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, honey, rich is better.” This ‘brilliant insight’ by Sophie Tucker is one thing that came to my mind reading Jonathan Rowson’s blog about a major economic/environmental conundrum. We are running out of planet due to our exploding consumption but we don’t yet have an economic model that would be stable without this on-going explosion. Yet, I believe, the real challenge here is not a technical one but an adaptive one. Most likely we will have to go to being somewhat poor again eventually.
The technical challenge
As Tim Jackson put it, in our quest to save the planet we do have a major technical problem – finding an economic model which is stable without economic growth. However, it strikes me how little effort has been made to find it. After I read his brilliant book Prosperity Without Growth in 2010 I was hoping that after a respected economist had dared to voice such a ‘heresy’ against economic growth, at least some governments would start throwing money at finding a sustainable economic model. The reason why so little effort has been made to solve it probably lies in the fact we collectively are reluctant to accept the implications of ‘de-growth’ on our everyday lives. It’s not easy to get excited about buying less or traveling less. Thus, the real challenge seems to be an adaptive one. If we can’t adapt to becoming comfortable with reducing our consumption levels, then there won’t be enough political support to give money to those who believe in economic ‘de-growth’.
The adaptive challenge
That is why I am so interested in finding ways to encourage people to be more adaptable. Mindfulness is one thing has allowed me to cut my own consumption dramatically and yet live an even richer life. General research on mindfulness supports the notion that it allows people to become more comfortable with challenges such as that of reducing consumption. This however, is not enough to appeal to the majority of the population and we need to keep looking for ways to face various adaptive challenges.
Return to poverty
You may very well hate me for saying this but I am almost convinced that the currently high living standards in the West are just a temporary anomaly in world history. The Western world has been able to enjoy this period of enormous economic prosperity mostly because it has mostly been alone in such prosperity. Westerners have been able to use their wealth to buy disproportionate amounts of natural resources while they have still been in abundance. Now that much of the developing world is catching up and is joining us in the bidding game for natural resources, prices will inevitably continue rising. This will make things we buy more expensive squeezing our current living standards. Also, if the trend of the developing world catching up continues, there will be fewer and fewer people willing to produce iPhones and other goods for meagre wages, which will push prices up even more.
So coming back to Sophie Tucker’s ‘insight’ I believe most of us will have to shift to becoming somewhat poorer eventually. This will be a very difficult transition period. The higher we rise economically, the more painful that fall will be.
Return to prosperity
However, as Tim Jackson explains it, prosperity does not need to be limited to economic terms. There is an abundance of psychological research showing that economic prosperity is one among many things that correlates with a sense of wellbeing. Other sources of prosperity include the quality of our relationships, safety and vibrancy of our communities, a sense of autonomy, a sense of competence, and mental health. My hope is that once we become more adaptive and flexible we may be able to turn some our attention away from material prosperity to wider prosperity.
Before I studied psychology, I also had a chance of working for an investment bank. One thing that the two areas have in common is inherent instability of the ‘systems’ that they deal with: financial markets and the mind. George Soros claims that this insight into workings of markets allowed him to become a billionaire. He calls it reflexivity. Luckily, unlike with markets, there is a practical solution how to deal with this conundrum of the mind.
In financial markets this reflexivity manifests in on-going volatility of prices and even in bubbles and crashes. Financial bubbles will keep expanding as long as most people believe prices will keep going up. Thinking about stock prices affects prices and prices affect what we think about them. These price levels inevitably affect companies and economies. It’s a self-reinforcing inherently unstable system that again and again will spiral up and down depending on the prevalent ‘thinking’ of the time. Hence, bull or bear markets.
Another loop of reflexivity is inside the mind. Nobel Prize winning psychologist D. Kahneman in his latest book describes how thinking affects how we feel and vice versa. If you are in a low mood, thoughts reminding about the failures of your day and of your life will keep coming back much more often. Searching for evidence that your life is better than your mood suggests is will be an uphill battle. In fact, the thinking mind is not a good tool in such case because it has been affected by the very unpleasant feeling you are trying to think your way out of. This inherent self-reinforcing capacity makes the ‘system’ inherently unstable. Just like in financial markets, spirals are bound to form.
Interestingly, even though depressions do not occur very often, both in the mind and in economies they occur mainly due to this reflexive mechanism that allows negative spirals to form. Very sadly, in today’s increasingly fast and complex world human depression is on the rise. The WHO predicts it will be the 2nd most common global burden of disease by 2020. I would also argue that the on-going likelihood of economic depressions is also on the rise too, mainly due to continuously increasing complexity and pace in the system.
