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Anthony Seldon on venturing beyond happiness

Dr Anthony Seldon Sept 2006Sir Anthony Seldon is the former headmaster of Wellington College, one of the first schools to introduce well-being classes into its curriculum. He’s also a co-founder of Action for Happiness. In his new book, Beyond Happiness, he suggests we need to look beyond ‘workaday happiness’ to find something more non-rational and spiritual, which he calls joy or bliss. I interviewed him about this, as well as his thoughts on the ‘politics of well-being’ and his plans to create the first ‘positive university’.

Did you start out to write a book on happiness, and at some point decided you wanted to write one called Beyond Happiness?

Yes. I’d been quite prominent in Action for Happiness, and it occurred to me that we need to move beyond workaday happiness. Obviously that’s wonderful, particularly if you’ve had depression, but there are higher levels of being.

The book starts with a quote attributed to Edith Wharton: ‘If only we’d stop trying to be happy, we could have a pretty good time.’ That’s an unusual quote to begin a book on happiness by one of the founders of Action for Happiness!

Well, I just like that quote and find it funny. And the key word is ‘trying’. Trying too hard gets in the way, or rather, the ego gets in the way. Whenever I screw up my life, it’s because I’m trying too hard. I’m always trying. And then there are moments when you wake up from that. What I mean by ‘beyond happiness’ is going beyond the striving to gratify of the ego, to a place where there is a sublime effortlessness.

I have a theory that people interested in ethics and character education in later life were often quite rebellious and bad at school. It sounds like you were.

If_British_posterI was. In 1971, when I was studying at Tonbridge school, I was one of the ring-leaders of a rebellion against the Combined Cadet Force. We stormed onto the parade ground shouting about the Vietnam War, which in fact did finish shortly afterwards, although the Tonbridge CCF kept existing. The International Times covered it with a headline saying ‘A whiff of If’ – referring to the film about a rebellion at a private school made by a former Tonbridge pupil, Lindsay Anderson. All the ring-leaders were sent down, though I was allowed back to take my exams. So yes, I was rebellious, but I also had a sense of kindness and duty.

We have in common the fact that we both had a bad experience of drugs in our teens and then went to Worcester College, Oxford. Could you tell me about your bad drug experience.

It was in 1972, on a holiday in the Norfolk Broads. I smoked some dope and had a really frightening experience, I felt my mind was changing. It was so frightening I never tried a drug again, and developed a lifelong dislike of drugs.

Were you quite anxious as a teenager?

Very. I once made a list of all the things I was afraid of and it came to 29 things. I was afraid I might become anorexic, for example, or agoraphobic. One of my biggest fears is the fear of going to sleep, which I think is the fear of extinction. I’d have a huge panic attack to keep myself awake, and then I’d stay awake and be even more frightened the next night. It’s not a nice fear to have. That’s why I became so domineering – it was a way of trying to control my world.

Then you had some sort of depressive collapse in your mid-20s.

Yes. I think it was the amount of effort I spent trying to control my world. Also, two girlfriends had chucked me, and I felt abandoned by them. Then I was writing my doctorate at the LSE, which was a very lonely experience. After the collapse, I started to meditate, which helped me through. And I started going out with Joanna [now his wife], and she’s very centred and calm. And I knew she would never leave me, which miraculously she hasn’t.

You say that you moved from a personality based on restless hedonism, achievement and glamour to a more spiritual life based on acceptance. But you’re still a restless achiever – you’ve finished three books since Christmas!

I am two people, at least. There is a more spiritual or philosophical side to me, which is at peace with the world, and that side is more dominant now. But there is also a part of me which feels I need to make my mark in the world, which worries that I’ve never written anything that will survive, that whatever I’ve done in education will fade. There’s a bit of me that is highly self-critical, which trashes my previous experiences. Therefore I constantly need to keep going. I now find myself running a small university, for example.

And that restless desire to achieve and get recognized might come from being short – I say that as a 5 foot 7 anxious achiever!

I’d have given anything to be 5 foot 7! Yes, I’m sure our physical self-perception is a powerful force, and if we’re outliers, it gives us an impetus to want to compensate. I notice still that when I’m around other people I’m edging up on my heels.

So the new book brings together wisdom from Positive Psychology but also from religious mystics like Meister Eckhart or Sri Ramana Maharshi. Do you think Positive Psychology can be a secular substitute for religion?

51t8uL9MMvL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I’m sure for Alain de Botton and others it is. I’m sure some would like it to take the place of religion, which of course it won’t. But there are similar adjuncts. But when I talk about going beyond happiness, I’m talking about moving beyond workaday happiness to find joy, which is spiritual. For me, that’s about the divine, a blending of the ego into the Atman or Soul. It’s not about the vindication of the ego but the elimination of it. The ego is constantly interpreting and evaluating – only that which is beyond the ego is really awake, conscious, and in love with the whole of creation. But it has to be experienced, it can’t be debated or argued over.

So that means going beyond reason, I guess.

Reason has its place, but it only gets you so far – as far as Richard Dawkins or AC Grayling. We can go beyond reason, without abandoning it, and reach a much bigger view.  The ego tends to use rationality for its own goals.

