A trivial pursuit: is happiness good for you?

Saturday 17 October, 14.00 until 15.30, Cinema 3, Barbican Therapeutic Times

Happiness is increasingly considered a proper measure of social progress and a goal of public policy. Myriad organisations, from the UN to international think-tanks, rank countries according to their ‘gross national happiness’, as a ‘more human measure’ than gross domestic product (GDP). Happiness as an end has become such an accepted aspect of public life that one of its most high-profile gurus, Sir Anthony Seldon, founder of Action for Happiness, has called his new book Beyond Happiness. While the policy focus on happiness is new, historically most human beings have wanted to know how to live a happy or fulfilled life. Philosophies and religions have tried to answer the question of how we should live a good life. In our own day, bookshops have large sections devoted to ‘personal development’, ‘popular psychology’ or ‘mind, body and spirit’. Books reveal how to achieve effectiveness in business, success in relationships, or just plain happiness.

Is there any evidence that following such advice actually works? And is this a sensible aim in the first place? Might not unpleasant emotions like misery, guilt and fury be perfectly rational reactions to awful realities or wrongdoing? Is being content thanks to ignorance more desirable than unhappiness caused by knowledge of problems in the world, failings in oneself? After all, JS Mill famously warned that is ‘better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied’. Some movements in psychotherapy agree with this, and seek only to treat ‘irrational’ anxieties. Indeed, in today’s therapeutic cultural climate, might a preoccupation with one’s own happiness regardless of the world beyond be little more than inward-looking narcissism?

Whatever the difficulties, the idea of human fulfilment – of living lives that are not wasted - is deeply important. The conviction that there is such a thing as a meaningful and fulfilled life, lived with integrity, is common to many religious and non-religious philosophies and ought to have appeal. Whatever misfortunes life throws at you, we hope it is possible to live purposefully and well. But if that is so, how can we find out how to do so? Or is the direct pursuit of happiness doomed to be self-defeating? To whom – if anyone - should we look for advice?

Listen to the debate


Dr Ashley Frawley
Senior lecturer in sociology and social policy, Swansea University; author, The Semiotics of Happiness: rhetorical beginnings of a public problem

Angie Hobbs
Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy, University of Sheffield

Christopher Jamison
director, National office for vocation, Catholic Church of England and Wales; author, Finding Sanctuary and Finding Happiness; featured in BBC TV's The Monastery

Clare Melford
interim executive and organisational consultant; presenter, BBC Radio 4 Four Thought programme "Buddha in the Boardroom"

Dr Piers Benn
philosopher; author, Commitment and Ethics; visiting lecturer in ethics, Heythrop College, London and Fordham University, New York

Produced by
Dr Piers Benn philosopher; author, Commitment and Ethics; visiting lecturer in ethics, Heythrop College, London and Fordham University, New York
Recommended readings
Happiness: A modern malaise

Two enlightening new books explore the miserable rise of the happiness industry.

Kathryn Ecclestone, spiked, 15 May 2015

Finland tops European countries in latest happiness survey

A few months ago the Danes were, seemingly, the most blissful folks in Europe. Now, according to another survey of ‘happiness’, it’s the Finns who are the most content.

Euro News, 7 February 2015

Happiness of Danes not just happy coincidence

Since the 1970s Denmark has come top of the Eurobarometer survey on happiness. Here’s why

Ann Marie Hourihane, Irish Times, 23 December 2014

Age and happiness: The U-bend of life

Why, beyond middle age, people get happier as they get older

Economist, 16 December 2010

Why should I be happy?

Luke Gittos, a WORLDbytes reporter, investigates the happiness agenda and talks to the Director of Action for Happiness, Mark Williamson and Daniel Ben Ami, author of Ferraris for All.


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