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Set the controls for the heart of happiness

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed there was no newsletter last weekend. Apologies. The reason for this is I have journeyed deep into the warm, pulsating heart of the happiness movement. Last Thursday I took part in a conference on Positive Psychology at Wellington College (the pioneer of well-being classes), and then I went down to Dartington, in Totnes, Devon, to take part in an Action for Happiness two-day happiness festival.  I left Dartington, I kid you not, while a choir stood on the misty lawn singing ‘happy, happy, happy clappy!’ I felt like a rehab patient leaving the Priory.

Anyway, abandoning my usual dour demeanour, I admit that both events were great fun, and encouraging. My sense is that the Positive Psychology / happiness movement is becoming less positivistic (in other words, less dogmatic in its claims to objectivity and scientific truth) and more responsive to the role of philosophy and ethical reasoning in the search for the good life. (On that point, it’s sad that Christopher Peterson, one of the more philosophical voices within Positive Psychology, died this week. Here’s his beautiful last blog post).

I organised a philosophy discussion circle at Dartington – the first time I’ve facilitated one – and I think everyone involved really felt the benefit of that sort of open Socratic inquiry into what the good life means for us. As the Quakers well knew, there’s something very egalitarian and democratic about a discussion circle – there’s no expert or priest or higher authority ‘up there’ while the masses kneel beneath them. Everyone is equally at the front or at the centre. And facilitating a circle discussion seemed to involve letting go of control and letting silences happen – both quite difficult for me!

I also came away from the events hopeful that the Positive Psychology / happiness movement is aware of the risk that, in deifying certain emotional states or personality types as ideal, you pathologise their opposites. If you say that happiness is ideal, there’s a risk that sadness becomes an unacceptable failure. If extroversion is absolutely good, then introversion could be deemed absolutely bad. If optimism is always healthy, then pessimism becomes toxic. That sort of thinking is far too black-and-white, and I believe it actually causes suffering rather than mitigating it, by making introverts or pessimists feel worse about themselves. After all, introverts and pessimists have important social roles to play too, particularly in chronically optimistic short-term societies like ours.

We have many different moods and dispositions, and sometimes the best way to transform the difficult ones is to accept them rather than demonise them. In the words of Rumi, in what I think might be my favourite poem:

Learn the alchemy true human beings know: the moment you accept what troubles you’ve been given, the door opens.
Welcome difficulty as a familiar comrade.
Joke with torment brought by a Friend.
Sorrows are the rags of old clothes and jackets that serve to cover, and then are taken off.
That undressing, and the beautiful naked body underneath, is the sweetness that comes after grief.

I’ve given a lot of talks in the last month or so on the relationship between ancient philosophy and CBT,  and often someone in the audience criticises CBT for being shallow, simplistic, mechanistic, capitalist and ‘not dealing with root causes’. Usually such critics are therapists or counsellors in other traditions, annoyed that they didn’t get any public money. My answer is typically that I expect other forms of therapy to get public funding in the future – it’s already happening for approaches like mindfulness therapy – but you can’t expect to get any government funding without a convincing evidence base. Anecdotal case studies by psychologists simply won’t cut it anymore. As Freud proved, they’re too easy to fake.

It is also clear to me, however, that CBT is not for everyone and the research still has a long way to go to work out how to help more people. But what saddens me is that some therapists fail to find anything to celebrate in the government’s new support for talking therapies. Nor do many lay-people see the young national mental health service as something to fight for. The Improved Access for Psychotherapies (IAPT) policy is still very young, and vulnerable (as Paul Burstow MP, former minister for care services, recently emphasised). We shouldn’t assume it will stay in existence without our protection.

Richard Layard, the economist who more than anyone helped get IAPT funding, warned at Dartington that not all allocated funding is coming through and that as much as half of all children’s therapy services are being closed (I’ve asked him for stats to back up that claim). It is a very recent phenomenon for government to take mental illnesses like depression and anxiety seriously. If you believe in talking therapies, not just CBT but any talking therapies, then please support IAPT. I am all for expanding the range of therapies available on the NHS, as long as they are evidence-based.

