A happy new ism

We all live our lives in pursuit of happiness – but is it actually making us genuinely happy? As we approach an extra-long bank holiday weekend in the UK with its promise of celebration and time with family, Mel and Alex discuss what makes us happy – and whether society is helping us to achieve that.

Mel Young: There is a long weekend holiday in the UK coming up to celebrate the length of time the Queen of the country has been on the throne. But there is travel chaos at the airports and on the railways and instead of people having a happy time off on their holiday, they are in fact having a miserable time. We sometimes equate happiness with old ideas and having a break away from work in the sun is just one of them. But perhaps this concept is out of date given how unhappy people seem to be. Perhaps we should look at happiness in another non-cliche way and connect in different ways. We should be very creative in this. What makes us genuinely happy? Is it a week-long break on an overcrowded beach with a highly stressful travel agenda or some chocolate? Those are the standards but perhaps we should drop them and try something else which makes us genuinely happy?

Alex Matthews: I think this is so important – it seems that the more we have and the more ‘advanced’ society becomes, the more miserable we are. Wellbeing and happiness should be at the heart of a new ism – because if we are not happy, what is the point? I think the key lies in a few things, some of which you’ve touched on above: connection with people and with the planet, a sense of belonging, and a balance between work and life. I think it really is that simple – although, of course, creating the conditions for those happiness factors to thrive will be far from straightforward. At some point over the last couple of decades, perhaps coinciding with the technology revolution but exacerbated by our obsession with growth and money, we have lost touch with what really makes us happy. I wonder if this year – with inflation, the rising cost of living, the war in Ukraine, the realities of a post-Covid world and other difficult news, might finally be the year that we realise that the way we’re living now isn’t making us happy.

MY: The news everywhere is so negative. Horrible, actually. Even when people are talking about positive impacts for the environment, it is written against a backdrop of the end of the world. The challenge is how do we turn all of this into a realistic positive. Because we feel collectively depressed by the daily newsfeed, we desire quick fixes for happiness and the big corporations are only too happy to oblige – drink vast quantities of alcohol, go on stress-ridden holidays and eat tons of expensive junk food in order to feel happy. But the opposite happens and we end with a hangover and feel even worse. It is all about wellbeing, as you say, and for each of us to understand what makes us feel genuinely happy rather than what advertising tells us we should be happy about. For me, I disappear into my imagination. Others should do it and we should sing or dance or write or paint or take photographs and so on and when we find what we like, we will start to feel much better in ourselves. In the New Ism, I think where imagination sits will be a critical part of how we make happiness return to our lives.

AM: Yes we’ve talked in a previous blog about the role of imagination and creativity. As you say, being able to express ourselves creatively is so important to feeling balanced and ‘whole’ – whether that’s as a world-famous composer or someone who likes knitting scarves for their dogs! I think it’s about finding contentment – an ongoing feeling of wellbeing – rather than spikes of joy. Contentment comes from feeling fulfilled, having healthy relationships, feeling healthy and doing what you love. I think we’ve come to confuse contentment with joy – the joy of a holiday, of being able to buy expensive things, for example – and I think that’s possibly where the issue lies. As a society, we need to empower people to find contentment. We can do that by stopping the relentless focus on having more, buying more, owning more. As we’ve discussed before, capitalist societies are obsessed with growth, and that manifests itself at an individual level in wanting to have as much money and as many possessions as possible. I think we’re wired to have a rush of endorphins when we buy new things, and we get addicted to that rush – so we need to find a way to wean ourselves off it and find pleasure in contentment. I guess it’s comparable to having a healthy diet versus one that is high in sugar! 

MY: As ever, I agree completely. I guess the challenge with that is how do we get a cultural shift which moves people away from the apparent sweetness of buying more things into one where knitting a scarf for a dog is actually much more valuable. It’s a big challenge but I think this sort of value must be written in any New Ism. It is like we are all addicted and we can’t get off the spinning merry-go-round. We need to find a way to change the system which is making the merry-go-round spin at such a pace and understand that we need to work out ways to step off as it slows down. 

AM: You’re right Mel! We need to talk about it because we can’t really go on like this. It will be hard but it will be so worth it. In the meantime, I hope you have a long weekend full of contentment and wellbeing!

MY: And lovely imagination.

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