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Where next for well-being policy?

783472895I went to the book-launch of a new book on well-being policy yesterday, which brought together some leading figures in this nascent movement – including David Halpern of the government’s ‘nudge unit’, Canadian economist John Helliwell, psychologist Maurren O’Hara, and Juliet Michaelson of the new economics foundation. The book – Well-being and Beyond – is edited by Michaelson and Timo Hamalainen, and has some great essays in it, including a particularly interesting one by Mihayli Csikszentmihalyi on ‘the politics of consciousness’.

With the news that the government is set to establish a What Works research centre for evidence-based well-being policy, and that David Cameron may be resuscitating his well-being agenda, it seems like a good time to take a panoramic view of the politics of well-being in the UK, some of the areas into which it’s developing, and some of the areas where more research is needed. It will obviously be a partial and incomplete view, but here goes:


The ministry of education under Michael Gove pulled back on some of New Labour’s well-being initiatives, such as Every Child Matters and the promotion of Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL). However, there seems renewed political interest in the idea of teaching character skills like resilience, with all three parties recently offering broad support for such a move. The work of James Heckman, focused on early interventions, is particularly popular with policy-makers at the moment.

The area is likely to progress through local and regional evidence-based initiatives, rather than top-down national initiatives like SEAL. Key players include the Jubilee Centre for Character and Values, Jen Lexmond’s work at Character Counts and elsewhere, James O’Shaughnessy’s Positive Education network, the Education Endowment Fund’s research, and the National Citizen Service, which apparently is building up a great evidence base for its intervention. The challenge is how to teach not just skills but also values within a pluralistic and multicultural society – more on this below.


There’s growing interest in the importance of well-being at work, partly driven by the high economic cost of sick days due to stress and mental illness. Some of the more enlightened companies have bespoke well-being courses for their staff – like Google, Zappos, M&S, British Telecom or Saracens rugby club – in a manner reminiscent of 19th century Quaker companies like Rowntree’s. A key player in this area is the firm Robertson Cooper, which established the Good Day at Work network.

Nils Mordt of Saracens brushing up on some philosophy

As in schools, the new focus on work well-being ties in – or should tie in – with an ethical focus on values, character strengths and social responsibility. Saracens’ personal development course is a good example of how to teach well-being + values but in a flexible and peer-led way, compared to Zappo’s which, from the outside, seems quite inflexible and even authoritarian in its collective happiness ethos. Well-being at work ties in to another policy area, adult education (of which more below) – see, for example, Google’s emphasis on adult education for its workers, again reminiscent of Quaker companies like Rowntree’s. I also love the Escape the City network (by the by!).


One of the main recommendations in Sir Gus O’Donnell’s Legatum Institute report on well-being, released last month, was that the NHS should focus more on prevention of ill-health, and also treat mental illness as equally important as physical illness.

That means greater support for the burgeoning Improving Access for Psychological Therapies programme across the UK, particularly in Wales, where there are high levels of depression and long waiting lists for talking therapy. It also means public health organizations like Public Health England taking more of a lead in promoting mental well-being. It means more support for peer-led well-being networks (one of the themes of Michaelson’s chapter in her book), which can draw inspiration from historical models like 19th century Friendly Societies. And it also means trying to work out a better way to treat psychosis, as the government is now trying to do.

Well-being health policy ties into well-being policy in other areas, particularly schools, work, and adult / online education. Empowering people to take care of their own physical and mental health means treating them as reasoning agents rather than as malfunctioning machines.

Prisons and probation services

At the book launch yesterday, John Helliwell mentioned a paper he’d written on well-being in prisons, championing the Singapore Prison Services’ reforms. Singapore pioneered a mutual model of well-being, in which staff, inmates, former inmates and the wider community worked together to help inmates flourish.

We’re a long way from that here, but there is some interest in the ‘desistance’ model of rehabilitation, whereby inmates make a reasoned choice to leave their former criminal life and to pursue a new narrative. This fits with the coherence model of well-being, in which well-being is connected to our ability to find meaning and value in ourselves and the world. Some charities and probation organizations are also looking to extend the desistance / mutuality model beyond the prison walls – I’m meeting with one such organization, Co:Here, next week.

In England, the probation system is on the verge of a massive privatization, which is likely to cause stress to the system and to the people in it. However, the chaos will also create opportunities for new and innovative approaches. I’m interested to learn more about the RSA’s research on prison learning.

