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:
Today is the day that the UN has designated as World Happiness Day to mark a changing consciousness away from material acquisitiveness and towards a new way (some might say it is actually a return to an old way) of achieving happiness.
Happiness, can be defined in many different ways. There is the hedonic pleasure that one can experience from eating an ice cream or the heady rush of buying a Ferrari and showing up your friends. Economists, psychologists and neurobiologists would all argue that these are not the things that evidence suggests will provide lasting happiness. Humans have an innate ability to adapt and as we obtain more luxury, we become accustomed to it. Like a drug, it takes more and more ‘stuff’ to give us the pleasure that we used to have. We can never be satiated.
And so, what is a better measure of lasting happiness? In his seminal book on the subject, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, Richard Layard defines happiness as:
“…feeling good – enjoying life and wanting the feeling to be maintained. By unhappiness, I mean feeling bad and wishing things were different”
Layard goes on to argue that happiness – at both the individual and societal level – boils down to the search for a few essentials: status, security and trust. Without a consistent set of values, rights and responsibilities, and without understanding what brings about lasting happiness, the pursuit of this definition could lead to mayhem, with our drive for status and security resulting in – Oh, let’s be extreme here – the richest 1 percent of the world owning more than the rest of us combined. Or, our drive for security, in a world where relationships are necessary but people cannot be trusted, could result in – again, just to be extreme – the building of walls at country borders, the increasing surveillance of the populace and a growing attitude of “us versus them.”
Can you imagine a world like that?
Yes, I think in 2016, we all can. And so, if what we want is status, security and trust in order to be happy, how can we go about building that? In honour of World Happiness Day, I offer you 5 ways I believe we can use the principles of the practices of this site to begin to build a happier world, starting with ourselves:
1. Appreciate all you have: We all have a need for status. But status that is based on comparison is a zero sum game. If I have a better car than you do, I feel better, but you feel worse. There can be only one winner, and there must be a loser. And what happens when a third party comes along with an even better car? My status is gone as it transfers to the neighbour. Comparison offers only temporary happiness, at best.
Our sense of ‘status’ comes down to a sense of ‘abundance’ when we dig beneath the surface. One way to achieve this sense of abundance is to allow ourselves to experience and appreciate all that we already have. We can appreciate the material possessions we have, the experiences we have had and continue to have, every day. We can appreciate the skills and education we have acquired. And, we can appreciate all the love and support that our relationships provide. When we begin to look around and appreciate all we have, whether our car is a newer model than our neighbour’s loses any meaning. We have abundance, simply because we have a car that gives us transportation and comfort.
2. Pay attention to the positive: Neuroscience and psychology posits that humans have a negativity bias which has been important for survival. In order to run from wild animals, to shelter from storms and to last out the winter starvation, primitive humans had to scan the environment for risks to our lives. This is a pattern of a very old part of the brain which is much less required, for humans adapted to modern city living. Our negativity bias, however, remains. Unless we become aware of our tendency to catastrophise and paint everything in a negative light, our mood can suffer from our thinking. Whether people are trustworthy or not, whether we feel secure and whether our status is under threat are facts that can be objectively determined, but our mind has a bias to think and spot threats.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and certain types of meditation help train individuals to challenge their automatic thinking and, where appropriate, to replace outworn negative thoughts with more positive thoughts.
With growing evidence from neuroscience, we see that the more we train our brain to make new pathways to more measured and positive thought patterns of realistic optimism, the quicker we can short circuit our pessimism and become happier individuals. Noticing positive thoughts and the emotions that they engender is another practice that can help build and strengthen these neuropathways.
3. Nurture relationships: Research shows that those with strong bonds of trust, loyalty, security and love tend to live longer and are happier individuals. In all studies, across disciplines, strong relationships are the most commonly cited factor that is crucial to lasting happiness.
There is a lot of pessimism in the press these days about the self centredness of our culture, of the disposability of relationships, of the replacement of dating and intimacy with hookups on Tinder and Grindr. Okay, this may well be a fact. But, not everyone is participating. I know this, because I am not. And I suspect that where there is one…there are others.
Love, I would suggest, is not something we ‘get’ from someone else. Love is something that comes from inside of ourselves. We make the choice to be loving or not. How others respond to it is, in many ways, not our business. What is our business is to be a person of integrity, to be trustworthy, to be curious about others and life in general, to be consistent and compassionate and to be loving. We must be what it is that we want to see in our world.
“Won’t we be used?” I hear someone ask. Perhaps. But we also have a responsibility to choose how we spend our time, and with whom. When we find someone who acts with integrity, who is trustworthy, curious and consistent, who is compassionate and loving, we ought to invest more of our time into that kind of reciprocal relationship.
And most of all, we must build a strong relationship with ourselves. If we build our own characters so that we are persons of integrity, curiosity, consistency, compassion, and love, we will (I guarantee you this) enjoy our own company. And, by being comfortable in our own skin, we will attract others out of mutual regard and reciprocity, rather than need.
Maybe we won’t end up with the hottest girlfriend on Tinder or the stud from Grindr. But we will have a circle of friends and companions, and hopefully a partner that fulfills our human need to love and to be loved; to hold and to be held.
Be patient. Be consistent. Be the catalyst. Those wonderful people are not living behind the sofa. It takes time and effort to get out and meet people – many people – until we find a few with whom we connect. We are more likely to meet them if we are engaged in activities that align with our values than simply ‘mixers’.
Building relationships takes time. I have built friendships with a handful of people that have taken 20 years or more to nurture. Sometimes people will come and go from our lives, and that is fine, too. The key is to keep making and nurturing relationships with ourselves and others that are likely to fill our deepest needs, and not our immediate urge for gratification.
4. Be Kind and Do Good for Others: Research from the University of California, Berkeley, has shown that altruism makes people feel good. Being kind, paying it forward, doing acts of service, and volunteering all make us feel good. And, they do more than make us feel good, individually. They make the recipient feel good as well. Being on the receiving end of an act of kindness makes the recipient much more likely to be kind and altruistic, in turn. One act builds a virtuous circle of kindness and builds social capital in our communities, creating the trust and security we all require, to be happy.
5. Make a Life of Meaning and Live in Alignment With Your Values: In the past 50 years, our lives have become far more secular than they used to be. Just a generation ago, church attendance was a regular feature of weekly lives and, whilst people tried and failed to live up to the values of their religion, individuals had an organising set of principles around which to live their lives. Living in alignment with a set of spiritual values gave meaning to life.
Coincidental with the decline of spiritual values has been the increase in the drive for status. It leads me to suspect that status is a maladaptive attempt to fill the void. How then, can we find meaning in our lives?
A values exercise can be a helpful beginning. How many of us have really taken the time to sit down with a set of values and choose our top 5 values and then prioritise those? And how many of us have taken the time to look at how we spend our time and determine if we are living in alignment with our values? Even if we have done these exercises in the past, periodic review is important, because life changes often bring about values changes and life pressures can mean we spend more and more time not in alignment with our values and feeling vaguely dissatisfied with life, as a result.
It is incredibly simple. And deeply powerful.
Let’s say that my top 5 values are: Beauty, Truth, Legacy, Nature and Family. I may choose to spend more time volunteering with a conservation charity to ensure a legacy of the beautiful natural world, and I will spend time camping with my children. If my job requires me to lie to customers, I will become unhappy very quickly and either want to leave or go off sick with stress. My life will certainly not be a happy one and my family will suffer, which will make me even more unhappy.
Once we have done a values exercise – thinking through our top values – we can begin to organise our personal and professional lives around the things which we hold dear. Living a live aligned with our values gives meaning to life.
There are many free tools online to aid in values identification. An example can be found here.
I hope you’ll give these 5 techniques a try over the next 365 days. If you do, I believe the world will be a happier place, because of you, on World Happiness Day, 2017.