Helping the economy sounds like too daunting of a task but luckily we can help our minds. What’s a potential solution here? Rational, left brain thinking is not well-designed to jump out of the spiral because it is a part of the spiral. What can be done is training the habit of mindfulness. Mindfulness includes training attention, not the rational left brain thinking but rather general awareness, to jump out of vicious circles as soon as a spiral has been spotted.
If it is true that the mind is an inherently unstable system, then it would be affecting almost all aspects of our lives, including our moods, relationships with spouses and children, and our performance at work. Is there any evidence that these areas are improved by mindfulness?
In fact, yes. A 2010 report by Mental Health Foundation building on a rapidly expanding body of literature suggests that mindfulness improves all of the above. The evidence is strongest for the effectiveness of reducing mood swings, anxiety, stress, preventing depression, improving attention, and a sense of well-being. Moreover, mindfulness not only changes brain activity but seems to physically change the wiring of the brain.
Although mindfulness can be learned in many ways, one increasingly popular approach in the UK is taking an 8-week MBCT course. It various forms are gaining popularity mostly thanks to the University of Oxford. I am doing one such course myself now and can only highly recommend it.
I find the metaphor of an elephant and a rider, which has been used by psychologist Jonathan Haidt and embraced by Mathew Taylor, to be especially useful in thinking about the mind. This is how J. Haidt describes it:
The mind is divided in many ways, but the division that really matters is between conscious/reasoned processes and automatic/implicit processes. These two parts are like a rider on the back of an elephant. The rider’s inability to control the elephant by force explains many puzzles about our mental life, particularly why we have such trouble with weakness of will. Learning how to train the elephant is the secret of self-improvement.
I would like to extend Haidt’s proposition by suggesting that since the rider is the one who has to train the elephant, the rider needs to be trained first on how to train the elephant. First, he needs to be taught how to become attuned to his elephant, how to become increasingly aware what is boiling inside its head and what can be anticipated from the powerful animal. Cultivating awareness through mindfulness is cultivating this attunement.
It is also crucial for the rider to learn how to become the ‘whisperer’ of the elephant. The rider will never be in full control of the animal but can learn to befriend it, and to expand its influence over it. As this process of befriending develops, the relationship between rider and elephant gradually shifts from one of misunderstanding, frustration and even antagonism, to one of patience and gentleness. Even when the elephant throws a tantrum sometimes, the rider will not react to this frantically but will calmly and skilfully do what is best. The experienced rider becomes skilled at knowing when to opt for firm discipline, and when simple, calm patience is required.
As time goes on and as one’s practice of mindfulness improves the ‘elephant’ (i.e. the automatic/implicit processes) starts gradually changing. The elephant becomes less frantic, more predictable, more willing to be ‘whispered’ by the rider. It throws its tantrums less and less often. The rider does not need as much willpower to control the animal now since the big creature is more willing to be led by the rider.
Limitations of relying on theory
Teaching people what the latest scientific findings reveal about the mind is definitely a desirable thing to do, but in my understanding it has its limitations. Using the same analogy, I would compare it to teaching the rider the theory of riding. He would be given a PowerPoint presentation about elephants and riding: what the elephants are like, what mistakes there are likely to make, what can be done, when they can and cannot be trusted, etc.
This lecturing would be good to learn more about elephants in general but would tell very little or nothing about the particular elephant that you are riding. – We all have unique personalities, don’t we? But even more importantly, it would not teach the practical skills that are gained through experience of actually riding an elephant. The deep learning needed to tune in to your own elephant and to befriend it can only be achieved through deep listening and deep practice. Mindfulness is the only deep practice that I am aware of. As with teaching people how to drive cars, we don’t expect them to become skilled drivers after only having taught them the theory.
For these reasons I believe mindfulness – which enables us to gradually achieve the attunement and ‘whispering’ that I’ve described – is an essential tool for changing our automatic processes and closing the gap between who we are who we want to become.
Before I launch my series on how, in my view, mindfulness is a very powerful tool for closing what the RSA calls the ‘social aspiration gap’, I want to bring some perspective. I want to list the main reasons why mindfulness – if it is actually as great as I will argue it is – is not so popular yet:
It can be difficult, especially initially. It draws you out of your comfort zone.
It is terribly boring. – Again initially, and especially for people who are accustomed to constant stimulation.
It requires discipline, which eventually will be attained through getting established in the practice, so it’s a bit of a ‘catch 22’ situation.
It can be quite frustrating to find out how little one is in control of one’s attention. The mind will wonder off again and again. This is particularly frustrating if one has incorrect expectations, such as relaxing or eliminating all thought. Such expectations are likely to engender the opposite result, since frustration with the inevitability of thinking will kick in.
It can be a disorienting experience. In his Divided Brain speech at the RSA Iain McGilchrist described how in the Western world people commonly base their sense of identity on the ‘voice’ in the brain’s left hemisphere, the ‘speaker’ of thoughts. During meditation this voice will keep chattering. – Yet meditation invites us to cease identifying ourselves with this voice and its thoughts. So naturally, the question “If am not my thoughts, who am I?” will arise, and this can be an unsettling experience.
