Choosing happiness

Happiness organisations have emerged from being unGoogle-able to forming an international movement

A theatre in London. Outside, a large group of protesters chants slogans denouncing the Dalai Lama. Inside, hundreds of his fans have come to hear him speak. I’m among them, sitting at the back of the crowded stalls, the whole audience in my view.

But quickly I can’t see anything, because the Dalai Lama receives a standing ovation as soon as he starts walking on to the stage. He moves slowly towards the audience and takes his time to look around the whole auditorium, beaming into the bright lights as if he can see each one of us. And bowing. And beaming again.

Eventually he makes his way over to meet the hosts of today’s event, director of Action for Happiness (AfH), Mark Williamson, and co-founder Lord Richard Layard, emeritus professor at the London School of Economics, to conduct a question and answer session.

Layard begins by asking the 80-year-old Tibetan spiritual leader how we can achieve inner peace. It is hard to hear the answer, partly because I haven’t got my ear attuned to His Holiness’ accent, but also because there is something up with the microphones. I catch some words about training for inner strength – an idea confirmed by the Dalai Lama tapping his head, laughing and making a rotating gesture suggesting the need for repetition.


Through this training, he explains, we can increase our own capacity for compassion – a more useful life skill than many might realise. Useful, for instance, in awkward conversations: “When you face criticism it might feel like it’s going to kill you,” His Holiness says. “But then you think: Oh! It didn’t kill me!”

He pauses, then adds a joke: “And if it does kill you, the problem is finished anyway.”

The audience loves this.

I am not proud to admit it, but there is something about being in a room full of people who cheer and laugh so readily that brings out my inner cynic. It flares up only briefly, and it is only very mild. But it is there.

It is not easy to change the way we think and despair can feel convincing

This is odd, because everything I know about the Dalai Lama disposes me to like him. And I very much like AfH. I know Williamson personally, and was delighted to speak at one of AfH’s previous events. So what is my problem?

I think it is something to do with the human tendency to resist being told what to think, and to instead make our own choices – whether it be about becoming happier, or anything else.

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AfH was founded in 2011. “We looked on the web for an organisation that had ‘happiness’ in its title,” Layard says. “And Google said ‘Your search for happiness has produced no results.’”

That is no longer the case. An American counterpart, Project Happiness, has 1.6m Facebook fans.

AfH itself has 523,000 Facebook followers. More than 59,000 people, in 168 countries, have taken its pledge ‘to create more happiness and less unhappiness in the world around me’. And in a campaign run alongside Psychologies magazine, AfH helped launch happiness clubs all over the country. “There are now 1,000 of them, and we have about 10,000 people involved,” editor Suzy Greaves says. “It’s a small step, but it’s very significant.”

AfH also ran a crowdfunding campaign in 2015 to raise £35,000 to fund a programme of eight-week happiness training courses, Exploring What Matters, around the world. The campaign was so successful that AfH raised £100,939; almost triple its target amount.

Happinesss pic 2

I am not the first person to compare AfH with the 12-step programmes that help people who are struggling with alcoholism or addiction. There is a clear framework (‘10 keys’ to happier living), and an opportunity to share things that really matter with a group of like-minded people. But people struggling with addiction have particular reasons for attending their groups. What drives people to AfH?

“To know why people come, you only have to open a newspaper,” says Stan Rosenthal, who founded the first of more than 30 ‘happy cafes’ now in the AfH network.

As a journalist, I am taken aback. I have been writing features for mainstream newspapers and magazines for a long time, but now realise that at least some of my stories may have made people depressed enough to go looking for a happy cafe.

For example, a few years ago I found myself writing again and again about suicide. I interviewed a man who had survived a suicide pact with his wife (who did not). A woman who found her husband hanging at the end of the garden. Families in a town where juvenile suicide became a mini epidemic. A musician, Professor Green, who struggles still to understand his father’s suicide. Even now, writing this short paragraph is painful. I did not enjoy researching or writing those stories. I do not like to think about the pain those people went through. Or how my stories affected the people who read them.

But then I think: the unhappiness that drives people to take their own lives is not something we can ignore. It needs to be better understood, surely, so we can find solutions, rather than remain in despair.

Our future depends on the wellbeing of the whole of humanity

AfH’s happy cafes may be part of the solution. Some can be found in ‘upmarket’ venues, Rosenthal explains, where they might provide fun, therapeutic and learning activities. But they are also found in more run-down areas, where they enable lonely people to connect and acquire basic happiness skills. The point is to take the ideas to the general public, to people who might never come to an AfH event. “If they find us in cafes, talking about things that really matter, they might take a leaflet and then come back,” says Rosenthal.

Like many religions, AfH is devoted to active recruitment, but the Dalai Lama signed on as its patron because he wants to promote ‘secular ethics’ that are not based on any religion or tribal affiliation. “We need to see beyond ‘we’ and ‘they’,” he says during his Q&A with Layard. “Our future depends on the wellbeing of the whole of humanity. We have to be there for everyone. We only have one planet, and common interest is more important than individual interest.”

