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Can you learn how to be happier in one weekend?

29 Aug 2012 | Lucy Roberts

Wellington grounds

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 case.

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 better.

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 today.

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 tree.

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 you alive.

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.

Happiness Consultancy


Action for Happiness


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