A key part of transcendence in most religious traditions involves realizing that death is not the end, that something in us survives. Do you believe in an afterlife?

I don’t know. I want to move beyond belief. What I know is that when I’m still after meditating, I change. I’m more aware, more present. And then I come out of that state and I’m back in the world of ego-rationalizing. You know when you’re awake, but you don’t when you’re not. For much of my life, I’m egotistic, rationalistic, self-centred, and driven by external stimuli.

The idea of teaching well-being and character has tended to be championed by private school headmasters like you and Eton headmaster John Lewis. Does that give it a class problem – it can seem like private-school teachers bemoaning the lack of character education in state schools.

Well, class can be a problem. But if we go back to Aristotle and the virtues, he was around even before Eton College. There are eternal character values – honesty, kindness, perseverance, which I think schools should emphasize more. But many schools vacate that space because they’re afraid of it or because it’s not recognized by Ofsted. Many people who run education are quite immature and think it’s only about passing exams. I agree with Aristotle – it should be about flourishing.

Aristotle was tutor to Alexander the Great, and thought leaders should be educated in virtue so that they could encourage eudaimonia (or flourishing) in the citizens. You’ve written several political biographies, and have one about David Cameron coming out soon. Having seen political leaders up close, how virtuous would you say they are, and how capable of leading their societies to eudaimonia?

51Oz+FkMd5L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The leaders I have met and written about have mainly been extraordinarily capable and intelligent. The biggest thing they need is more solitary time in stillness, to get to know themselves and integrate themselves. Gordon Brown was an admirable person, but his greatest problem was he was very unintegrated. His self-image of himself was at variance with his very self-centred ego-driven approach. He needed to calm down and be more integrated. Blair too – he got carried away off himself. Both were good people, but in different ways they got carried away.

And finally, your next job is as vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, the first private university in the UK. How useful could well-being education be in higher education?

Very. I want to make the first positive university. That will include introducing mindfulness classes for all trainee doctors, to help them be more in the present moment in their dealing with patients.

Sketch for the future: the Centre for Practical Wisdom

I gave up booze for Lent. This is long overdue – I have had a drink, usually more than one, pretty much every day for the last 20 years. Stoicism and booze helped me through PTSD and social anxiety. My stiff upper lip was soaked in beer. Twas ever thus – why do you think Edwardians called cocktails ‘stiffeners’?

I used Stoicism to build up a citadel of autonomy, and then used booze to let down the drawbridge occasionally, to try and connect with other people and feel alive.

This is what adverts for booze promise, isn’t it: connect more, live more, be more loved. You don’t feel alive? Get pissed! Rational capitalism puts us in iron cages, and then sells us weekend release passes.

I also used it to switch off my brain and relax in the evenings. And it would work, more or less. The first drink was like getting in a bubble bath. I felt the tension release in my mind and body. But ultimately I think I was using booze as a holding pattern, to hold me together as it were, and this holding pattern is actually inhibiting the evolution of my consciousness.

Heraclitus thought that consciousness was a divine fire, and we make this fire soggy with booze. ‘A man when he is drunken is led by a beardless youth, stumbling, ignorant where he is going, having a wet soul. The dry soul is the wisest and best’. Thus spake the weeping philosopher.

It feels good, not drinking. At first the clarity is a bit harsh – noises are too loud, the sky is too bright, other people are too close. I used booze to turn down the volume of consciousness. But then you get used to it, and you can focus in on and enjoy situations and people more intensely. I don’t need booze! I may even get on better with people without booze! I live more when sober! What a revelation this is.

Hooray for Lent, burning away the Enemy’s lies in the desert of the real.

So now I am slightly more awake, I begin to look around, blinking. I think, where am I, and where am I going? I wrote a couple of weeks ago about my book on transcendence, and many of you sent in brilliant emails of support and advice – thank you so much! This week, I’ll talk a bit about the other side of what I do – the teaching, and sketch out an idea for the future.

And I promise it will be under 1500 words. That is my pledge to you, oh busy reader.

From reactive to proactive

In the last year or so, I have started doing talks and workshops on practical philosophy to companies and organizations, using some of the ideas and materials from Philosophy for Life. This is in the terrain of business coaching, except I call what I do ‘practical philosophy’, and focus on particular areas – resilience, integrity, authenticity, flourishing – where ancient philosophies have good stuff to say.

This happened haphazardly. One of the newsletter readers, a business coach called Winni Schindler, was kind enough to invite me to talk to the Association of Spanish Business Coaches in Madrid. And they were really into the whole ‘ancient philosophy for modern life’ thing. I was also doing the philosophy club at Saracens, which was going surprisingly well. So I realized I could make money running workshops in practical philosophy with businesses and organizations.

Then another lucky break – I met Rob Symington, the co-founder of Escape the City, which is a recruitment firm for people looking to leave the Rat Race and find more meaningful and fulfilling work (as Rob himself did in his early 20s). Escape raised £600K in a week via CrowdCube to fund themselves. Last year, Rob and his partners set up Escape the City School, which now runs two ‘tribes’ – a 3-month ‘Escape Tribe’, to help 50 people get out of ruts and find more fulfilling jobs, and a 3-month ‘Start-Up Tribe’, to help 50 people do start-ups. The next Escape tribe starts in April by the way.

