The pursuit of happiness
Clenton recently spoke at the 2023 Baggs Happiness Lecture at the University of Birmingham. We share with you here his speech on the importance of happiness, and our journey to achieve it:
Welcome, everyone, to the Baggs Memorial Happiness Lecture, where the pursuit of joy throws light on the enduring spirit represented for me by the late Jo-Ana Avril, my beloved mother who I lost just a few weeks ago.
As her birthday passed this week on the 12th of December, I’m reminded of the profound impact one person can have on mine, and our family’s journey to happiness and I would like to dedicate this evening to her memory.
So, I start by posing five questions dedicated to my mum I hope to answer through my talk:
1. Why do we care about happiness?
2. What can we learn about happiness from thinkers over the centuries?
3. What can we learn about happiness from modern science?
4. How can we achieve happiness as individuals?
5. How can we achieve happiness as a society?
1. Why do we care about happiness?
l start off this enlightening journey with a warm welcome, drawing inspiration from Winnie the Pooh's timeless wisdom: "Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart." Mum also believed this. This sentiment echoes the immeasurable influence that an individual, like my late mum, can have on shaping mine, and our family's understanding of happiness.
My mum’s dedication to others paired with her unshakeable sense of her own self is reflected in Pooh's words: "The things that make me different are the things that make me." This serves as a guiding light in exploring diverse perspectives on the pursuit of happiness.
I started with a deep dive into the nature of happiness, and through the ages there have been many opinions on this. Aristotle's belief that it is "the highest good" and the Dalai Lama's words: "The purpose of our lives is to be happy."
I delved into practical strategies for individual happiness, embracing Mahatma Gandhi's harmony principle and Pooh's importance on the significance of friendship – values that Jo-Ana Avril lived and shared.
Preparing for this lecture has put into focus for me that – the pursuit of happiness is like searching for your car keys; it's always in the last place you look! Today, happiness often arises from seemingly insignificant moments, like finding a missing sock or realising your phone was in your hand all along. We gather not just to celebrate small moments but to unravel the complex shade of happiness itself.
The pursuit of happiness goes beyond cultural, societal, and geographical boundaries. It's a global game of hide and seek, and happiness is the best hider! But what is happiness, and why is it cherished?
To answer this question - we strive for personal joy, thriving together in society, embracing glorious ordinary lives, and being our best selves while supporting one another. It's not just a personal quest; it's a cornerstone of human existence, shaping our interactions with the world. Happiness is the art of finding contentment and meaning in the mosaic of our lives – like solving a challenging crossword puzzle or a Rubik's Cube.
This lecture isn't just about personal happiness; it's about the impact it has on societies and nations. The pursuit of happiness is a shared quest, the story of individuals seeking meaning and nations creating environments for citizens to flourish.
By understanding happiness at both individual and collective levels, we can design blueprints for a better world, one smile at a time. Let's embark on this exploration with open hearts and curious minds, unearthing the secrets of happiness and hopefully finding a better understanding of its significance on the quality of our lives.
As we delve into profound wisdom, ponder your journey in the pursuit of happiness and how it intertwines with human existence. In this pursuit, we strive for glorious ordinary lives, where contentment is found in the simplest moments.
Thank you for joining us on this enlightening journey – may it be a source of cheerful laughter and powerful insights into the profound importance of happiness!
Happiness is hard work, and it's hard to find out what we are here for. We have known this for 100’s of years. Happiness, as Aristotle famously noted, is "the highest good." This sentiment has echoed through the ages, captivating the minds of philosophers, scholars, and seekers of joy throughout history.
2. What can we learn about happiness from thinkers over the centuries?
Our understanding of happiness is a rich patchwork woven from different threads of thought, and while it may vary across cultures and philosophies, one common theme weaves through the fabric: the subjective nature of happiness. So, let's explore what it means to different people, cultures, and even a certain honey-loving bear.
Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, had quite a lot to say about happiness. He believed that it was the highest good that humans could achieve, and he had a fancy term for it – Eudaimonia. But what exactly is Eudaimonia, you ask? Well, it's not a dish at your favourite Greek restaurant, but rather a state of being in which one's life is filled with purpose, meaning, and the fulfilment of one's potential.
This resonates very closely to my personal beliefs; it's about striving to be the best version of yourself and finding joy in that journey. My personal journey challenged me so profoundly that at one point I truly thought that I would never find happiness in anything again.