Also, uncomfortable thoughts which are normally buried under our day to day ‘busy-ness’ will rise to the surface and this can be quite unsettling too.
It will not work if one aims to get somewhere, to achieve some special state. It is a very paradoxical thing. With mindfulness, you can only get somewhere by not striving to get somewhere, so the usual framework of ‘doing’ and ‘striving’ must be dropped. It feels unnatural and like a really ‘productive’ waste of time for the ‘doers’ among us.
We generally do not have a culture that supports or reinforces it. To the contrary, following our usual reactions, ‘moaning’ and lack of acceptance of the inevitable provides so much to share with other fellow beings. We also tend to be less comfortable with practices of religious origins. There is no easy way around it. Yes, mindfulness – even though it is secular in nature – was ‘invented’ within Buddhism, and possibly by Buddha himself.
With mindfulness, you can’t measure your progress in numbers. It is quite a problem in a culture that seeks to measure almost everything. There is some real truth in the saying ‘what gets measured, gets done.’
It’s not a quick fix. For substantial results to start appearing, it may take 8 weeks of around 30 minutes a day.
It requires slowing down. The busier and the more frantic we are, the more we react out of habit in the same automatic ways and not out of choice. This franticness is the opposite of mindfulness.
It does not really work if you use just ‘a bit’ of mindfulness. We like to put things into our schedules moving from one thing to another. Mindfulness is a way of being in the world, not a way of spending a 30 minute slot reserved in your busy schedule.
I have struggled with all of the above myself and still do to a certain extent after two years of practice. Probably most of us will in similar ways.
Recently I attended a mindfulness training day and instead of actually doing the practice, which is much about spending less time in our heads and more time in the real world, I found myself analysing the training itself. I was sitting on a meditation cushion and doing old-fashioned left-brain-type analysis. I found myself making different connections between mindfulness and brain-related sciences. I thought I had found some interesting links between mindfulness and Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s ‘fast and slow thinking’. This led to me to believe that one way of looking at mindfulness is as a skilful engagement of Kahneman’s both ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ thinking. Also, sitting on that cushion I came to believe that mindfulness is an important part of closing the RSA’s ‘social aspiration gap’ to become more of a person one wants to be.
According to Kahneman, we can think about our brains as having two systems – super fast, automatic, intuition-based ‘system 1’ (S1) and effortful, reasoning-based, and much slower ‘system 2’ (S2). Most of our daily decisions are produced by S1, are automatic and are based on habits. They require little attention or effort. Through experience S1 allows us to become experts who can make fast, intuitive and mostly good decisions. For example, it allows driving a car in heavy traffic while maintaining a conversation. You can try to imagine the chances of you being able to do that by having only read lots of books about driving (i.e. by having only engaged reasoning-based S2). What S1 is great at is tapping into our vast experience and packaging a multitude of calculations into a sense of intuition.
This sense is an integral part of making good decisions informed by our experience. It has been found that people who don’t feel emotions struggle to make even the simplest decisions. This intuition bit is where mindfulness training becomes very useful. From time to time I find myself for various reasons becoming stressed and caught up in all sorts of unhelpful thinking. I may think ‘I really screwed up this one’ or ‘I am just not good enough at that’. This not only distracts me from focusing on the real problem (disturbs reason-based S2 thinking) but also obscures my ability to ‘read’ my intuition.
What mindfulness allows me to do is to see through the forest of emotions and maintain connection to this intuition, leading to better decisions. What it also allows is to become aware of unhelpful thinking patterns in S2 and not to take them at face value. Another dimension of mindfulness is openness to experience, be it pleasant or unpleasant experience. This openness stops vicious circles in their tracks, the circles of getting stressed about getting stressed, about getting stressed…
For these and many other reasons I hold mindfulness to be an integral part of the RSA’s neurological reflexivity that allows closing the ‘social aspiration gap’. One must be aware of one’s conditions manifesting moment-by-moment in order to allow one’s awareness to transform the effect of these conditions. This moment-by-moment attention paves way for different decisions, which in the long run have the power to change habits.
Sitting on that cushion and having made such links for a while I felt a bit too excited to meditate properly. I had to use some mindfulness to calm my analytical mind down and to come back to the cushion. This also served as good exercise on the long path of becoming more of a ‘skilled user’, a master if you will, of my own mind and less of a slave of its unhelpful patterns.
Many things are ‘a bit tricky’, my two year old son has started saying he’s ‘a bit hungry’, and you may be ‘a bit curious’ about where this is going.
