A growing network of Happy Cafes around the UK is helping to counteract the materialistic way of thinking that is damaging to both our mental wellbeing and the planet, says Stan Rosenthal, national coodinator for the Happy Cafe Network
In the late 17th and 18th centuries, coffee shops helped to spread the revolutionary ideas of the Enlightenment. Today, a network of cafes, known as Happy Cafes, has been set up to disseminate the central idea of the New Enlightenment: the notion that promoting our all-round wellbeing rather than simply focusing on material satisfaction is the only way of achieving true contentment and sustainability in a threatened world.
This concept is now filtering through at governmental and inter-governmental level. In the UK an all-party parliamentary group on wellbeing has been formed along with a What Works Centre of Wellbeing to assess policies for improving our general welfare. This country is also leading the way in adopting life satisfaction indicators which go beyond a rising GDP. Most developed countries and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) are working on similar sets of figures.
To support this emerging shift of priorities the United Nations unanimously passed a resolution in 2011 calling for a more balanced approach to economic growth and one which promotes “the happiness and wellbeing of all peoples”. This has been followed by a UN sponsored International Day of Happiness which is held every year on 20 March.
“The grand vision is to have a Happy Cafe in every high street and town centre.”
Happy Cafes are an attempt to introduce the new thinking into mainstream activity. They are part of the Action for Happiness movement established in 2011 by Richard Layard, Anthony Seldon and Geoff Mulgan, which is about helping people to take practical steps to improve their mental wellbeing and to create a happier and more caring society. The movement, whose patron is the Dalai Lama, now has over 50,000 members in 160 countries, with over 300,000 social media followers.
The UK’s first Happy Cafe event was launched in Brighton last year at Emporium, a very popular cafe/bar/theatre complex in London Road. It is a place where you can relax, make friends and learn more about Action for Happiness. The movement’s message is conveyed in inspirational postcards, pamphlets and posters at the cafe, setting out its scientifically researched Ten Keys to Happier Living. The Ten Keys include positive relationships, strong social connections, resilience, giving to others, being comfortable with who you are and being part of something bigger than yourself. Visitors to the cafe can also browse through an array of happiness literature on display.
The Canvas Cafe in East London joined the network in March this year, followed by the Hope Place Cafe in the Wirral, with both providing a wide range of wellbeing activities and relaxation therapies. A fourth, the Hope Cafe in Lanarkshire, specialises in helping those with mental health issues. Milk No Sugar has just become the second Brighton cafe to join the network. Many more are in prospect elsewhere in the UK and enquiries have been received from all over the world, including Washington DC, Serbia, Jamaica, Australia, Indonesia and Cambodia.
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The grand vision is to have a Happy Cafe in every high street and town centre, a process that has been facilitated in the UK by the closing down of so many shops as a result of new retailing patterns. Happy Cafes would also be a perfect way of making use of old churches that have fallen into disrepair. Indeed, Emporium in Brighton is a converted Methodist church. So as well as countering our spendthrift culture they could also help to revive our public spaces.
On such a scale, backed up by a growing Action for Happiness movement, Happy Cafes could play a significant part in changing our self-centred, ultracompetitive, materialistic way of life which is so damaging to the all-round wellbeing of ourselves and the planet.