I am ashamed to admit I catch myself thinking how it’s all very well for the always-smiling Dalai Lama to talk about happiness, but my own situation is different, harder, more complicated than he could ever imagine (not that I have a di∞cult life by any means). So it is helpful to be reminded just how hard his life has been.

“I lost my home,” he says, without selfpity. He doesn’t elaborate, but there’s no need. As most people here already know, this is a man who has lived most of his life in exile. And I only have to remember the crowd of dissenters outside, banging their drums to denounce him wherever he goes, to recognise how truly remarkable it is that he smiles so much.

But then, he does put in the work: he meditates alone for several hours each morning.

“Where people smile, I see affection and I appreciate it,” he says. “I think sometimes it’s better to see a human smiling face than to do a meditation or a visualisation.”

Not for the first time, he follows up something that might seem pious or worthy with a joke at his own expense. This one is about how he smiles a lot, wherever he goes, and on a trip to Germany recently he smiled at a young woman. “But I think that the smile, instead of bringing happiness, brought a kind of suspicion – because I’m a strange man in a strange dress.”

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Just like the Dalai Lama, AfH sometimes attracts suspicion. Soon after it was set up, the Guardian ran a negative article by David Harper, a reader in clinical psychology at the University of East London. The headline read: ‘The sad truth about the Action for Happiness movement’.

The movement seems harmless, Harper wrote – “who can be against happiness?” – but its approach is based on flawed assumptions. Namely that: a) the source of unhappiness lies inside people’s heads; and b) the solution lies in change at the individual level. The real problems are structural, he said. We should sort out income inequality first.

At the bottom of the article were comments, mostly anonymous. Many of them seemed to be lined up very clearly for or against, in the poisonous binary of we/they that the Dalai Lama mentioned to Layard.

One woman, who described herself as having horrific family problems, chronic financial worries and not enough food, called AfH ludicrous. “It’s laughable if you truly think that you can make a homeless person who sleeps in a cardboard box of a night content about his or her situation. That’s where I’m ultimately headed, and I won’t last long sleeping rough. There is no ‘positive’ way to feel about that, I’m afraid.”

Others scorned AfH as, essentially, self-help charlatans peddling motivational slogans and other banalities.

Ultimately the question seems to be whether a happier society comes more from political change or from individual change? The answer in my view is quite simple: both

Director Mark Williamson posted a comment under his own name, using the AfH logo. “Although slightly frustrated by the tone of this article, I think this debate is essential and I’m very glad it’s being had. Ultimately the question seems to be whether a happier society comes more from political change or from individual change? The answer in my view is quite simple: both.”

Systemic change is absolutely necessary, he said, and AfH pushes for that. But: “Even where people live in difficult, or even dire, circumstances they can still benefit from improving their psychological health.”

Why would anybody argue with that? Because it is not easy to change the way we think and despair can feel convincing. As one of the other speakers on stage with the Dalai Lama put it, it is like trying to change the course of a river that has been flowing the same way for a long time.


The French scientist turned Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard wondered why we worry about personal change being hard work. “Effort can be fun. Why should we be shy about work being effortful? Let’s talk about joyful effort. It’s a wonderful thing to make a continuous effort when you want to be happy. Imagine yourself as a bird flying out of a cage.”

Schoolteacher Adrian Bethune can confirm the pleasures of this work. An established AfH supporter, he was involved in piloting the eight-week course.

As a result, he was inspired to introduce mindfulness at school, with weekly sessions in which pupils were asked to write down three answers to the question: What went well? “That session really taught me what makes my children happy,” he says.

As leader of happiness and wellbeing at the school, he rebranded the traditional anti-bullying week. “Rather than focusing on the negative behaviour, we called it ‘It’s cool to be kind week.’” Every child was given homework: to carry out an act of kindness. And every class was instructed to do something in the community.

The children in year three decided to spread happiness among commuters. One class went out to sing Don’t Stop Believin’ outside nearby Brockley train station in south London. Another carried out an experiment to offset the sometimes depressing effects of mainstream media. They wrote colourful happiness messages (such as ‘that smile looks good on you’, and, ‘it’s cool to be kind’) and stapled them to the front of the Metro newspaper.

Within a few days, Bethune recalls: “We had received emails from people who had seen them all over the tube network. And we were able to tell the children they had improved the happiness of people across the whole of London. They were blown away. I was in the class when they were told. When you are seven years old and realise how far your messages have spread, it’s just sheer joy. It was very powerful for them to get that response, that feedback.”

That is all very well for them, you might say, if you are in a Scrooge-like mood. But here is the thing about Bethune’s story. Like all of us, he did not always feel motivated to be joyful. “Two or three times, on a Monday evening, I thought: I really do not want to go.” But he made a choice. He tapped into that inner strength the Dalai Lama speaks of. He stuck at it. “And without fail, I came away feeling energised and inspired.

LAB Photo Happiness Conf-332
Mark Williamson, director of Action for Happiness

All photos: Action for Happiness

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