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I will try to create more happiness and less unhappiness in the world around me


Our vision for a happier society

Our director, Mark Williamson, shares his answers to ten interesting questions he's been asked about Action for Happiness.

what is action for happiness all about?

Action for Happiness is about encouraging the shift to a happier society. That means a society where more people are leading happy, balanced and fulfilling lives and fewer people are leading unhappy lives where they feel trapped, unloved or unfulfilled.

However, although the idea is simple, achieving this will require a big cultural change - one that challenges all of us to live in a way that prioritises the things that really matter most. So we're building a mass movement for social change. Our aim is to bring together people who believe that things can be better and encourage them to do more to increase the well-being of others as well as helping them find ways to lead more fulfilling lives themselves.

Ultimately, we want to help create a society that puts people's overall happiness first, rather than focusing just on economic growth. We want to encourage people away from self-obsessed, materialistic and unfulfilling behaviour towards a more collaborative and loving way of living, where we value generosity, trust and positive relationships. Our aim is to inspire people to get in touch with what really matters to them and help them join together to make positive changes in their families, schools, workplaces and communities.

what's the problem you're trying to address?

Many of us are feeling that our society has got its priorities all wrong. We live in an increasingly competitive, self-obsessed culture which encourages us to pursue wealth, appearance, status and possessions as a route to success. This is supported by our political and economic systems that are focused on maximising economic growth above all else.

Yet, despite getting much richer as a society, we're not actually getting any happier. For example, the proportion of people in Britain who are "very happy" has, at best, stayed the same since the 1950s, despite the fact that we became three times richer in real terms. Economic growth alone is not enough to ensure social progress.

Worse still, our focus on materialism and self-obsessed individualism is leading to serious problems across society. We've seen huge increases in anxiety and depression in young people, greater inequality, more family breakdown, lower levels of trust, longer working hours, growing environmental problems and crippling levels of debt.

Fortunately it doesn't have to be like this. The good news is that wealth and material possessions are not the most important factors in determining whether our lives are happy and fulfilling. By focusing our time and energy instead on things that have been shown to consistently bring happiness we can live rich, rewarding lives. These things include loving families, close friendships, good self-awareness, strong community ties, helping others, meaningful activities, keeping active, and having a spiritual dimension or greater purpose to our lives.

None of these ideas are new and we instinctively know their importance. But this 'wisdom of the ages' is now also backed up by extensive research from the field of positive psychology, which confirms that these things have a bigger impact on our long term happiness and well-being than our beauty, health, possessions or absolute levels of income.

what exactly do you mean by happiness?

In talking about 'happiness' we mean the sum total of our feelings about how good our lives are, taking all things into account. This includes our inner lives, families, relationships, financial situation, work, community, health, leisure and freedom. It also encompasses our lives as a whole, including our feelings about the past, our current situation and our hopes and expectations for the future.

Our moment-to-moment feelings of pleasure or joy are of course important, but true happiness is much deeper than this. Everyone has their own views on what makes them happy. But although the routes to happiness vary, I would hope most people agree that the best society is one with the greatest happiness and least misery.

surely we can't be happy all the time?

That's absolutely right - living a happy life doesn't mean that we will always be happy. We all experience low points of suffering, disappointment and sadness along the way. And it's certainly not helpful to put a positive spin on everything and pretend that things are fine if they're clearly not. What really matters is how we react to the difficult times and how they influence our long-term level of happiness.

As you might expect, our long-term happiness is affected by our genes and our upbringing, which play crucial roles in shaping our outlook on life. But we can also have a very significant impact on our long-term happiness by the way we approach our lives. In fact, the latest psychology research suggests that as much as 40% of our happiness can be determined by our attitude and choices, rather than our genes, upbringing or life circumstances.

So although we can't control the fact that bad things will happen, we can choose the way we respond to these things and therefore the effect they have on our overall feelings about our lives.

isn't pursuing happiness a bit selfish?

This is a really important question and the answer really depends on what we mean by pursuing happiness. First of all we should acknowledge that being happier is generally fantastic for people. Happy people tend to have better relationships, earn more money, live longer and do better at work. However, research also suggests that people who directly and obsessively pursue their own happiness may in turn be less likely to be happy and content. Focusing only on your own happiness may have the paradoxical effect of making it harder to achieve.

But in my view there is a big difference between searching relentlessly for happiness, which is self-defeating, and choosing to live life in a happy, meaningful and fulfilling way. Trying to live happily shouldn't be a self-centred, hedonistic pursuit. On the contrary, the happiest society is one where people want others to be happy too. Research shows that people who care more about the happiness of others are themselves happier; and happier people are in turn more generous to others. This is why Action for Happiness is focused on how we can build a happier society together, not just how we can be happier as individuals.

what would a happier society actually look like?

