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Moving towards a happier society

14 Mar 2011 | Positive News

This article was written and published by Positive News.

We can all take positive steps to increase our wellbeing, and a new organisation, Action for Happiness, is here to help.

"It's not rocket science," says Mark Williamson, director of Action for Happiness, speaking about what makes us happy. "When people stop and think about what's really important to them, they know what that is. Unfortunately lots of us are leading lives which are not quite aligned with that, and we don't stop and think about the things that are really important to us until something happens, like losing a job, somebody dying, or a major crisis," he says.

The people behind Action for Happiness, a new independent organisation, want us all to think about happiness more. They want to grow the buzz and discussion about what really makes us happy, as well as encouraging us to take positive steps to improve our wellbeing.

A non-profit initiative, Action for Happiness was set up last year by 77-year-old Lord Richard Layard, founder of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics. His co-founders are Geoff Mulgan, CEO of the prestigious Young Foundation and Dr Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College who has introduced happiness and wellbeing classes into the school curriculum.

The organisation wants to bring together people from all walks of life to develop the discussion and take control of their own happiness. "There are groups of friends in communities already talking about this subject, some are people having really serious intellectual and philosophical debates. Then there are young people doing random acts of kindness, teachers trying out new ideas in the school curriculum and local authority workers who are thinking about how to affect mental health in the community," Mark says.

Everyone, from David Cameron to the man on the street can affect happiness in our world, believes Mark. "Cameron can change policy and the 'white van man' can change the way he is in his family, or with his neighbours, or the way he approaches work."

"Our mission is to inspire all these people and enable this move to a happier society. We want to give them cause for hope and to promote a more optimistic view of what life could be like. We want to offer a whole series of actions that people can take to increase happiness," says Mark, passionately.

Since the fifties we have become three or four times richer as a society, yet despite that, we are no happier than we were back then, according to research. "That should be the starting point for all political discussion and the discussion of how we choose to approach our lives," Mark says.

In recent years, there has been lots of research on what leads to positive functioning and positive lives, says Mark, and Action for Happiness is documenting real human experiences and examples for people to look at. For instance, earlier this year it worked with BBC Breakfast to explore what people could do practically in their daily routines, to increase their happiness. They were encouraged to do kind deeds for strangers, exercise, and learn mindfulness (a simple, secular mediation technique) - three of the key practices the organisation associates with creating happiness. Participants reported an increased sense of wellbeing.

Mark believes evolution is 'breaking' humankind's selfish gene to some extent, so that we increasingly get happiness from helping others. But while genes play a role, they're not the whole picture, he says.

"There's a positive, hopeful, quite empowering message from research, which shows that although our genes, upbringing and material circumstances are things that are outside our control in many ways, there's a really significant proportion of our happiness - perhaps as much as 40% - that comes from the way we choose to approach our lives."

So, what does he think a happier society would look like? "To give a few examples, we'd have more families that are able to bring children up that feel loved and part of a stable family environment, an education system that doesn't just prioritise exam success but helps children develop emotional ability to cope with what life throws at them, as well as teaches them how to be good communicators and form effective relationships.

"There would be more people getting involved in their communities, more focus on holistic health, including an increased focus on people's mental health. In the workplace, more employers would realise that if you have a working environment where staff feel motivated, empowered and trusted, then you get better results."

There would also be no place for business that didn't serve the social good, Mark adds. "So for example, a purely speculative financial transaction that has no underlying product, service or benefit - there doesn't need to be a role for that. We need a shift towards what we can do with our economic system to create maximum wellbeing for people."

Most of us would agree that this vision looks highly admirable and if we embrace it and see where we find ourselves in ten years' time, it could be an enlightening, and hopefully a happier, decade.

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