My happiness before was playing rugby, going out with my friends socialising, working as a doorman and in an engineering firm as my day job. All of this was taken from me in an instant when in 1995 I was attacked after preventing a young woman from being raped and was stabbed 26 times resulting in life changing injuries.
I thought that everything was over for me, and I struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression for a couple of years. Then in 1997 a social worker came along and changed my life again. I engaged in counselling and retrained for new skills. I began to appreciate the support that I had from my wife, my mum, my friends and family. I found myself at a crossroads. The choice was to move forward or to stay stuck in the dark place that I found myself in. I chose forward. I didn’t realise at the time, but this was the beginning of my discovery of the glorious ordinary life. So much that I had taken for granted was no longer available to me but slowly I began to find the joy in the small everyday moments that for so many go unnoticed.
The real turning point for me was when I found my purpose. My acquired disability opened my eyes to inequality and put me on the path to becoming a professional revolutionary for social justice. Since finding this purpose I have indeed found meaning in my life and my work provides me with a constant source of happiness.
Now, while Aristotle believed in a more virtuous route to happiness, the ancient hedonists had a different idea. They believed that happiness was all about pleasure and the absence of pain. Eat, drink, and be merry, they said! But before you decide to live your life like an eternal party, remember that too much of a good thing can lead to a not-so-happy hangover.
Buddhism, on the other hand, offers a more serene path to happiness. The Buddha taught that true happiness can be found by letting go of attachment and desire. It's about finding contentment in the present moment and embracing the fact or quality of being temporary or short-lived of life. Perhaps, the next time you're stuck in traffic, you can take a page from the Buddha's book and find inner peace in the chaos.
Cultures around the world have their unique take on happiness. In some Nordic countries, like Denmark, happiness is often associated with the concept of "hygge," which is all about cosiness, comfort, and the simple pleasures of life.
The Swedish have a term called "lagom" that roughly translates to "just the right amount" or "moderate," it reflects the idea of balance and avoiding extremes. Or basically a slice of cake with friends is good, but don’t try to eat the whole cake.
In Bhutan, a nation famously focused on Gross National Happiness, they consider the overall well-being of their citizens as a measure of their success. Meanwhile, in Japan, the concept of "ikigai" points to finding your purpose in life, which, when achieved, brings joy and satisfaction.
All of this is linked to a greater good. Happiness is achieved by three things 1. other people, 2. letting go, and 3. moderation. I am however not totally convinced about number 3!
Now, let's talk about that lovable, honey-obsessed bear, Winnie the Pooh. He might not be a famous philosopher, but his simple wisdom can teach us a lot about happiness. Pooh's philosophy is all about embracing your quirks and appreciating what makes you unique. It's like he's saying, "The things that make me different are the things that make me." So, whether you're a bear with a passion for honey or a human with an unusual hobby, don't be afraid to celebrate what sets you apart.
But what's truly fascinating about happiness is its subjectivity. What makes one person deliriously happy might not have the same effect on another. Some people find happiness in the thrill of adventure, while others revel in the tranquility of a good book. It's like a buffet of emotions where you get to choose what suits your palate. Your happiness is as unique as your taste in food or fashion.
In our relentless pursuit of happiness, we often find ourselves entangled in a paradox. The more we chase after it, the more elusive it becomes. It's like trying to catch a butterfly with a net; the harder you try, the more it eludes your grasp.
Maybe, just maybe, happiness is something that emerges when we least expect it, like a surprise party thrown by life. Gratitude is like the secret source of happiness. When you stop to appreciate the little things – a sunny day, a kind word, a hot cup of tea – you find that happiness is right there with you.
It's the ability to see the beauty in everyday moments, to be thankful for the people who brighten your life, and to acknowledge the wonder of existence. So, don't forget to sprinkle a little gratitude into your life.
They say that laughter is the best medicine, and it's hard to argue with that. Whether you're sharing a hearty laugh with friends, watching a stand-up comedy show, or simply giggling at a funny cat video, laughter brings a burst of happiness into your life. It's like an instant mood-lifter, and the best part is, it's contagious. So, spread those smiles and chuckles like confetti.
