Dr Anthony Seldon: Truly happy people are made, not born

The co-founder of the new Action for Happiness movement explains why it's better to be happy than wealthy
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The Independent Online

Suddenly, everyone is talking about happiness. The Government is even introducing happiness as a target of policy. For some, this ranks as the stupidest of fads. It is not. News that, for example, prescriptions of antidepressants have risen by 43 per cent since 2006 should concern us all.

I am one of the three founders of Action for Happiness, which was launched yesterday. This non-partisan movement has as its aim the creation of a happier society, and the reduction of human misery. Our message is simple: you need not be unhappy, nor pop pills and drink to dull the pain. Lasting and natural cures for unhappiness are at hand.

The new focus on happiness and the quality of life is not just a British phenomenon. Governments in Italy, Canada, New Zealand, and across the EU, are among those introducing such targets for government policy. The change can be compared in significance to the revolution in thinking that swept the world in the 1980s, which saw a rolling back of excessive state power. At the core of this new revolution is the realisation that the 20th century's obsession with quantities, with governments trying to maximise gross domestic product, companies their short-term profits, and individuals their income, does not lead to happiness, and in the long term can be positively damaging. Quality matters as much as just quantity.

Successive reorganisations of the NHS might save money, but damage the all important relationship in hospitals between patients and carers. The quality of education for children in schools suffers due to the obsession with exam targets. Every year, thousands of British children become mentally ill because of stress. A few years ago a Harley Street psychiatrist had five patients from the same class in a London school, all suffering because they felt they were only valued for what they could achieve, not for who they were. As Einstein reportedly said, "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."

It is 50 years since Prime Minister Harold Macmillan told us we have never had it so good – by which he meant that the rise in consumer durables would result in a happier, better society. But British people have become less happy than they were, with broken homes, dismembered communities, and less trust in society. It is unhappiness, not happiness, that has risen.

The latest hike in anti-depressant prescriptions is partly the result of the recession. Well, people will have to get used to the fact that, in this century, we can no longer expect incomes to increase generation after generation. Children may have to contend with lower standards of living than their parents enjoyed.

The tragedy is especially acute for young people. They are suffering grievously, with adolescent suicide again on the increase, and the proportion with a whole variety of distressing emotional problems rising from 10 per cent in 1974 to 17 per cent in 2006.

Those who see the quest for happiness as a superficial and vain phenomenon tend to believe it has no deeper pedigree than Ronald McDonald or Yogi Bear. But some of the greatest minds in history, from Aristotle through Thomas Jefferson to the present day, have argued that happiness is the highest ideal of human endeavour. Today, Nobel Prize winners such as Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen argue passionately that we need to take happiness seriously, and to have better measures of progress than mere numeric targets.

Scientists who work on the brain have joined in the debate, arguing that happiness should be taken seriously. Their work shows that human beings are hard-wired to care for each other, and that serving and loving others makes us happy, while being selfish and solitary makes us unhappy. When Wellington College in Berkshire started teaching happiness five years ago, we were greeted with derision.

Now our critics are mostly silent, and other schools are following similar paths. Has the programme worked, we are constantly asked? Parents like the emphasis and so, it would appear, do the students. Academic results have soared. A level passes at A and B grade stood at 65 per cent in 2005: last summer candidates of almost identical academic ability achieved 93.5 per cent. Other factors may of course have been at work, but our belief is that the focus has been a significant factor. It accords with the findings of psychologists that optimism leads to success, in place of the old belief that success leads to optimism.

Here are 10 steps which we teach at Wellington and try to encourage our teachers and parents to follow also. None of these are difficult and all work. Serving and caring for others is fundamental to happiness. As Tal Ben-Shahar, the academic who introduced happiness to Harvard undergraduates, says, "If you want to feel good, do good."

Taking physical exercise, eating and drinking sensibly, and resting properly are essential: a physically healthy body will promote a happy mind. We encourage taking time each day to be still, to collect oneself, and feel at one with oneself and with nature.

Belonging to organisations and being part of something bigger than oneself – a church, a choir or a volunteering organisation – makes one feel happier. So too does taking time to learn something fresh every week, reading challenging books or joining evening classes. These all help impart meaning to one's life, and meaning is an essential prerequisite for happiness. Making time to do what one loves, which may be painting, dancing or spending time in the garden, all induce happiness.

Being with those one cares for, and avoiding those who unsettle one, powerfully contribute to one's well-being. Saddest of all phenomena in modern society is our giving so little time to our families. Going out for a "date" with one's partner at least once a week will have an enormously beneficial effect on the core relationship of one's life. Taking time to bond deeply with one's children is deeply and mutually rewarding. Happiness is all about depth, which is the opposite of the superficiality of so much of modern living.

Gaining control of one's life is vital. A life out of control, whether through excessive work, alcohol or other addictions, is a recipe for unhappiness. Playing to one's strengths and having high expectations of oneself are further vital ingredients. Finally, we teach adopting an appreciative and grateful approach to life. We recommend our pupils think, before they go to sleep, of three events during the day for which they are thankful. Optimism can be built up in this way, and a gloomy outlook banished.

In the same way that pessimism has been acquired, from parents or from life experiences, so too can habits of optimism be learnt. Appreciative people live longer, are healthier and are more successful. Pessimists diminish not only their own chances of happiness, but, let's face it, turn us off too.

The difference between this new focus on happiness ,and the quacks who have been writing about it for the last 50 years, is that the work is now underpinned by science. The unhappiness that blights so many lives and wrecks so many families is in fact avoidable. We need to reassert the case for love, for treasuring our relationships, and for celebrating life in all its richness. This happiness agenda bolsters families, communities, and personal responsibility. It is too serious a matter to be treated as flippant any longer.

Dr Anthony Seldon is Master of Wellington College, and author of 'Happiness' (Lion Hudson, September 2011)