“What’s at a premium now is compassion. You can’t get that on Facebook”

Despite all our material gains, unhappiness is one of humanity’s biggest challenges. The Happier World Conference, taking place in London this weekend, will explore how to bring more happiness, mindfulness and kindness into our lives

Figures suggest that more people commit suicide than die from war, murder and natural disasters combined. And the World Health Organisation says that depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. Moved by these facts, Shamash Alidina, co-founder of the Shoreditch, London-based Museum of Happiness, decided to organise the first Happier World Conference. It will take place in the capital on Saturday with the aim of inspiring and supporting people to bring more happiness, mindfulness and kindness to the world.

Among those speaking on the day is Nipun Mehta, founder of ServiceSpace, an incubator of projects that unite volunteering, technology and the gift economy. What started as an experiment with four friends in Silicon Valley has grown to a global ecosystem of more than 500,000 members, delivering millions of dollars in service for free. In 2015, President Barack Obama appointed Mehta to a council on poverty and inequality and he has also received the Dalai Lama’s Unsung Hero of Compassion award. Earlier this year, he recorded a TEDx Talk about unlocking multiple forms of wealth. So what forms of capital do people truly care about?

“I sense that people fundamentally care to be connected, and find strength and resilience through those relationships,” says Mehta. “Every interaction offers us an opportunity to relate, but in our unrelenting obsession with efficiency, we have turned everything into one-dimensional transactions. Subsequently, today’s society is designed with a myopic bias towards financial capital. We haven’t cultivated time capital, community capital, attention capital, nature capital, compassion capital and so many other expressions of wealth – and we very easily can.”

Mehta’s own life has become somewhat of an experiment in generosity, beginning with him carrying out small acts of kindness, “simply because it felt so right, so natural and so energising”.

Over time, he realised that connecting up these acts of kindness creates a circle in which very different rules come into play. “In place of the direct reciprocity that we find in ordinary transactions, circles of generosity afford us the opportunity for indirect reciprocity. I do something for you, you pay it forward for the person after you, that person does the same thing for person after them, and eventually, someone will do the same for me. We see this in families all the time. My mom cooks me a meal, I give my brother some advice, my dad changes the oil in my car. Because none of it is quid pro quo, it builds this circle we call family.

Mehta is best known as a social innovator, inspiring others to be the change they wish to see

Mehta, founder of ServiceSpace, is best known as a social innovator, inspiring others to be the change they wish to see

“In 2005, my wife and I went on a 1,000km walking pilgrimage in India, where we ate whatever food was offered and slept wherever a place was offered. It was amazing to see that shifting our intention from ‘what can I get?’ to ‘what can I give?’, changed the nature of our relationship and allowed all kind of beauty to be exchanged.”

Mehta has since run pop-up Karma Kitchen restaurants in 18 places around the world, where people ‘pay it forward’ for the person after them. Not only did the projects sustain themselves financially, he says, but University of California, Berkeley, published research on the phenomena in a paper called Paying More When Paying for Others.

“Our volunteers run an art magazine, a rickshaw in India, a yoga studio in Los Angeles and so much more – all in this gift-hearted way. And at a personal level, I experiment with my own life like that. It’s been close to 15 years now and so far so good,” says Mehta.

At a time when the Brexit vote shocked many in the UK and when it is possible Donald Trump will become US president, what are the limitations of placing our faith in world leaders?

Mehta says: “In society, we typically have three sectors: private, voluntary and public. Just as the private sector is moved by money, the public sector is moved by power. Both have their role to play, but if I had to pick between the three, I would always choose the voluntary sector, because it is moved by love. And why love? Because it is universally accessible, and it is regenerative. The more we use it, the more there is to use.”

Love is universally accessible, and it is regenerative. The more we use it, the more there is to use

The Happier World Conference, which will take place at Arundel House in Temple from 8.30am, will also feature Mark Williamson from Action for Happiness, Sanderson Jones – co-founder of Sunday Assembly, a worldwide network of secular congregations that celebrate life through talks, comedy and song – and Lori Deschene, founder of TinyBuddha.com.

But does the world really need another conference?

“The purpose of any gathering is to ultimately to connect people,” says Mehta. “In the previous generation, we used to connect people at the level of ideas but now the internet has made ideas cheap. What is at a premium now is a heart-based compassion. You can’t get that on Facebook. The Happier World Conference aims to build those heart-to-heart connections.”

And conference organiser Alidina adds: “Transformation in the world can only happen through inner transformation, followed by wise, caring action. We want to be a part of this shift. With this conference, we will bring a reflective pause, inspire conscious living and connect people who share our vision and commitment for a happier world.”

What gives me hope is that life unfailingly responds to the advances of love

Part of the challenge of living today Mehta notes, is the resilience required to simply keep on ‘showing up’. He defines this as committing mindfully to those moments when we feel our values align with those of someone else, whether in a one-to-one conversation or by speaking at an event.

“What gives me hope is love. What gives me hope is reading the story of how one person paid for a coffee for the person behind her in line, and 226 people followed suit. What gives me hope is that life unfailingly responds to the advances of love.

Any profits from the conference will go to the Museum of Happiness and other organisations dedicated to creating a happier world. Visit www.happierworldconference.com to find out more.