Can you learn how to be happier in one weekend?
29 Aug 2012 | Lucy Roberts
Walking down the wide path flanked by towering fir trees, across
the somewhat overwhelmingly formidable grounds of Wellington
College in the sunshine, I felt apprehension. What exactly happens
on a "Happiness Weekend"? I knew it was "intensive", so would I be
able to keep up? What would the people be like? Would I get on with
them? What about my room, the food etc?
I walked into the high ceilinged girls' boarding house to a sunny
welcome from the course organisers, Jan Stannard and Professor Neil
Frude, a clinical psychologist with a contagious chuckle who
specialises in enhancing people's well-being. I went on to discover
that Jan was responsible for bringing emotional wellbeing to the
curriculum at Wellington. Having been introduced to the subject,
headmaster Dr Anthony Seldon used it to transform the school's
approach to teaching. Wellington has become the flagship school for
wellbeing in the UK, and Seldon one of the founding members of
Action for Happiness. Jan and Neil's passion for their subject
shines through their disposition. I immediately felt at home.
One of the other "students" made me a cup of tea. We were a mixed
bag of old and young, some working in helping professions, others
there out of personal interest or curiosity. Some people already
had some grounding in positive psychology, while others were
complete beginners. What struck me most was everyone seemed to
reflect Jan's sparkle of excitement and warmth. This air of mutual
engagement, hope and positive regard went on to become the essence
and charm of the weekend.
We got stuck in straight away. Neil explained how the weekend
would introduce us to "the science of happiness" derived from over
10 years research. By walking us through some of the evidence, and
teaching us some practical techniques, he planned to show us ways
to develop our potential, build our strengths, and improve our
relationships to make our lives, and those of our families and
friends, happier and more fulfilled. No small promise! I wondered
how he was going to pull it off?
We started with some basic questions: Why be happy? Is it selfish?
Can happiness skills be taught? Can we sustainably change our
happiness? I discovered that Neil's style was to present a bit of
information, then throw it out for us to discuss, play with through
some activities and find ways it fitted for us. This was a
fantastic approach as it kept things dynamic and engaging
throughout the course, and put to bed my fears of a weekend of
lessons, where I'd dreaded struggling to maintain focus and
possibly even nodding off. Thankfully this was far from the
Over the weekend there were loads of activities, ranging from
playful and fun to profoundly moving. We talked about what gave us
"uplifts" (finding things we thought we'd lost, a good joke,
working in the garden, making hammerbeads or abstract art in the
garage, watching kids TV with a granddaughter, swimming in rivers).
I learnt the importance of making time for a variety of these, as
the "happy benefits" of one can wear off if we do it all the time.
I realised that gardening and playing music can count alongside
meditation as a spiritual practice, as does taking some time to
engage in "awe". Things we found awesome included the sky on a
clear night, the fact that the sun is just one of an estimated
100,000,000,000 stars in our milky way, and things we'd heard Brian
Cox and David Attenborough say on the telly.
We talked about the most memorable people we'd met and what made
them so. We talked about acts of kindness, like sharing an umbrella
with someone when standing in the rain. Charlie Johnson visited to
give an upbeat and passionate talk on "paying it forward" by doing
random good things for people. I took home the message that it was
much better to be pro-something (like pro-peace), than
anti-anything (like anti-war) and if there is something I don't
like then it's always worth trying to do something to make it
We practiced "active constructive responding" where we encouraged
each other to elaborate on a scenario we felt had gone well for us,
and showed us at our best. I personally loved it when the other
person said "Wow, tell me more" and found it quite hard to shut up
at the end of the exercise. We tried a "Velten Mood Induction"
starting off with statements like "I'm feeling pretty good at the
moment" and ending up with "I'm sitting on top of the world" which
had us all shouting over each other and laughing uncontrollably. We
also did quiet things like a loving-kindness meditation. Six months
on, and I still practice many of these to make the most of my life
Each session lasted for around an hour and a half, after which
we'd either hang around drinking tea and snacking (Jan had provided
far too many cakes, biscuits and bananas), walk around outside
through the spectacular grounds, or make the journey along the
cricket pitch to lunch and dinner, served by the friendly staff in
the school canteen. The food was delicious, and there was always
pudding, which for me is a big plus. In the evenings we'd all relax
on sofas in the central room to play games, laugh, and have a drink
or two before ascending the stairs to our "dorms" on the mezzanine.
I slept well in my quite, neat little room with bed, desk, sink and
cupboard and a window overlooking the blossom on a cherry
Over the weekend I found my answers to the basic questions and
many more. I realised the key importance of positive relationships,
which have a more significant effect on physical and mental health
than smoking. I found out it isn't selfish to be happy, as each
person's happiness radiates to all those around them, and a happy
person is kinder, more considerate, more grateful and more
forgiving than his counterpart. Happy exchanges (like giving
someone a hug) are win-win, as both people benefit. I discovered
that sustaining happiness is a skill and discipline, like going to
the gym. You have to put in the effort, but you benefit in
participating and noticing more in life, and so, as a consequence,
do those around you. There is a point to happiness: it keeps you
healthy and connects you to people and to life. So happiness keeps
I left the weekend inspired by the magic of witnessing ordinary
people deeply connect to the best in themselves, in each other, and
in life. Six months on, and I still feel happier for it.
Lucy Roberts is a volunteer at Action for Happiness. She
attended the Happiness Weekend in March 2012. The next Happiness Weekend takes place from Fri 26
October to Sun 28 October.
Keep learning new things, Look for what's good