Last month, TTDOG featured an article on Lord Richard Layard who, together with Sir Anthony Seldon and Geoff Mulgan, founded Action for Happiness. In this article we depart from featuring an individual making a difference to introduce a group of individuals in a worldwide movement working together to create as much happiness in the world as possible, and as little misery: Action for Happiness.
TTDOG interviewed the director of Action for Happiness, Dr. Mark Williamson and Head of Campaigns and Communications, Alex Nunn, who agreed to speak on behalf of the organisation.
TTDOG: What is the mission of Action for Happiness? How do you hope to achieve this?
AfH: Action for happiness is a movement of people taking action for a happier and more caring world. We bring this about by provoking people to think more deeply about where happiness really comes from, with learning from the latest wellbeing research, and helping them commit to taking action in their own lives. These actions go on to benefit and inspire others in their families, workplaces, and communities. It is through the collective force of these ripples that we hope to see values shifting in society.
Action for Happiness is organised as a UK based not for profit organisation as part of the Registered Charity, The Young Foundation. Action for Happiness is run by a Board of experts in various fields related to Happiness and a team of dedicated volunteers. The organisation hosts large events in London with inspiring guest speakers and self-managing groups meet worldwide. The organisation has provided a (by-donation) 8 week course ‘Exploring What Matters,’ which is facilitated by volunteers, to help these self-managed groups get started. The patron of Action for Happiness is His Holiness, the Dalai Lama.
According to the Action for Happiness website: “Everyone’s path to happiness is different. Based on the latest research, we have identified 10 Keys to Happier Living that consistently tend to make life happier and more fulfilling. Together they spell “GREAT DREAM.”
The letters in GREAT DREAM stand for: Giving to others; Relating, because as we have seen from the work of Layard and others, relationships are the greatest contributor to happiness; Exercising, because we feel better when we’re fit and healthy; Awareness, because it’s impossible to be happy if we are not present in the moment. Living mindfully helps us to be aware of our emotions, including happiness; Trying Out, because people who try new things throughout life are able keep the brain healthy and feel happier. Direction, because people who have goals and a sense of purpose are happier; Resilience, because having the tools to bounce back from hard times is key to long term happiness; Emotions, because paying attention to, and generating more positive emotions, like gratitude, helps us feel happy; Acceptance, because it is not possible to be happy with ourselves until we accept ourselves – warts and all; and Meaning, because happy people cultivate a feeling of being part of something greater than themselves.
These are the keys, according to the organisation, to build a happier life. However, the mission of the organisation is not just to focus on each individual’s happiness, but to create more happiness in the world.
TTDOG: In what ways are the members of Action for Happiness taking action in the world to promote happiness?
AfH: Everyone’s journey is different, and the actions they take along the way can be really diverse: we have members who do small daily acts of kindness, helping out strangers, picking up litter, practicing mindfulness to reduce quick-tempers and stress, to people who quit high-paid jobs that aren’t making them happy to try out something new. It’s great to see that a lot of our members also take action to support the mission and movement also (e.g. volunteering to run one of our courses, host a local gathering or set-up a happy cafe).
London’s first happy cafe, the Canvas Cafe in East London will be featured next in this series of articles. It provides a venue for people to meet, share conversation and to attend events related to self improvement, the arts and – of course – Happiness.
TTDOG: Critics of positive psychology and the happiness movement might say that the focus on individual happiness and wellbeing leads to a society of selfish and isolated individuals. Does the pursuit of happiness make people more or less concerned about social justice and issues like rising inequality in the world?
AfH: There are two reasons why people fail to stand up for social justice issues, either they are insufficiently aware, or they insufficiently care. Taking happiness seriously helps with both. When we start to look at where happiness really comes from in our own lives two things tend to happen: we gain perspective on the things that don’t matter, that distract us and fill our heads with unnecessary stress, and pay more attention to the things that really do, particularly the importance of our connections to other people. This shift frees up people’s minds to become more aware of what is going on around them, and cultivates caring for others – the very foundations of a social conscience. It’s also worth noting that relationship between inequality and materialism, the fact that we’re in the collective habit of seeking happiness in the insatiable consumption of stuff, and the pursuit of ‘wealth’ which provides it. A more enlightened understanding of happiness can be quite helpful in liberating people from this.