The economy / housing / urban planning

The O’Donnell report suggests the best economic policies to promote well-being would be to reduce unemployment, which has a particularly negative impact on well-being. Fine – but which government says it’s in favour of high unemployment? Other well-being economists suggest there is a correlation between income equality and national happiness – but so far this has failed to lead to major tax distribution policies, and inequality continues to rise.

The UK housing bubble also continues to grow, with the average property price in London now approaching half a million pounds. This is likely to have a significant impact on people’s well-being, and their ability to feel in control of their destinies. As more and more humans live in ‘mega-cities’, will we know and trust our neighbours, will we have access to green spaces, will we have any real connection to nature?

More research needs to be done on the rise of solo living, which is particularly popular in Scandinavian countries (typically championed as happiness templates). What is the trade-off between autonomy and loneliness? Is solo living sustainable or equitable? Are new forms of conviviality emerging? The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has done good work in this area.

Adult education / online learning

So far there is little policy focus on the importance of adult education to well-being. Adult education is, in general, ‘off the radar for policy-makers’, as David Halpern put it. This makes no sense to me, considering all the research into the importance of coherence, meaning, reasoning and collective engagement to well-being – all of which points to adult education as a booster to well-being. There’s been some work showing that engaging in adult education predicts higher well-being, but that has not fed into policy discussions at all, sadly. The national budget for community education shrinks every year.

schooloflife-3However, informal learning continues to grow, with various organizations appearing dedicated to raising well-being, including Action for Happiness and the School of Life. There have also been some encouraging developments in online well-being courses. Stanford’s Greater Good centre is launching an online happiness course in September, Berkeley has also launched a Positive Psychology MOOC, Action for Happiness recently launched an online course, while TED’s Understanding Happiness course has been in the top ten of iTunesU for a few years. Online learning connects to health policy in well-being, particularly with the rise of health apps.

It’s also worth mentioning the boom in mindfulness courses – including for example the phenomenal success of the book / CD ‘Mindfulness’, by Mark Williams and Danny Penman, which has been in the top 30 of Amazon for two years. Mindfulness is a policy intervention that can be deployed in health, work, education and prisons – similar in that respect to ‘mental resilience’ interventions.


British higher education seems so beleaguered that the well-being of staff and pupils is off the official agenda for the time being. If change comes, it is likely to be driven by students and staff rather than top-down, though perhaps some enlightened VC or chancellor will take the lead (eg Floella Benjamin at Exeter!) But this is a sector which potentially could play a very important role in the development and implementation of well-being interventions.

For example, universities could – and should – offer free courses in well-being to undergraduates. Such courses should (in my opinion) teach some of the techniques of well-being, such as meditation, gratitude, self-determination, resilience, while also providing a space for philosophical discussions about what it means to flourish. If done pluralistically, such courses would be an important space for inter-faith discussions, preventing campuses from becoming divided on religious lines.

I also think universities should do more to support the well-being of their staff, particularly PhDs, where burn-out and drop-out rates are high. Some PhDs, such as the LSE’s Inez von Weitershausen, are beginning to work on this, and I think funders like Wellcome are keen to support more work in this area.

Academia could also play an important role in promoting adult education, as it used to do in the university extension movement. Unfortunately, humanities academics seem to have little time for adult education work and little faith in well-being politics – which is typically dismissed as ‘neoliberal’. A few humanities academics, however, understand that well-being policy is an important way to champion the impact of the arts and humanities in national policy. The work of the Reader Organisation, based at Liverpool Uni, is a good example of this more enlightened and engaged approach (they have their national conference in London next month, by the by).

Sports / arts / the festive

Burning Man festival

Well-being research tells us how important sport and exercise is to our well-being. It’s also beginning to tell us about the importance of the arts to our flourishing, particularly arts that engage us collectively, such as singing in a choir or reading in a book club.

I’d like to see more research on the importance of ‘the festive’ to well-being – think of the work of Durkheim, Barbara Ehrenreich, Jonathan Haidt, Martha Nussbaum and Charles Taylor in this area – or Dan Ariely’s writing on Burning Man festival.