A genuinely happier society will involve positive changes in all aspects of our lives. For example:

  • in our homes, more families will be loving, stable and well equipped to raise happy children. And more of us will be leading balanced lives, allowing us to spend more time with the people we care about, doing the things we love.
  • In our schools, we will have a more balanced education system which helps children to develop self-awareness and emotional resilience rather than just teaching them how to pass exams.
  • In our workplaces, we will see employers creating positive working environments and having staff that are happy, engaged and creative.
  • In our healthcare system, we will have a greater focus on emotional and psychological well-being, not just on physical health.
  • In our communities, we will find higher levels of trust, lower levels of crime and more people giving time and energy to be actively involved in their communities.
  • In our government policy, we will see priorities realigned not only to measure our happiness but also to take account of this when making policy decisions.
  • And finally, in our inner lives, more of us will be able to find peace and contentment and fewer of us will be struggling with stress and depression.

All of these changes are possible, but only if millions of people see a compelling case for change and have the resources, inspiration and support needed to help them take positive action in their lives.

so how can action for happiness make a difference?

Our mission is to inspire and enable the move to a happier society. In practice we will do this by:

  • Being a trusted source of information to explain why happiness matters, what the latest research tells us and what a happier society would look like
  • Inspiring people to join the movement and make a commitment to helping to build a happier society in the way they live their lives
  • Enabling people take positive action in their personal lives, homes, schools, workplaces and communities.
  • Putting happiness and well-being at the heart of public debate in our society.
does Action for Happiness have a set of core beliefs?

Yes - at the heart of the Action for Happiness are three simple but profound beliefs, all grounded in scientific evidence as well as common sense:

1. We can each affect our happiness and the happiness of those around us

There is a wide range of proven actions we can take to boost happiness, both for ourselves and others. Although partly determined by factors outside our control - such as our genes and circumstances - our happiness is significantly affected by the conscious choices we make and the way we choose to react to what happens to us. Happiness is also contagious, so when we feel good we help make others around us happier too.

2. We need to prioritise the things that cause happiness

Positive relationships are the most important 'external' contributors to happiness. We need to put people first and do everything we can to create positive, loving and collaborative relationships in our families, organisations and communities.

Good mental health is the most important 'internal' contributor to happiness. We need to take care of our emotional and psychological health as well as our physical health and give much greater support to those struggling with anxiety and depression.

3. Helping others is essential for a happier society

Self-centred individualism is not the route to happiness. Helping others is of course good for their happiness, but it also makes us ourselves happier and healthier too. Giving connects us together, provides us with a sense of meaning and makes us more accepting of ourselves and others. It creates stronger communities and helps to build a happier society for everyone.

what do you actually want people to do?

Well, first of all we want people to join the movement - to add their voice and show that they think that these issues matter. We ask each of our members to take our simple but profound pledge about the way they approach their lives. By joining they become part of a growing community of like-minded people and will have free access to all our online materials.

But joining is of course only the start and once people have signed up what we really want is to help them turn their interest into action. To bring this to life, this website provides a wide range of inspiring ideas and potential actions that members can take. It also encourages user-generated ideas - allowing members to post their own suggestions and join with other members to take them forward together.

The actions vary across different areas of life, including at home, at work, and in the community. They also differ in terms of effort required - to cater for a wide range of people. So at one end of the spectrum, a member of the movement might decide to do something ambitious like proposing a change to the curriculum in their school, starting a new community action group or influencing their local MP. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, a new member could simply be inspired to visit their neighbour or help a friend in need.

surely you must have some hidden agenda?

No, not at all. I can assure you our motives are pure! We are independent and have no political, religious or commercial affiliations. In fact we welcome people to join us from all faiths (or none), political backgrounds and sectors of society. Although not yet fully registered as an organisation in its own right, Action for Happiness is currently part of the Young Foundation, a registered charity in the UK with a fantastic track record in the area of social innovation.

Also, I should emphasise again that creating a social movement isn't the job of a single organisation. It will only be possible if we bring together a wide range of influential organisations and individuals. Our organisation itself isn't important; the real leaders of Action for Happiness are all the people that join the movement and do something to make a difference.

"We urgently need a change in priorities. So if you believe in a more caring society that puts well-being before wealth, and prioritises the things that really matter, then join us - add your voice and take action. Together we can create a happier and kinder world".

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Mark Williamson
Director, Action for Happiness

Dalai Lama

"Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions".

- Dalai Lama