Putting together all these ideas from around the world and over centuries, now backed up by science, happiness is a treasure trove of experiences, philosophies, and emotions. It's not a one-size-fits-all concept, but rather a personal journey of self-discovery.
Whether you take a page from Aristotle, the hedonists, the Buddha, or even Winnie the Pooh, the pursuit of happiness is a quest worth embarking on. And in your pursuit, remember that the things that make you different are the things that make you really happy. So, let your happiness shine brightly, like the golden pot of honey at the end of your rainbow.
3. What can we learn about happiness from modern science?
In the modern age, science has emerged as a beacon of insight into the elusive concept of happiness. It offers us more than abstract notions; it provides concrete evidence that happiness is not just a lofty ideal but a measurable and achievable state of being. As the Dalai Lama in short put it, "The purpose of our lives is to be happy." But happiness is being your best self.
Science delves deep into the roots of this purpose, and its findings align with Socrates' age-old wisdom: "One secret of happiness... lies in developing the capacity to enjoy less." This mirrors the Swedish concept of moderation or lagom.
What else does science tell us? Positive psychology, a branch of psychology that emerged in the late 20th century, has played a pivotal role in unraveling the science of happiness. Instead of focusing solely on the treatment of mental illness, positive psychology aims to understand what makes life worth living. It investigates the factors that contribute to human flourishing, emphasising strengths, virtues, and overall well-being.
One of the first lessons that science teaches us about happiness is its deeply subjective nature. What makes one person joyous might leave another entirely unimpressed. It's as individual as a fingerprint. Our experiences, backgrounds, and even genetic vulnerability play a significant role in shaping our perception of happiness. This subjectivity underscores the importance of personalising our quest for joy, for understanding our unique sources of happiness.
Happiness isn't a static state. Our minds tend to adapt to both positive and negative changes in our lives, a phenomenon known as hedonic adaptation. If you win the lottery, your initial euphoria may eventually wear off. The opposite way, if you face a major setback, the initial distress can diminish over time. This psychological adaptation leads to what's known as a "happiness set point," a baseline level of well-being to which we naturally return. Rather, it encourages us to grow and become our best self.
Science tells us that one of the most influential factors in our happiness is our social connections. The depth and quality of our relationships significantly impact our well-being. In fact, studies have shown that having a network of close friends and maintaining meaningful, supportive relationships can increase happiness and even extend our lifespans.
Positive emotions are like the fuel that propels us on the road to happiness. Experiencing joy, gratitude, love, and other positive emotions not only feels good but also builds our psychological resilience. They act as buffers against the stresses and challenges of life.
Science suggests that deliberately cultivating positive emotions through practices like gratitude journaling, mindfulness, and acts of kindness can lead to a more enduring state of happiness.
Have you ever been so engrossed in an activity that you lost track of time and place? This state of intense focus and absorption is known as "flow." The science of happiness recognises the value of experiencing flow in our lives. Engaging in activities that allow you to enter this state, where your skills match the challenge at hand, can lead to a sense of accomplishment and deep satisfaction.
Gratitude is not just a polite social gesture; it's a powerful happiness-boosting practice.
Research has shown that taking time to acknowledge and appreciate the good things in life can lead to increased well-being. Gratitude journaling, where you write down things you're thankful for, is a simple but effective way to incorporate this practice into your daily routine.
Mindfulness, derived from ancient contemplative practices, is another area where science meets happiness. It's the art of being fully present in the moment, observing your thoughts and feelings without judgment. Numerous studies have demonstrated that regular mindfulness practice can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression while enhancing overall happiness and well-being.
As mentioned earlier science also reveals the paradox of choice when it comes to happiness. While it's tempting to believe that more options and choices lead to greater happiness, research suggests the opposite. Too many choices can lead to decision fatigue, dissatisfaction, and even regret. Simplifying your life and focusing on what truly matters to you can be a path to greater happiness.
Contrary to the notion that happiness is purely self-centred, science shows that acts of kindness and altruism can boost your own happiness. When you help others, whether through volunteer work, acts of kindness, or simply being there for someone in need, your brain releases "feel-good" chemicals like oxytocin. These acts of altruism not only benefit those you're helping but also contribute to your own well-being.
Knowing what makes your best self: one of the most powerful predictors of long-term happiness is having a sense of purpose and pursuing your passions. When you engage in activities that align with your values and bring meaning to your life, you're more likely to experience enduring happiness. It's not just about fleeting pleasure but about a deeper sense of fulfilment.