Why do the residents of the Orkneys have such high well-being? Ian Ritchie, former co-director of the St Magnus festival there, tells me that that one reason is the islands are so rich in festivals – a folk festival, a blues festival, a well-being festival. Parties, clearly, are good for us, particularly when we help to organize them. It would be good to study the well-being impact of starting a festival in a town. For example, Wigmore, a small town in Scotland with high unemployment, launched its own book festival two years ago and it seems to have revitalized that community.

More generally, well-being economists and psychologists need to connect with arts and humanities practitioners to explore the role of beauty, awe and wonder in well-being, and the higher states of consciousness which arts and ‘the festive’ can create. That means going beyond a aridly Benthamite notion of happiness towards a more Millsian appreciation of the transformative power of the arts.

The media

Alain de Botton has been generally mocked by humanities academics for his latest book, The News, but as is often the case there is wisdom beneath his gimmickry. Our well-being is deeply connected to our culture, and therefore to the media – in the broadest sense of TV, online media and advertizing. How, in a free market economy, can we try and make sure the messages we soak in are not entirely shallow?

This morning, it was announced that Richard Hoggart, the great public intellectual and critic of commercial television, has died. He thought commercial TV pushed viewers towards a way of life ‘whose texture is as little that of the good life as processed bread is like home-baked bread’. His involvement in the Pilkington Report led to the establishment of BBC 2. But the vision of Hoggart, Reith and others – that broadcasting could be a force for the raising of public consciousness – seems to be in abeyance.

Perhaps this area of policy links up with health and adult education – the BBC is looking to launch MOOCs on FutureLearn, and to develop its online learning platforms. I know people in BBC Arts have been interested in promoting things like meditation or ancient philosophy, but it hasn’t happened yet. Indeed, there is a weird absence of ethical / spiritual discussion on TV. Radio 2’s Sunday morning show, once a province of spiritual discussion, is now presented by a sports presenter, which sums up the BBC’s (understandable) unease with promoting any particular ethics in a multicultural society.

The environment

Clearly the big question for well-being policy is: is it at odds with the coming environmental catastrophe? Are we meditating while Rome burns?

In Well-Being and Beyond, Csikszentmihayli outlines three constituents needed for consciousness to flourish: first, the freedom to think what you want and decide what is true (rather than being coerced and lied to by our government); second, to find flow in meaningful and purposeful activity (he understands the importance of higher or altered states of consciousness like awe, wonder, transcendence and ecstasy). And finally, we need hope.

We need the hope, or faith, that tomorrow will be as good as if not better than today. That drives all of our activity, all our plans, our investment in our work and family. Without that, ‘consciousness becomes idle and atrophied’, or it shrivels up in despair or short-term hedonism.

What is weird and unnerving about this historical moment is the loss of hope. Living standards are declining, the young are poorer than the old, but above all, there is a collective sense that the future will be worse – perhaps much worse – than the present, that nature will be severely depleted, the world will be more crowded, politics will be more unstable, the weather will be more violent, and we may see mass migrations and perhaps mass extinctions of animals and humans. Indeed, the animal mass extinction has already begun.

Religion and Wisdom

This brings me to my final point, the final area of research which I think would be fruitful. I don’t think secular humanism is going to be sufficient to sustain us through the coming crisis, because its hope in progress and a better tomorrow will not last in the face of mass extinctions. You need something more transcendent to believe in and give you the strength to do the right thing and to take care of the weak, even in the face of mass extinction and social collapse. Techno-humanism – in which the rich get to detach or upgrade from the rest of humanity – seems to me a much, much worse option than a return to the wisdom of older religious traditions.

Religion seems to me the massive elephant in the room of well-being policy. Well-being policy practitioners sometimes seem to me like people who have had their cultural memories wiped, so that they need to re-discover the basics of human flourishing from scratch. ‘We’ve discovered volunteering is good for well-being! So is collective singing. So is a sense of meaning and purpose. So is gratitude. So are higher states of consciousness. So is neighbourliness, reciprocity and mutuality. So is self-control coupled with an acceptance of the limit of one’s control over the universe. So is faith in the future.’

Well…yeah. All of which we used to get from religion, before we trashed it and turned to psychologists for guidance.

How do we spread the wisdom of religious traditions in a multicultural and increasingly secular society? To me, the key word is wisdom. Wisdom gives us the ability to appreciate the insights and practices of multiple religious faiths, to have respect for those faiths and to learn from them, while also finding our home in a particular tradition.

