Unlike the four previous features in this series, this fifth profile does not follow the familiar journey of its predecessors: engagement in social enterprise at an early age. And unlike Kevin Davis, Mark Williamson is not juggling multiple balls in the air. His focus is on just the one enterprise, but by far the most daunting and intimidating challenge covered so far: shifting the current deeply entrenched materialist culture of our country – with its emphasis on status, possessions and obscenely high incomes – into a more balanced, collaborative, less competitive and more humane approach to life.
Appointed Director of Action for Happiness in October 2010, Mark has taken an idea that was only on paper to an emerging mass participation movement with tens of thousands of members and a wide range of activities. It is attempting to halt a trend that has seen the UK become three times richer since the 1950s but with no increase in the level of happiness or public well-being. The new charity’s aim is simply put: to create more happiness in the world around us and less misery.
Mark Williamson’s first three decades would make any ambitious parent proud. It could not have been more successful in conventional terms: three As at A-level, a first class degree, topped up by a PhD gained part-time as he climbed up a steep corporate ladder as a management consultant at Accenture. But a break to collect a Swiss business school’s masters (with distinction) led to a reassessment of his life.
His fast trajectory came, in his words, “without any idea of what the ladder was leaning against” leaving him feeling “deeply unfulfilled helping rich clients become richer”. He goes on “I needed a radical change from a competitive corporate life without much social purpose, to doing something which added to collective happiness.”
A first step on the social entrepreneur ladder in 2006 was setting up a website – ‘what you can do’ – aimed at encouraging personal action on climate change. In the same year he joined Carbon Trust, an independent government-backed company with a mission to accelerate the move to a low carbon economy. While there, he helped launch Solar Press in 2009, a start up company developing low-cost solar cells for use in the developing world. With his own journey towards a more purposeful life progressing well, he saw the advertisement for his current post in the media in 2010.
There were three wise men behind the advert. Richard Layard, founder of the LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance, creator of ‘happiness economics’ which documented what a poor indicator of happiness that income was, and the so-called ‘happiness tsar’ to the Blair and Brown governments. Geoff Mulgan, former director of the Labour government’s strategy unit and number 10’s Policy Unit, who had become director of the Young Foundation. There he initiated research into well-being, leading to pilot programmes on resilience being introduced into schools. And Anthony Seldon, political historian and biographer, Master of Wellington College, who introduced happiness/well-being classes into his school curriculum.
The charity launched at an apposite time. A movement for happiness had begun. Layard’s book, ‘Happiness: lessons from a new science’ in 2005 had already created ripples. Senior people in Whitehall had picked up the message. Gus O’Donnell, while still cabinet secretary, spoke at the launch of a Young Foundation’s report on well-being about the shortcomings of GDP as a measure of national progress.
Taking post, Mark persuaded the founders to wait until March 2011 to officially launch the project, and at the same time as a fully functioning website. Two years on it has signed 30,000 up, has 70,000 further followers on Facebook and Twitter, and a million unique users to the site. For the curious there are guides to 10 keys to happier living and 10 common questions about happiness answered. For the more committed it provides ideas and potential actions that members can take up. It encourages user-generated ideas allowing members to post their own suggestions and join with others members to take them forward together. It also acts as a notice board for group activities currently listing events in Brighton, Manchester, Newcastle, Totnes as well as London. A new eight week course on happiness is just being piloted by the charity.
Two annual reports on well-being in the UK have now been published by the Office of National Statistics – the latest in July showing a small increase with high life satisfaction up from 75.9% last year to 77%. Though countries like Denmark and Canada have consistently scored above 80% in similar studies, and most worrying are the 8% of the UK population who rate their life satisfaction below 50%.
True to its cynical tradition, the British media were scathing about the first survey but were less censorious this year. The OECD is encouraging other member states to hold well-being surveys. The UN has also endorsed the movement holding an international conference on well being; endorsing a special resolution promoting happiness; and declaring March 20 a UN International Day of Happiness.
And the former high flyer in the corporate world is a happier man with a firm belief that “a happier society is possible – rather than being some nebulous or idealistic dream.”