Ed Haliwell, who spoke at the RSA Mindfulness event in 2010, has just written an interesting piece asking whether the expression ‘a bit of mindfulness’ is problematic. He is concerned that speaking in this way conveys that mindfulness is something discrete that can be tacked on to existing lifestyles and practices, rather than, as it perhaps should be, something that permeates one’s life in a more holistic or systemic way.
I share his concern for language forms. In Sanskrit and Pali they speak about ‘Namarupa‘ which essentially means that things take the form(rupa) of their names(nama). I first heard this from an Ayurvedic practitioner who expressed concern for the company Aveda because while veda means knowledge, ‘a‘ typically expresses a form of negation. In other words, the company name appears to mean ‘without knowledge’…she liked their products but feared that sooner or later their ‘namarupa’ would catch up with them.
When it comes to Mindfulness, for me the biggest challenge, unpacked in detail in Ed’s book, The Mindful Manifesto, is to appreciate the idea that mindfulness invites a form of being as much as being another thing to do. I have written about this distinction, between Doing and Being , before, and I feel that ‘a bit of mindfulness’ does make it sound like something that one does…another thing to be squeezed into our bloated schedules, rather than a constructive form of inaction that problematises the madness of constantly trying to do something.
Or maybe that’s a bit strong?
The moment. It’s all we have. Life is nothing if not a series of individual moments, and learning to appreciate each and every one of them is part of the project of being. This year, I’ve thought a lot about the present moment. Knowing that contributing to a project on mindfulness meditation was likely to be one of my tasks when I took up my post at the RSA, I spent some time during the summer reading about the subject.
My dad is a big fan of the Zen Buddhist, Thich Nhat Hanh, so I went back to last year’s Christmas present, The Blooming of the Lotus. I finally bought Jon Kabat-Zinn’s classic, Full Catastrophe Living after a few years of stingily reading the photocopied chapters given to me by a friend. Being absurdly prejudiced against fat books (Full Catastrophe Living is about 500 pages), I got hold of Kabat-Zinn’s lighter-weight volume Wherever You Go, There You Are. I made an attempt to instate a daily meditation practice, sometimes using Kabat-Zinn’s guided meditations, and sometimes trying to follow Thich Naht Hanh’s exercises.
All of this has been enriching, and although I’ve not been terribly good at sticking to the daily meditation, I’ve definitely felt the benefit of mindfully attending to moments throughout each day. Only today, I really savoured my first sip of tea and properly relished the sight of the sun glistening on the Thames as I cycled to work.
It is a glorious triumph of storytelling, but it is also a sort of a call to cherish what we might think of as the infinitesimal and irrelevant instants of our existence.
Last night, I was brought face to face with the present moment in a different way. I had the huge privilege of witnessing an utterly spellbinding and jubilant celebration of the littlest moments of life, Daniel Kitson’s one-man play It’s Always Right Now, Until It’s Later. It is a glorious triumph of storytelling, but it is also a sort of a call to cherish what we might think of as the infinitesimal and irrelevant instants of our existence.
The play stories the lives of William Rivington and Caroline Carpenter, tripping backwards and forwards from moment to moment, taking in the turning of a page in a magazine, a glance across a room at a party, the moment of flight as a young Caroline falls from her bike. Each segment is symbolised by a glowing bulb on the stage, Kitson padding between them, marking out the patterns of events in his characters’ lives. We get to know them through these small moments – William somewhat gruff and misanthropic, and Caroline, endearingly conventional. At one point, we hear of desperate Caroline trudging in the rain with an inconsolable screaming baby. She encounters an older woman, who looks her in the eye and says (something like) “all of this is completely normal”.
At the beginning, Kitson warned the audience “this is no more a story about love than the bible is about woodwork”. Actually, I think love pulses throughout the whole piece – Kitson’s own empathic, compassionate and affectionate love for the human race. Along the way, it’s incredibly funny, and Kitson’s way with words is extraordinary and inimitable. I wish I could remember the detail of some of the surging alliterative passages which sweep you along on a tide of hilarious profundity, and pin you to your seat, right there in that moment.
it’s all about celebrating humanity, reminding us to savour the preciousness of our relationships, and to rejoice in the singularity of the most mundane of moments.
For those who don’t know Daniel Kitson, he made his name as a stand-up comedian. Indeed, earlier this year he was voted the best British comedian of all time by his contemporaries. But, his material in recent years has changed pace, style and tone, and I think it’s fair to say it’s morphed into something that’s not really comedy. Since 2009’s The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church, Kitson has written monologues, storytelling plays, peppered with comedy, but not driven by it. These days it’s all about celebrating humanity, reminding us to savour the preciousness of our relationships, and to rejoice in the singularity of the most mundane of moments.
So, if you possibly can, go and see this show – on tonight and tomorrow (morning and evening) at the National Theatre.
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.