We need to learn not just the techniques of ancient wisdom traditions (meditation, gratitude, self-control etc) but also to create the space to discuss the different moral ends or goals which those traditions promote – nirvana, union with God, happiness, inner peace, Aristotelian flourishing etc. These different ends should be discussed rather than forced upon people. Socratic discussion is a way to include these moral ends / values without imposing them on people.

At the heart of most of the ancient wisdom traditions is an optimism that humans can use our reason to take care of our souls and our societies, combined with an acceptance that our reason is bounded, and that flourishing emerges best through habits and shared practices. These wisdom traditions are therefore opposed to a more biomechanical model of humanity, which sees negative emotions as chemical imbalances to be corrected with medication.

We need universities to take wisdom seriously, but I actually think we need a new sort of research institute – closer to the Esalen model – which combines intellectual and experimental research with practice. Sort of a think-tank / monastery. As Alasdair MacIntyre says at the end of After Virtue: ‘We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”

Well, those are some areas of possible research. A lot to be getting on with! But this is an important movement, and the UK is blessed with some pioneering thinkers and practitioners in this field, not just in economics and psychology, but also in the arts, technology, philosophy and faith.

PS I forgot to mention mental health in the military services. But that’s obviously another potential area for interventions to promote resilience.

2013 round-up: well that was a weird year

Well, that was a weird year. 2013 was the year I became a Christian, or rather ‘committed my life to Christ’ as Christians put it. What does that mean? How did I get here? Am I really a Christian or am I kidding myself? Let’s re-wind and play the tape again.

I ended Philosophy for Life with an appendix called ‘Socrates and Dionysus’, in which I suggested there is an alternate way of approaching life to Socratic philosophy, which is less about self-knowledge and self-control, and more about losing control and opening yourself to what I called ‘the wilder gods of our nature’.  I felt that Stoicism, while an enormously helpful philosophy, is perhaps too rationalistic, that it misses out some important parts of life, like music, poetry, dance, the imagination, grace – in a word, the ecstatic.

Why was I interested in the ecstatic? Partly because I love the arts, and partly because I’d been profoundly healed by a weird sort of near-death experience which happened to me back in 2001, which I wrote about at the end of last year. I felt that was an encounter with…Something Else….and it was Good and Love…and I felt a debt to Him / Her / It / Them for having saved me, when I was lost in suffering.

The Mountain Moment ™ gave me the insight that, often, it’s our thoughts which cause us suffering and our thoughts which hold the key to liberation from suffering (I know, not a very profound insight, but it was helpful at the time!), an idea I tried to communicate in my book and talks. But now, a year after the book came out, I wondered…what was that experience? Have others had similar experiences? What are we to make of them? Like William James, I was interested in the fact that such ecstatic moments are often very healing, yet we have no real place for them in our atomist-materialist culture. Indeed, we sometimes pathologise such encounters with the Numinous as psychotic delusions – something I wrote about last year in an article in Wired.

More than this, I was interested in whether there really is a God, and if so, how we should live in accordance with His / Her will. Are ecstatic moments a window beyond the paradigm of materialism, a way to connect with God, or are they just nice feelings? Is there a way, as Rudolph Otto hoped, that we can find a balance between our non-rational experiences of ecstasy and the more rational aspects of human thought?

I had also become interested in the role of the ecstatic / sacred in creating and cementing communities – something Emile Durkheim famously explored. I’d spent the second half of 2012 researching philosophy clubs, and come away with a sense of their limits. I felt communities based on rational inquiry were probably weaker than communities based on love and self-sacrifice – a belief  influenced by my meeting Tobias Jones in December 2012 (you can listen to our conversation in this Aeon podcast, from 28 minutes in).  I was hungry for deeper community than I could find in philosophy clubs.

In December 2012,  I was dating a Christian girl, and I met some of her friends, and was impressed with their sense of community, how they listened to each other and honoured each other. One of them was a curate at Holy Trinity Brompton, where he was in charge of the Alpha course. So, in January, I decided to do the Alpha course.

I really enjoyed it – particularly the communal aspect of it, although I have to say the theology of the course didn’t really persuade me. The course begins with CS Lewis’ contention that either Jesus was the Only Son of God, as he claimed to be, or he was a liar or lunatic. In fact, as Anthony Kenny recently pointed out in a review of a new biography of Lewis, ‘even most conservative biblical scholars today think it unlikely that Jesus in his lifetime made any explicit claim to divinity’.