IMG_3455
Rob Symington (left) and Rob Archer, who also teaches on the Escape faculty

I’ve been teaching some workshops at the Escape School, which is fascinating for me. The energy of the place is so different from academia – it’s way more optimistic and can-do. I usually feel the most entrepreneurial and optimistic person in the room in academia – at Escape, I feel the opposite! But that’s good for me, in terms of expanding my sense of the possible. Teaching at the School, and meeting so many people trying to follow their dreams, makes me think: what would I like to build?

My teaching is a bit reactive at the moment. I get invited to do things by companies and organizations – the occasional talk or workshop here and there. But it feels quite ad-hoc and bespoke. It’s fun, it’s challenging, and it gets some money in, which means I can take more risks in my writing. But it’s not a massively thought-through long-term vision of how to do practical philosophy in the workplace.

I realized this when I went to stay with my uncle in Boston. He’s a venture capitalist, and he is incredibly can-do. For example, his son goes to Virginia University, so he helped to set up a mentor scheme for students there. His other son went to a local public school, so he helped to improve their finances. He’s on the board of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and helped to find them a new artistic director. He just…does stuff!

Anyway, I went for dinner with him, and told him a bit about the philosophy work I do with Saracens, Arsenal etc. This usually goes down pretty well. But my uncle didn’t seem that impressed. ‘So how will you take it forward? What’s your evidence base? How can you take it to the next level?’ I love that about him – he thinks big, aims high.

So I ummed and ah’d and said I’d send him a business plan. That was in December.

One issue is that there are many different areas in which one could apply practical philosophy: companies, mental health, prisons, schools, higher education, professional sports, the army, the public sector, and in courses for the general public. Where does one focus one’s energy?

The answer, so far, has been, I don’t really focus, or rather, I focus on the book (writing about transcendence is a piece of piss compared to this!), and just take the ad-hoc work as it comes. It’s passive reacting. I need to be more proactive, think what do I want to do longer-term, and then gradually build it.

So here’s the plan I scrawled last November, in a cafe while talking to Patrick Ussher – a colleague who works with me on Stoicism Today. It’s for something called the Centre for Practical Wisdom, or something like that.

CPW

The CPW would be a social enterprise with links to academia (hopefully Queen Mary, University of London). It would be sort of a public-private partnership. It would seek funding (government, corporate and philanthropic) to do research on practical philosophy, while also applying it in different contexts – providing courses and workshops on different wisdom traditions and how we can apply them in modern life. The research would feed into the practice, and then the practice would be evaluated and would feed back into the research.

Some of the courses would be subsidized, for schools, charities and disadvantaged groups, some would be ‘full-whack’, for corporates. The profitable would subsidize the pro-bono.

The CPW would specialize in ancient Greek wisdom (because that’s my background and there’s a big gap in the ideas market there) but bring in Eastern wisdom too (there’s already a lot of that out there), Christian wisdom (bit more niche but hey, I’m into it!) and Islamic and Jewish wisdom – I think it’s important that the Centre is inter-faith. It would build bridges between ancient wisdom, modern psychology, and adult education.

What needs to be done to make this happen? Looking at the example of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programme – which has inspired so many mindfulness centres across America – I’d suggest what is needed is the creation of a basic course in practical wisdom, which is then road-tested and evaluated. I took a first step towards this last year, with the pilot of my Philosophies for Life course. Perhaps the second step would be to create an online version of this course. Eventually, one would hope to gather a group of people, each of which would be focused on applying the approach in a different area.

That’s the dream. I can see lots of tricky things to negotiate –  what sort of evidence can one get, should the Centre focus on one philosophical approach rather than being eclectic, how do you make sure the Centre has integrity and social value, and isn’t just cashing in; do I have the leadership or business skills to be more than a freelancer and who are the best partners to do this with? I’m sure, as I move forward, the plan will evolve and morph. For all I know, I may end up living in Guatemala making hammocks. But at the moment, that is roughly where I am trying to get to.

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In other news:

Here’s a blog from the World Health Organization, about a project I’m working on to explore the cultural determinants of health and well-being.

Here’s a talk about Lent from Radio 4.

The Economist reviews a new biography of Jean-Paul Sartre.

Here’s an interview with Adam Curtis from the Creative Review.

Teachers need to be freed from paper-work to teach moral values, says the Jubilee Centre for Virtues.

Germany is opposing Islamic extremism by encouraging Islamic education among its Muslim citizens.

Meanwhile ‘Jihadi John’ was unmasked as a computer engineering graduate from Westminster University, the campus of which appears to be a hotbed for radicalisation. And three schoolgirls from a school in Bethnal Green traveled to Syria to marry homicidal slave-traders. Ah youth!

So where is the ideological debate with radical Islamists? Beyond just saying ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ or ‘you’re all wankers’? Where is the positive moral vision the West has to offer young Muslims?

Finally, here’s a cartoon about Stoicism Man.

See you next week!

Jules