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Is It Possible to Be Both Socially Conscious and Happy?

We had a chat with a representative from the Action for Happiness charity about whether it's possible to be truly happy in the face of all the terrible shit that is happening around the world.

by Jack Urwin
Apr 1 2015, 8:30pm

This post originally appeared on VICE UK.

When John Lennon sang the words, "I read the news today, oh boy," he really captured the universal misery of paying attention to current affairs. As a semi-decent human, it's a requirement of me to care about what's going on in the world. And I do. Most of us do. But fucking hell, on the scale of things that make you want to curl up into a ball and shiver yourself to sleep, the news regularly ranks alongside Keanu Reeves's tragic life story.

The faintest trace of optimism I had for 2015 disappeared almost immediately. Three days into January, the news hit that Boko Haram had slaughtered more than 2,000 people in Northeast Nigeria, a tragedy followed by many more tragedies, because this Earth and that's the way things go. While I know there are also lots of good things going on in the world right now—like that couple who just won the lottery for a second time, certain dogs, that picture of George Osborne where his finger looks like a very thin penis—it can be difficult to keep things in perspective.

Determined to transform myself into one of those people who are so cheerful you can't even bring yourself to hate them, I got in touch with Alex Nunn, who leads campaigns at Action for Happiness, a charity aiming to "help take practical action to improve mental wellbeing and to create a happier and more caring society." What I wanted to know—and what we mostly talked about—was whether it's possible to be both socially conscious and happy.

"I love Viktor Frankl's idea that the last of human dignities is the right and ability to choose your attitude in any given situation, and that, actually, no matter how dire the circumstances that surround you, you can always choose how to interpret things," Alex said, smiling.

He smiled a lot, which was reassuring.

"That plays a big factor, because, for me, even if you look at something like the Charlie Hebdo shooting, what sticks in my mind is not the violence or the way that it stoked up racism around the Muslim religion. What sticks in my mind is the global solidarity movement that's come out of that, that has promoted so much human connection."

He certainly had a point. Two million people turned out for the "Je Suis Charlie" rally in Paris alone. Mind you, it does feel like that was a bit of an anomaly. In the West, remarkably little was made of the Boko Haram massacre. Meaning, ostensibly, most of us couldn't give a shit about the murder of thousands of innocent people—a situation it's surely impossible to spin a cheery take on.

"I'm not sure I'd want to claim that there is some kind of inherent positive that you can read into a situation, particularly one as graphic and violent as that, but the thing that I would want to make a claim for would be that if there's something that provokes an emotional reaction in you, something that makes you feel passionate—something that makes you feel revolted, even—you should find some means to act," said Alex.

It occurs to me as we speak that what I'm really trying to find out here is whether I—a comfortable, middle-class white man—can cheer myself up after the sadness of just being made aware of the suffering others endure. I mean, I am literally trying to avoid the inconvenience of knowing something that in no way directly changes my life. Doesn't that make me the worst person ever?

"Absolutely not. No," said Alex. "If you were to say that was in some way wrong, some way selfish, some kind of advanced hedonism that you're purging your needs and guilts, what you'd then be doing is negating the fact that that was a compassionate emotional experience in the first place. This is vitally important for us to have any kind of progress, for us to be able to recognize the suffering of others, feel emotion about it, and find ways to deal with that. You have become a witness to that situation, you have had a humane emotional reaction. You then need to continue that chain of events, and if you could continue that in a way that has a positive effect back for those people in the beginning, you're going to complete that circle in the best way possible."

Even if it's something as simple as writing a letter, an expression of solidarity, or sending a food parcel, Nunn said, it's possible to "connect the issue to something positive you can do within your own means and power." This sort of proactive, individual approach is Action for Happiness's modus operandi—and something for which it's been criticized, most notably by David Harper at the Guardian, who wrote that it's "based on two flawed assumptions: that the source of unhappiness lies inside people's heads—in how they see the world—and that the solution lies in change at the level of the individual."

It does sound a little like they're drawing from the book of Ayn Rand (any Ayn Rand book, they're all horrible), which is surprising considering Alex has an "anti-capitalist campaigning background" and he used to live in Brighton. Brighton, for christ's sake.

"To me, it's using individualism to solve the problems of individualism," he explained, adding that when you ask people to think more deeply about their own happiness they start to become free of the stresses filling their mind, which frees up space for other thoughts. Crucially, they also begin to recognize their reliance on connections with others, increasing their awareness of the importance and wellbeing of family, friends, colleagues, and everyone else around them.

"If you've got a movement that's waking people up to the fact that they're connected to others—and is also freeing up space in their mind—you've got the very foundation of a social conscience, upon which all kinds of conversations around poverty, climate change—whatever else it might be—can happen so much more effectively," said Alex.

A major part of Action for Happiness's manifesto is its "ten keys to happier living," which, aside from sounding a lot like a holy text based on a Buzzfeed listicle, suggests that the organization touts depression as a state of mind, rather than an illness—an idea that's both patronizing and dangerous. Thinking away mental illness has a similar success rate to thinking away diarrhea (Have you even tried not expelling disturbing quantities of liquid from your anus several times an hour when you had the shits?).

The fact is, Action for Happiness isn't a mental health charity, and it's this which makes it such an intriguing organization. Its aim is not so much to make the sick healthy, but to make the healthy happy.

"Around 50 percent of our overall wellbeing is decided by our genetics, 10 percent is decided by our circumstances, and 40 percent is decided by our attitudes," Alex claimed, adding that it's that latter 40 percent Action for Happiness is focused on. The problem, as far as I can see it, is that our attitudes are shaped in part by the news, and we're exposed to this constantly. The news makes me sad, but not clinically depressed—do you see where I'm going with this?

Twenty years ago, if you wanted to find out what was happening in the world, you'd buy a newspaper, listen to radio news, or watch it on TV once or twice a day. For my generation, there's no stepping away. We have words like "digital" and "online" in our job titles, which essentially translates to at least eight hours a day spent tweeting at every other person with a new media job.

Contrary to what a number of middle-aged broadsheet columnists might say about the ignorance and apathy of millennials, we are the most informed generation yet, if only because we have no way of avoiding this information. News—more often than not, bad news—is a constant presence, and while I'd love to see myself trying to change the world every time something bad happens, I just don't have the time. You know, because of all the tweeting. So is there some simple thing we can remind ourselves of to not fall into a total pit of despair with every mass murder or environmental disaster?

"Recognize first of all that the most important human factor is the fact that you care," said Alex. "The fact you have seen that and the fact you care means there's one more human being in the world who cares about those people. If you can take time to pause and accept that, that in itself is a good thing. You might find the space opening up in your mind to think of creative ways in which you might be able to do more than just care. You might be able to act on that care as well."

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