The movement Action for Happiness launched earlier this week with members buying cups of coffee for strangers and giving out ‘free hugs’. With 4,500 initial members across 60 countries it has big aims to become a mass global movement.
Anthony Seldon (one of the three founding members of the movement) writing in an article for the Telegraph recognises the challenges to happiness and provides examples of depression in young people, closing post offices and the impact of the wider economic pressures. However, he suggests that there is scientific evidence that ‘happiness’ can be taught and it increases productivity. Action for Happiness teaches 10 steps and Seldon summarises these ideas in his newspaper article. In addition to keeping physically fit, we are encouraged to ‘do good to feel good’, to ‘go out on a date with one’s partner at least once a week’, and to ‘take time to bond deeply with one’s children’.
10 steps to happiness
- Do things for others
- Connect with people
- Take care of your body
- Notice the world around
- Keep learning new things
- Have goals to look forward to
- Find ways to bounce back
- Take a positive approach
- Be comfortable with who you are
- Be part of something bigger
Basic human needs and wellbeing
To position oneself in opposition to the general notion of happiness would be miserly, however there are some difficulties in accepting the notion of ‘self-help’ in the happiness stakes without some of the fundamentals being in place. Maslow, in his (1943) Theory of Human Motivation, referred to a hierarchy of needs where the most basic needs such as food, water, shelter, safety and security had to be in place before social, ego and self actualization needs could be met. Seldon says that happiness is not about materialism, but there must surely be some basis on which happiness is built. Glimpses of happiness are perhaps possible without access to water and a safe place to live, but these glimmers dwell in spontaneous fleeting moments and cannot have permanence as a state of mind for those who are without stability and security. How does someone who is homeless, or jobless, follow the 10 steps to happiness?
In line with the idea that happiness goes beyond materialism, Wilkinson and Pickett (2009) looked at wellbeing in rich countries in their research, and they found that it does not grow exponentially in line with economic growth and individual income. They suggest that economic growth has largely done its work in rich countries, instead they find that lack of wellbeing – whether social, health or some other measure – is dependent more on inequality than overall levels of poverty. This also echoes Sen’s (1999) notion that it is the freedom of opportunity to achieve wellbeing, rather than well being itself which is a more appropriate measure in the study of inequality.
Sandel (2009) has called for a new public debate about the moral limits of markets and a more robust public discourse engaging with moral issues. In making a case for a ‘politics of the common good’, Sandel suggests that this would help rebuild institutions and the structure of civic and public life. He suggests that altruism is not a scarce resource, but that this and moral guidance are characteristics that, like muscles in the body, can grow stronger with exercise.
The tyranny of positive thought
In her book Smile or Die, Ehrenreich (2010) discusses this notion of individual responsibility to be positive. In her particular study, the encouragement to be positive is in order to secure a successful outcome in the context of illness, specifically cancer. She suggests that there is a ‘tyranny’ of positive thought which means that an individual can secure health, wealth and happiness if only they themselves are positive. Ehrenreich goes as far as to suggest, in a different context, that unfettered positivity could have in part led to financial institutions and governments ignoring the warnings of individuals that the financial system could not be sustained, because their views were not ‘positive’. Ignoring the negative could possibly have ultimately led to the banking crisis. Equally, she suggests that if individuals are held responsible for their own destiny (if you’re positive then redundancy is an ‘opportunity’ rather than a threat) then it negates the need for the state or private employers to support those who find themselves out of a job due to the current economic climate.
There is of course value in happiness, wellbeing, altruism and other notions discussed, not just by Action for Happiness, but thinkers such as Sen and Sandel. Optimism must surely beat pessimism and happiness has to be better than unhappiness – very few people would want to position themselves in opposition to these aims. However, the warnings of Ehrenreich and others should be heeded – the instructions to ‘take happiness seriously’ and to follow the 10 steps to happiness should not rest solely on each of us as individuals with the assumption that we have ultimate control over our own destiny. The wider context and the impact of inequality must be considered. In the current economic climate, there are real barriers to happiness – cuts to local public services are seeing communal neighbourhood spaces closing. If you live in an area where the local swimming pool has closed, it makes it that much more difficult to follow step 3 (Take care of your body) and if the library has shut nearby then step 5 (Keep learning new things) may also be a challenge. If we are to follow the 10 steps to happiness then there is still a need for government to lead and support communities to enable the very institutions and facilities that might help increase welfare and happiness. We need to support happiness, not leave it up to individuals and blame them for their own unhappiness when they have been failed by the market and the state.
Written by Jo Richardson
 Wilkinson, R and Pickett, k (2009) The Spirit Level, why more equal societies almost always do better, London: Allen Lane
 Sen, A (1999) Commodities and Capabilities, New Delhi: Oxford University Press
 Sandel, M (2009) Reith Lectures 2009: A New Citizenship, Lecture 4, BBC Radio 4, 30th June 2009
 Ehrenreich, B (2010) Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, London: Granta Books