The Alpha course also makes a lot of the belief that Jesus died for us to pay the debt incurred by Adam’s fall. But does that mean that to be a Christian, to understand the extent of Christ’s sacrifice, I have to believe in Original Sin? I find that idea far less convincing than the evolutionary alternative – that our violent, flawed and stupid nature comes not from some poisoned apple, but from our animal origins (although this raises the question of how we developed any capacity to transcend our flawed nature, and whether that capacity is God-given. I think it is.).

The Alpha course is great on the Holy Spirit, on God’s love, and gives spiritually-starved westerners some sense of that love. But – as in a lot of charismatic Christianity – the shadow of that faith in God’s love is a strong belief in the Devil’s power. I met various Christians over the course of the year who believed every other spiritual tradition, with the possible exception of Judaism, is demonic, that secularism is demonic, that everything except their particular culture is demonic. Even other bits of the church are demonic…perhaps even other bits of their congregation are demonic. This is not a broad, generous and expansive vision of human existence – it’s narrow, fearful, suspicious. It is a worldview that implies God is content to let most of his children go to Hell (and why not – He killed off 99.9% of creation before, in the Flood).

So, by about April or May, I’d made an initial attempt to find a place in Christianity, but found myself repelled by aspects of its theology. I was still interested, however, in humans’ desire for the ecstatic. I became very interested in the cultural and spiritual role of pop music, in how pop music emerged from Pentecostal and Baptist churches in the 1940s and 50s and was a form of secularized ecstasy – a point made brilliantly in a book called Sweet Soul Music by Peter Guralnick,  one of my favourite books of the year.

I also loved Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy and Acid House Culture by Matthew Collin, and wrote about acid house as an ecstatic popular movement. I interviewed my old landlady, Sister Bliss from the group Faithless, about how rave music was a sort of church for the unchurched. I also interviewed Brian Eno, producer of some of pop’s great ecstatic anthems, about his theory of how we seek the experience of surrender through religion, drugs, sex and music. And I interviewed Imperial’s Robin Carhart-Harris about his research into psychedelics as a healing therapy.

By spring-time, I was wondering how to organize and communalize this interest in ecstatic worship (after all, even if I couldn’t accept Christian theology, I still believed in God and wanted to worship Him / Her with other people). At one point I even considered starting my own non-conformist church, which would bring together philosophy and gospel music! Then I saw that a new humanist church called the Sunday Assembly was looking for a drummer for their house band. So I signed up, and played in a couple of their services. It interested me as an attempt to create a more ecstatic humanism – but ultimately it didn’t have enough spirit for me.

I was then ill for the whole of May, and feared I might have chronic fatigue syndrome or something like it – in fact I was diagnosed last month with a genetic blood defect called haemochromatosis, which leads to very high iron levels and a weak immune system. It’s known as the Celtic Curse, because it mainly affects Celts, and is treated by a somewhat medieval treatment involving weekly blood-lettings! But I didn’t know what it was back then, and that month in bed, feeling like a ring-wraith, coincided with a sort of spiritual doldrums. Where was I to go? What was I to do?

I went to a Christian folk concert in May, and sat surrounded by passionate and chirpy young Christians, and said to a Christian friend of mine: ‘I could never be a part of this’. He told me about a Christian retreat in Wales called Ffald-Y-Brenin, supposedly a ‘thin place’ – a place where the Kingdom is close. I read a book called The Grace Outpouring, by the guy who runs it, Roy Godwin. I was also, at that time, researching the Welsh revival of 1904, when a wave of Pentecostal fervor swept through Wales. All that reading about Welsh ecstasy perhaps primed me for what happened next.

In mid-June, I drove down to Ffald-Y-Brenin, to their summer conference, spending three days in a church filled with ecstatic pensioners. For the first day and a half I wondered what in hell I was doing there. Then, on the final afternoon of the conference, I visited the retreat, this supposedly ‘thin place’ , and I guess it had affected me somehow, because in the evening service, I found myself quietly dedicating my life to God – just quietly committing whatever gifts or talents I had to God. And then I felt this force blowing into me, filling my chest, pushing my head back, a sort of painful joy which took my breath away. It lasted for, I don’t know, twenty minutes or so.