Like all organisations, however, it is really the ‘tone at the top’ that creates a pervasive ethos and determines how an organisation will contribute to a society. And so we thought it incumbent upon us to inquire a little into the personal motivations and feelings of those who lead the organisation and its volunteer activities.
TTDOG: Why is Action for Happiness important to you, personally?
MW: As Aristotle said, ‘Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life; the whole aim and end of human existence’. And when you ask parents what they want above all for their children, by far the most common answer is: “to be happy”. So happiness is the thing we want the most for the people we love the most. But in modern society we spend too much time focusing on money, status and possessions – and don’t give enough priority to the things that really matter for a happy life… like good relationships, mental wellbeing and having a sense of purpose. That’s where Action for Happiness comes in. We help people take action to focus on the things that really matter and help contribute to a happier and kinder world.
AN: My background is in campaigning and activism, but I became deeply frustrated that so much energy in that space is wasted on generating anger (however righteous) towards society’s problems, creating unproductive ‘us and them’ divisions and only very rarely putting forward constructive solutions that everyone can get behind. Action for Happiness to me is exactly that: a positive idea, with the potential to radically improve the world that anyone and everyone can get involved in. Whereas in other movements constantly suffer from activist burnout, our members become happier, more aware and more caring the more they get involved. It’s got such potential, and it’s hugely exciting.
TTDOG: Are you a happy person?
MW: Yes I’m generally very happy, although like everyone I have my moments of sadness, anger and despair. For me a happy life isn’t about smiling all the time or pretending everything’s fine when it’s not. Rather it’s about being your own authentic self, finding ways to cope with the dark times and learning to respond constructively to what ever life throws at you.
I attribute my happiness to a combination of my upbringing (grateful to have a close and loving family), my good fortune (lucky to have good health, freedom, opportunities and a degree of stability) and my choices (ie habits and behaviours I’ve learned that make a big difference to my wellbeing – eg mindfulness, helping others).
AN: The idea of a ‘happy person’ suggests it’s some intrinsic aspect of my personality – which if true, would be pretty unfortunate for anyone who’s not happy right now. I have the same ups and downs as anyone. But when tough times come around I’m really fortunate that I’ve invested time in cultivating skills that contribute to happiness and wellbeing: I’ve trained my mind to notice things I’m grateful for, to seek learning in a challenge that can help me grow, to accept problems without obsessing about them, and if things get too much to step out of my own head for a moment by exercising or doing something kind for someone else. So happiness isn’t about yellow-washing the dark times, it’s about finding ways to accept whatever is happening, remember that happiness is possible, and stay willing to try to make things better for yourself and others.
TTDOG: Action for Happiness recently celebrated their 5 year anniversary. What have you accomplished?
AfH: We’ve accomplished a lot but we’ve really only just started and there’s so much more to do.
In terms of numbers, we believe our messages have been seen by over 20 million people, around 7m have used the resources on our website, we have nearly a million online followers and over 70,000 signed up members in 160 countries.
Since our launch in 2011 over 100,000 people have taken some kind of personal action based on our ideas, including over 2,000 people who have put themselves forward to run local activities and 200 of these who have been actively running Action for Happiness courses and groups in their local communities.
The Action for Happiness 8 week course: ‘Exploring What Matters’ was featured on the BBC, following the Dalai Lama’s visit with Action for Happiness members in London last year:
As is our custom at TTDOG, we asked Mark Williams our final question: For what are you most grateful and what gives you greatest joy?
I am eternally grateful to my mum and dad for all their love and support and for giving me the most important start for a happy and meaningful life – ie a loving, safe and supportive family environment. I am also hugely grateful to all the amazing and inspiring people who give their time so generously to support Action for Happiness and help bring our vision to life in their communities, schools and workplaces.
What gives me greatest joy is spending enjoyable time with the people I love, especially my wife Kate and our three young children. Other things that make me very happy include cycling (a lot!), time with friends, singing in a choir and taking time every day to notice the good things, however small.
TTDOG would like to thank Action for Happiness for providing all the photographs appearing in this article.
For more information on Action for Happiness, follow the links below: