This Pursuit of Happiness Makes Me Queasy
Written by Madeleine Bunting
Within the space of an hour, I'd been hugged several times, I'd been led through a short meditation and I'd been bombarded by messages such as "if you can't change it, change the way you feel about it" and "happiness is a decision". It was the launch of Action for Happiness and everyone else looked pretty jolly. So perhaps it works.
You have to hand it to them, Action for Happiness has fantastic chutzpah to launch a mass movement at the nadir of a grim recession. Given the media's need for surprises, they will get a lot of attention. Given the ambition of the trio of sombre intellectuals – Lord Layard, Geoff Mulgan and Anthony Seldon – to make millions of people, first nationally, then globally, happier, they will need all the publicity they can get.
It is spectacularly easy to ridicule it all. No one was doing that at the launch on Tuesday, which felt akin to a happy cult. There was an air of earnest self-improvement, which railed against the twin evils of materialism and selfish individualism. But this is self-improvement that no Victorian would ever recognise; this was about taking that modern obsession of happiness – evident on every billboard – and turning it into a technology.
So there was much talk of "tools" and a lot of numbering for easy-to- memorise information. After two hours, I can now happily recite the 10 keys to happiness or the six ingredients for the happiness model. These derive from extensive new research, and this is where the Action for Happiness claims its credibility: happiness is no longer a mystery, the scientific research now proves what leads to happiness. In the past human beings pursued it by guesswork or mystical divination, now they can reach for any number of bestsellers that popularise the scientific findings. (The interesting thing is that the science is simply showing up what human wisdom has always known about what creates lasting human contentment, so this says more about our search for authority.)
This technology of happiness was most strikingly evident in Mindapples, a social enterprise that encourages preventative mental health. Their position was that we need a mental health equivalent of the "five a day" fruit and veg portions; they urged visitors to fill out the back of a postcard with five habits that improved their mental health. They want to make "looking after our minds as natural as brushing our teeth".
I find this a pretty intriguing concept, which could really catch on. Just as gyms became a big thing in the 80s, will the 2010s see the arrival of serious preventative mental health? And when you look at the content of what is proposed to improve your mental health, who could object? "To feel good, do good", take exercise, invest time in relationships, spend time appreciating things, trying new experiences. Make other people happy because happiness is contagious; the research says that your happiness affects the happiness of friends of your friends – it ripples out.
These are not new insights but they are important, and they are easily overlooked or drowned out in the noise of competitive consumerism and celebrity gossip, and we can't just assume that people will remember them. Having some good marketing materials about getting such messages out has to be a good thing.
But why did the whole thing end up making me feel a bit queasy, as if I had eaten much too much apple pie? Perhaps because happiness is the most overused, over-exploited concept of our age; millions of pounds are invested every day in the advertising industry to exploit our desire for happiness and our understanding of what it is. It is now a bankrupt word, the territory of happiness colonised by consumer capitalism. Interestingly Martin Seligman whose book, Authentic Happiness, did so much to promote the whole subject, is now reportedly distancing himself from the H word and is bringing out a book in May called Flourish.
Perhaps another part of the queasiness was that Action for Happiness seems to suggest that it is simply a matter of providing the information and people will develop the right happy habits – getting to know the neighbours, saying thank you etc. But knowing that smoking is bad for you doesn't mean everyone gives up smoking. There was a naivety alongside the ambition in Action for Happiness which felt a bit like a page out of the 70s plans for global happiness such as the Bhagwan Rajneesh. The only thing I know about happiness is that long ago I was told that it arrives as a by product to other activities, it doesn't work so well as a goal in itself.