Right after it happened, Roy Godwin asked if anyone in the church wanted to commit their life to Jesus.  Which was strange, because everyone in the church, except for me, was already a committed Christian, and I don’t think he could see me, having a moment at the back of the church balcony. So, I don’t know if he had spiritual insight or what. He said, ‘you don’t need to come forward, just raise your hand, no one will see’ – we all had our eyes shut. So I raised my hand. Cripes, I’d gone and committed my life to Jesus!

At the end of the conference, I bounced up to Roy Godwin to thank him (having not spoken to him before or said who I was). He turned to me immediately and said: ‘Sure. Listen, don’t be offended but God says you can stand on the outside analysing, but He is here, waiting for you’. Which struck me as an interesting thing to say, considering I’d spent the year academically researching ecstatic experiences.

Was I rationally persuaded of all the main points of Christian theology? No. I still don’t know what the afterlife holds, or what the future of the multi-verse is. This was a non-rational encounter with a spiritual force which I took (and still take) to be good. Perhaps it also came from within me…perhaps it emerged from a deep psychological need in me for there to be a transcendent meaning to life (although it felt more powerful, somatic and involuntary than that). Some people don’t feel that need: I do. I think our culture desperately needs a window to open to the transcendent.

The West seems to be losing itself in triviality, which we cover up by calling everything ‘awesome’. New iPhone? Awesome. YouTube video of a dancing cat? Awesome. The words of the year, according to the OED and Collins dictionaries, are geek, twerk, binge-watch, selfie and onesie. We’re a dying culture, an autistic culture, taking refuge in gadgetry and infantilism. We’re heading for environmental death and, like Theoden in The Two Towers, we don’t have the spiritual strength to face it.

I became more and more convinced of the limitations of scientific materialism. I read Max Weber, and agreed with his account of our society’s disenchantment, but felt that his vision of scientific rationalistic bureaucracy was deeply unappealing – even to him! Mechanistic materialism, I argued in August, failed on the ‘three Cs’: community, creativity and consciousness.

I found William James much more sympathetic, and his Varieties of Religious Experience has been a key influence on me this year. I admired his attempt to bring together the rational-empirical and the sacred-numinous, and his attempt (like Jung) to find a new and positive language for such experiences in psychology. His work led me to a rich contemporary literature on ‘the science of religious experience’, including work by American religious scholars like Ann Taves, Tanya Luhrmann and Jeffrey Kripal, who all happened to come together at Esalen in California in October for a conference on the paranormal.

Kripal, who I met at a conference on altered states of consciousness at Queen Mary last month, is a particularly challenging thinker for me, because he points out that spiritual experiences happen to many people, in many religious traditions and outside of any religious tradition. We need to be open, he thinks, to the marvelous and fantastic aspects of such experience, without trying to shoe-horn them into either a fundamentalist religious interpretation or a scientific materialist interpretation. They are weirder than that. OK, I said to him. But what do we do with that? How do we know what’s out there and whether it’s benevolent? How should we live?

While I like Kripal’s skeptical paranormality, and share his interest in superhero comics as an ecstatic art-form, for me, traditional religion seems a decent working hypothesis about the spiritual realm and how to live in relation to it – as long as one doesn’t become a self-righteous fanatic.  ‘Organized religion’ is such a pejorative term now, but the alternative is a completely individualised relationship to the Divine without any real community or collective myths and rituals.

Meanwhile, in October, I joined up with the RSA in a project of theirs to discover a scientifically credible form of spirituality, one which doesn’t demand a metaphysical leap into the dark. The project is organized by Jonathan Rowson, and has enabled me to learn from some fascinating thinkers about spirituality and the ecstatic, including the psychologist Guy Claxton (here’s a talk he gave last month on spiritual experiences) and the psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist. The latter’s magnum opus, The Master and the Emissary, was one of the most interesting books I read this year – it suggests that the split between rationality and the imagination is, in fact, neurologically-determined. The left hemisphere of the brain is more prone to rational, abstract and conceptual thinking,  he argues, while the right hemisphere is more intuitive, holistic and imaginative. McGilchrist argues that western culture has become more and more dominated by the left brain’s view-point, and ever-more deaf to the right-brain’s alternate world-view. OK then, what is to be done?