The science of happiness has taken us on a fascinating journey, unraveling the mysteries of well-being with practical evidence and psychological insights. It reminds us that happiness is not a mere abstract concept but a tangible state of being that can be achieved and nurtured.
By understanding the subjective nature of happiness, the impact of social connections, and the significance of positive emotions, we can embark on a journey to a happier, more fulfilling life.
4. How can we achieve happiness as individuals?
The pursuit of happiness can be approached through these strategies including mindfulness, gratitude, and positive psychology, all of which aim to align our thoughts, words, and actions with our quest for happiness.
This pursuit of happiness can be illustrated by the wisdom of Mahatma Gandhi, who emphasised that true happiness arises when our inner thoughts, spoken words, and actions are in harmony. Moreover, the insights of the beloved character Winnie the Pooh, who remarked that a day without a friend is akin to a pot devoid of honey, highlight the importance of social connections in our journey towards happiness. In essence, these strategies and insights provide a framework for enhancing personal happiness and well-being.
Mindfulness is a foundational strategy for increasing happiness. It involves being fully present in the moment, aware of one's thoughts and feelings without judgment. By cultivating mindfulness, individuals can better appreciate the richness of each experience, finding contentment and joy in the simple and ordinary aspects of life. This practice aligns with Gandhi's words as mindfulness encourages individuals to bring their mental state into alignment with the present moment.
Gratitude also reflects Gandhis words as it involves recognising and appreciating the positive aspects of life, even amidst challenges. By focusing on the things for which we are thankful, we can cultivate a more positive outlook, leading to increased happiness.
Positive psychology, as a scientific field, explores the factors that contribute to human flourishing and well-being. This approach emphasises strengths, positive emotions, and the enhancement of life satisfaction. It provides practical tools and interventions to foster a more fulfilling and content life.
Positive psychology resonates with Gandhi's idea that happiness is about the alignment of thoughts, words, and actions because it encourages individuals to consciously choose positive thoughts, articulate positive words, and take positive actions to enhance their well-being.
To be happy, it's not enough to merely think positively but also to speak and act in ways that reflect this positivity. When these aspects are in harmony, true happiness can be achieved.
Winnie the Pooh's insight underscores the importance of social connections in our pursuit of happiness. Just as a day without a friend leaves a pot without honey, human beings thrive on meaningful relationships. Friendships and connections with others are integral to our happiness.
The happiness we seek is often intertwined with the bonds we share and the support we receive from those around us. The pursuit of happiness can be approached through strategies like mindfulness, gratitude, and positive psychology.
These methods aim to align our thoughts, words, and actions, resonating with Gandhi's message of happiness through harmony. By implementing these strategies and embracing these insights, we can enhance our personal happiness and well-being.
5. How can we achieve happiness as a society?
Challenges and obstacles on the path to happiness are undeniable, affecting both individuals and entire nations. Issues such as inequality, mental health struggles, and societal pressures are prevalent and significant. However, the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius serves as a guiding light: "The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts."
It is crucial to explore how we can surmount these challenges and pave the way for a happier existence. Inequality is a formidable challenge that can impede happiness. Disparities in income, education, and access to resources can create feelings of injustice and frustration. To address this, societies must work towards more equitable distribution of opportunities and resources.
Recognising that happiness depends on the quality of our thoughts, we should actively cultivate empathy and compassion to foster a sense of connection with those less fortunate. By promoting a fairer society, we can shift our collective thinking towards a more positive and inclusive mindset.
Mental health issues pose a significant hurdle on the road to happiness. Depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders affect millions of individuals worldwide. Addressing these challenges requires removing the stigma surrounding mental health and promoting open dialogues.
It's vital to recognise that seeking help and support is a sign of strength, not weakness.
Moreover, practicing mindfulness, as mentioned earlier, can be a valuable tool to improve mental well-being. By focusing on the quality of our thoughts, we can choose to approach mental health with compassion and understanding, both for ourselves and for others.
Societal pressures, often amplified by the digital age, can be a barrier to happiness. The constant comparison on social media, the pursuit of perfection, and the relentless pace of modern life can lead to stress and discontent. To overcome these challenges, it's essential to redefine success and happiness on our terms.
