The Buddhist, the Benthamite and the Biographer - RSA

The Buddhist, the Benthamite and the Biographer

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  • Social brain
  • Health & wellbeing

A year ago today(sigh) I was attending the launch of Action for Happiness!  The movement has grown considerably in its first year, and I wish it well. Mark Williamson is the Director of Action for Happiness, which is affiliated to The Young Foundation, but the movement grew out of the vision and motivation of what Jules Evans aptly called The Three Wise Men.

The Buddhist:

Actually I am not sure Geoff Mulgan is really a Buddhist, at least not in the card-carrying sense, but it made a huge impression to learn that his weighty CV (now head of NESTA, but previously CEO of The Young Foundation, Director of Policy for the Blair government, author, Professor etc) is grounded(or so I like to think) by his experience of being a Buddhist monk in Sri-Lanka. I don't know Geoff Mulgan personally, but it is hard not to be impressed by his track record.

A year ago, his idea of wellbeing seemed quite nuanced to me, and he recognised the importance of experiencing the full range of human emotion(not merely positive) for a life well-lived. I was particularly impressed by his comment that people working in government tend to dehumanise what really matters, for instance they talk of 'social isolation' but rarely of 'lonliness' and they speak of the importance of 'social support', but rarely of 'friendship' or 'love'.

The Benthamite

I am pretty sure that Lord Layard is a Benthamite, although he may not accept the term, and has called himself a 'democrat', which might be a less pejorative way of saying the same thing. He has done a great deal of good to promote wellbeing, so I hesitate to express reservations, but whenever I have heard him speak, I found his idea of happiness to be a very conventional and rather uninspiring form of utilitarianism. This is too big a question to explore here, now, but I think enduring wellbeing is much more complex than mere hedonic satisfaction in its various guises.

And I would say he is Benthamite rather than merely utilitarian(his world view is radically different from, say, Peter Singer, who describes himself as a preference utilitarian) if only because in answer to a question posed by Jules Evans at the RSA event Happiness: New Lessons he made it clear that he doesn't distinguish, as John Stuart Mill famously did, between higher and lower pleasures e.g. the pleasure of writing a poem is no greater than the pleasure of smoking a fag. For Layard, as long as you are not harming others, it really is just a question of 'whatever makes you happy', in which happiness is a self-evident experience, captured by self-report measures. It is hard not to respect such an eminent figure, who does so much for the social good, but I don't find his vision of happiness rings true for me- somehow there is a lack of depth, and no 'shadow'.

The Biographer

Anthony Seldon is Headmaster of Wellington College, and also a biographer of John Major and Tony Blair (an old friend of mine, Daniel Collings, played a significant role in producing some of this work). He is clearly hugely industrious, but I find he makes me uncomfortable, perhaps because he always seems rather sure of himself. When I heard him speak at last year's event, I felt he sounded more like a headmaster than a biographer- his pitch was more about telling and admonishing and less about discovering or revealing. At the time I even had the unworthy thought: "You can take the happiness out of the headmaster, but you can't take the headmaster out of the happiness" and I think that line would sound more positive with respect to being a biographer.

His idea of happiness appears richer than Layard's, and more spiritually grounded, but still sounds too much to me like an idea that can be encapsulated in the right kind of information and directly taught, rather than something multi-faceted grounded in a range or experiences, relationships and balances.  That said, he has been a trailblazer for wellbeing in schools, and walks the talk in his own school, so on balance I am sure his contribution is a very positive one.

Despite some minor reservations about the founders, I am glad to see that the Action for Happiness movement is alive and well. I hope this is the first of many genuinely happy birthdays.

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  • Thanks for the mentions Emma, I also find Action for Happiness a fascinating organisation, and a fun one to engage with. 

    Seldon is, by the by, not just a biographer but also a keen yoga-practitioner. he defines happiness as 'inner harmony', which is probably different to Layard. 

    Another interesting thing about Action for Happiness - half the events that are organised under their auspices on are actually organised by people from the School of Economic Science, a neo-platonic religious community who i discuss in my book (Jonathan has a copy). 

    So you have a Buddhist, a Benthamite, a biographer and a neo-Platonic commune, all with their own definitions of 'happiness'! 

    Hope all well, would be nice to meet up one day. 


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