McGilchrist suggests we can perhaps find liberation from the tyranny of the left-brain through the body, through the arts, and through the spirit. I have come to a similar conclusion (although I leave the hemispherical neurology to him). The arts are one way we can still go beyond the rationalistic and access the Sublime or Ecstatic, although like McGilchrist I worry that we’re becoming more and more deaf to this alternate world-view. I wrote about art as an ecstatic transporter here, and this month I interviewed a wonderful poet-priest, Malcolm Guite, on poetry as a ‘door into the dark’. I also became interested in horror as the opposite of the Ecstatic (ie you encounter a spiritual presence, and it’s evil), and I wrote a piece on Kubrick’s The Shining as a tour-de-force in the Uncanny.

I’m increasingly interested in artistic inspiration as an ecstatic experience, and in how gifted people can tap into alternate voices or what James would call alternate centres of consciousness in their psyche, and then shape them into art – have a listen to novelist Marilynne Robinson talking about how she hears a voice telling her about her novels here, or Johnny Vegas talking about how he created his comic alter-ego to body forth a voice in his head. Artists, it seems to me, are still doing what shamans used to do – channeling voices in order to connect us to altered realities – although these alternate selves can take over the artist’s personality in damaging ways.

I summarized some of this year’s research into the Ecstatic in a talk I gave at the Free Thinking Festival in November.

It has been a strange year, and I still find Christianity rather like an uncomfortable and scratchy jumper, which chafes as much as it warms. I find Christian community likewise both warming and also occasionally alienating. I love many of the Christians who have befriended me this year, but I really don’t know if I can be called a Christian in any orthodox sense, in that I still love and admire other spiritual traditions, and don’t feel I have a very close relationship to Jesus, like many of my female Christian friends seem to do (maybe it’s easier to have a passionate romance with a male deity if you’re a woman?)  Prayer still feels strange to me, like talking into a stubborn silence. I still struggle to know the extent to which God cares about human suffering, or why He lets things like the Holocaust happens, and I have yet to hear a convincing Christian answer to ‘the problem of suffering’. As I wrote back in June, I’ve had some experience of personal grace, but such experiences raise the question of why other innocent people are not saved from awful, awful suffering? You could follow Plato and the Buddha and say ‘everything evens out in the cycle of reincarnation’ –  that makes a bit more sense to me.

Tom Bombadil: ‘not much interested in anything that we have done and seen’ according to Gandalf

It seems hopeless, sometimes, to ask these metaphysical questions. How am I, with all my cognitive limitations, meant to make out what is going on in the multiverse? I have a keen sense of the limit of our knowledge of what is going on ‘out there’, and I don’t think the simplistic Protestant hypothesis of God versus the Devil adequately explains the sheer mess, joy and suffering of human experience. I think it’s more likely there are many spirit-entities / beings of higher intelligence in the multiverse, some of them benevolent, some of them malevolent, some perhaps serenely indifferent to human concerns (like Tom Bombadil!) but all ruled by one Logos, one Energeia, one God. At least, I hope they are. These various entities are (perhaps) hungry for our consciousness, our attention. Some suck it out of us and kill us, others we can engage in a symbiotic loving relationship that enhances and enriches our life and the life of our species.

Well, who knows…I…er…don’t have any bar-graphs to prove these speculations.

Looking down here on Earth, and specifically at the Anglican church, I don’t have a sense is there is a hugely vibrant tradition of the sort of generous, culturally-open, arts-loving, body-loving, ecstatic Christianity that I admire, a Christianity that is charismatic without being fundamentalist, that believes there is good in many different traditions, including humanism, a Christianity like William Blake or Owen Barfield or Thomas Merton imagined. But there is enough out there to give me hope.

Meanwhile, the old work, of promoting ancient philosophy, has continued with its own momentum this year. At the beginning of the year, I ran a Philosophy for Life course at Queen Mary. I’ve also done philosophy workshops at Saracens rugby club, in libraries and mental health charities, and in Scottish prisons. I’ve done a lot of free talks, including a TEDX talk, and wondered if it’s possible to make a living from street philosophy. In December, I helped to organize Stoic Week, and took part in a big event on Stoicism for modern life, a panel of which you can watch here. I hope next year to do more practical philosophy events in prisons and in schools, and perhaps even to help develop a new curriculum for Religious Education, which includes some practical philosophy in it. Oh, and Philosophy for Life came out in the US, and was picked as a Times book of the year this weekend!

Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this year’s ecstatic explorations, and that you have a wonderful Christmas and New Year. See you in 2014,