We must recognise that our thoughts play a pivotal role in how we interpret societal pressures. By practicing mindfulness and gratitude, we can shift our perspective towards appreciating the present moment and celebrating our unique journeys. This change in mindset can help us navigate the complexities of the digital era and find contentment in authenticity rather than conformity.
At the national level, the pursuit of happiness involves creating policies and environments that foster well-being. Governments play a crucial role in addressing issues like inequality and mental health. By implementing measures that reduce income disparities, ensure access to quality health and social care, and promote education, housing and employment opportunities, nations can actively contribute to the happiness of their citizens.
Importantly, Marcus Aurelius' wisdom reminds us that the quality of thoughts at the societal level also matters. Societies should encourage critical thinking, empathy, and collaboration to build a collective mindset focused on the well-being of all.
The challenges and obstacles to happiness are real and multifaceted. Inequality, mental health issues, and societal pressures can hinder our individual and collective pursuit of happiness. However, Marcus Aurelius' insight reminds us that the quality of our thoughts is a powerful determinant of our happiness. By addressing these challenges with empathy, mindfulness, and a shift in societal mindset, we can overcome these obstacles and pave the way for a happier and more fulfilling life, both at the individual and national levels.
I’d just like to pause and go back to how my personal pursuit of a glorious ordinary life can be woven into this narrative of the continuous journey toward happiness. Both for us as individuals and us as a society, just as the wisdom of Winnie the Pooh, and other philosophers, offers valuable guidance, my pursuit of a glorious ordinary life can serve as a testament to these principles.
Much like Pooh's reminder to cherish meaningful friendships and bonds, my pursuit of a glorious ordinary life may draw attention to the significance of savouring everyday moments and simple joys. I recognise that happiness often lies in the ordinary, whether it's a hot cup of tea in the morning, a quiet evening with loved ones, or a stroll in the park.
These are things that my mum believed in passionately. She travelled thousands of miles across an ocean to build a new life where she could enjoy an ordinary life with simple pleasures.
In line with Gandhi's insight about aligning thoughts, words, and actions, my pursuit of a glorious ordinary life could revolve around the idea that conscious choices and intentions in my daily routine contribute to a fulfilling life. I strive to make choices that align with my values and bring contentment to my ordinary days.
Following Marcus Aurelius' attention on the quality of thoughts, my pursuit may involve practicing mindfulness and gratitude to enhance my daily experiences. I find happiness in the ordinary by appreciating the beauty of the present moment and maintaining a positive mindset even in routine activities.
Yoda's wisdom about a resolute mindset, Yoda often said, "Do, or do not. There is no try." This emphasises the importance of resolute mindset, using commitment and action rather than mere attempts, can inspire me to approach my pursuit with determination.
I understand that making the most of ordinary life requires commitment and wholehearted dedication to creating a harmonious and fulfilling existence. My continuous reflection on my journey toward a glorious ordinary life allows me to adapt and evolve as l encounter new experiences. I appreciate that this pursuit is not about extraordinary moments but about consistently finding the extraordinary within the ordinary.
Furthermore, l recognise that my individual pursuit of a glorious ordinary life is intertwined with the well-being of society. By fostering empathy, cooperation, and understanding in my daily interactions, l contribute to a happier and more harmonious environment for everyone, aligning with the idea that the pursuit of happiness is about personal contentment as well as creating a better world.
In closing, my personal pursuit of a glorious ordinary life aligns seamlessly with the timeless wisdom of Pooh, philosophers, and Yoda. It underscores the notion that happiness is an ongoing journey, and in embracing the beauty of ordinary experiences, we enrich our life and the lives of those around us.
As we close, I would like go back to the start, and dedicate this speech to the memory of my mother, Jo-Ana Avril. Her laughter lit up even the darkest days, and her boundless generosity was an inspiration and source of happiness to us all. And she would tell me to end with three simple ideas that everyone could remember, so here goes:
One, remember that happiness is an ongoing journey.
Two, remember to let go. You cannot control everything. You do not need everything.
And three, as Winnie the Pooh and my mother both believed, remember that sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.
I would like to close with playing Kirk Franklin’s ‘I smile’ a song my mum and I cherished.
May your hearts always find a home for happiness and the gloriously ordinary moments of life. Thank you.