We all want to be happy, and unhappiness can destroy lives. Jeremy Bentham talked about the ‘greatest happiness principle’ (the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people) and much of current happiness discourse is on the topic of a “new common good”. Richard Layard, in his book “Happiness: Lessons from a new science (Penguin books, 2011)” astutely observes that “we are all somewhere in between feeling wonderful and half dead”. So what can we do to help ourselves, those around us, and our communities, feel more wonderful, and less half dead, and work towards the common good on this first International Day of Happiness?
Research by John Helliwell at University of Columbia based on the World Values Survey has helped us to understand more clearly the sources of happiness. An important theme is the quality of our relationships, whether close family ties, friendships, our relationships with neighbours or even work colleagues. And these relationships are essentially based on trust.
My thought on this day of happiness is that each of us has a role in working towards the common good, using our own personal agency. Those that can, should seek to do more to aim for the greatest happiness through building trust between people, in our communities, at work and in our daily lives. And so my happiness heroes and heroines are those that are – sometimes visibly, but often invisibly – working in this way within their communities. They are so often the “invisible friends”, working hard to counter the effects of the “invisible hand” of economic markets, in which self interest prevails to produce economic wealth. With more invisible friends we might build a happier society, that is more able to increase wellbeing, and not just wealth.
In my daily life these are the people who organise street parties, who secretly plant flowers round the trees, and my colleagues who take the trouble to organise events at work in their free time and make the workplace happier. I am constantly struck by how, even in a crowded city like London, as I travel home on a packed train, there is often a sense of solidarity. A typical example from Transport for London’s Acts of Kindness website– a mum was stuck at the bottom of an escalator at Victoria Tube station with a baby in a pushchair and a frightened toddler who refused to go up. People walked around them until a man, in his 50s, with mum’s approval, took the toddler’s hand, stepped on with her and talked to distract her all the way to the top. There was a big smile from the toddler at her sense of achievement.
At the Young Foundation we are fortunate in being home to Action for Happiness, a movement of people committed to building a happier society. But we also see the effects of invisible friends in our work on community resilience, where some communities are more able to adapt to change than others, including supporting the most vulnerable. Last year in Camden one of my colleagues met Emma, who helps to runs a support group for parents with learning disabilities. The funding was cut, and the parents decided to run it themselves. They get the room free of charge, but no-one is paid. Emma says that, for some parents, this peer support makes all the difference and means their children do not need to be taken into care.
And policy makers are starting to embrace this way of thinking. In the UK the notions of wellbeing measurement and social action appear to be safely on the national agenda, with cross-party support. Let’s hope that this extends to other areas of government policy, reaching out to those in society who could do with a bit more happiness in their lives. But in the end, in our personal lives and our relationships, we can all choose be part of the movement and be a happiness hero or heroine.
Laura Dosanjh is the Director of Applied Innovation at the Young Foundation.