Idealistic champions of adult education like RH Tawney are long gone.

Meanwhile, one thing that struck me as we discussed various ‘happiness policies’ at Dartington, was how little anyone spoke of adult education. Likewise, not one political party mentioned adult education at their conference. Schools, academies, universities – they’re all in the news constantly. But adult education is completely off the political radar at the moment. Adult education was a central part of the socialist vision for thinkers like RH Tawney. But no one in parliament cares about it now, none think it worth fighting for. At least Action for Happiness is trying to do something for adult education, albeit in a rather informal and unstructured way. It is a noble attempt to spread ideas about the good life and the good society – inspired, I believe, by Richard Layard’s experience of attending a Quaker reading group for many years.

The Octagon Room at Queen Mary, University of London

Talking of reviving adult education, we had a seminar at Queen Mary, University of London yesterday evening, in the beautiful Octagon Room, which was once a library for East End workers back in the 19th century when Queen Mary was known as the People’s Palace. We had a great group of participants come and talk about their work – including Philosophy Now, Philosophy In the Pub, Skeptics In the Pub, Pub Psychology, Sapere (a charity that does a lot of work with Philosophy 4 Children), Niki Barbery Bleyleben (good name!) who runs discussion groups for mums, and many others. We videoed the presentations and will put them up soon, along with the report I’m writing on philosophy clubs, and the website,, which will finally launch next week, I promise!

One of the things I suggest in the report is that the contemporary grassroots philosophy movement is in part a product of the 1960s, and that decade’s radical reformation of academia and demand that it ‘look beyond the campus’ (in the words of the Port Huron Statement). In that spirit, here is a 2008 BBC Radio 4 documentary by Nick Fraser on ‘1968: Philosophy in the streets’, with contributions from philosophers including Simon Critchley and Alain Badiou.

One of the participants at our seminar was Paul Hains, who together with his wife Brigid recently launched the excellent online magazine Aeon. I’m not just saying that because he occasionally sponsors our philosophy club events – the essays it publishes are really very good. Check out this one by Ross Andersen (whose Atlantic articles on philosophy are typically excellent) on dendrochronology and the threats facing the oldest trees in the world

Here, from the Futility Closet blog, is some advice from 1820 on how to fight ‘low spirits’, in a letter from Sidney Smith to Lady Georgiana Morpeth:

Dear Lady Georgiana,

Nobody has suffered more from low spirits than I have done — so I feel for you. 1st. Live as well as you dare. 2nd. Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75° or 80°. 3rd. Amusing books. 4th. Short views of human life — not further than dinner or tea. 5th. Be as busy as you can. 6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you. 7th. And of those acquaintances who amuse you. 8th. Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely — they are always worse for dignified concealment. 9th. Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you. 10th. Compare your lot with that of other people. 11th. Don’t expect too much from human life — a sorry business at the best. 12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy, sentimental people, and everything likely to excite feeling or emotion, not ending in active benevolence. 13th. Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree. 14th. Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue. 15th. Make the room where you commonly sit, gay and pleasant. 16th. Struggle by little and little against idleness. 17th. Don’t be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice. 18th. Keep good blazing fires. 19th. Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion. 20th. Believe me, dear Lady Georgiana,

Very truly yours,

Sydney Smith

Did you see the BBC 2 series on the history of the stiff upper lip? It was excellent, and managed to get the history of emotions onto mainstream TV. Well done to my supervisor, Thomas Dixon, for contributing to the programme (he’s now a leading historian of public crying, or a ‘sobbing guru’ as someone put it on Twitter). Check out the blog posts he wrote about the research behind the show.

Talking of stiff upper lips, a fortnight ago I participated in an excellent seminar on Stoicism and CBT at Exeter University. Here’s a blog on Stoicism and its uses today that came out of it – expect some very good posts in the future from some of the seminar participants.

I admire Jenny Hartley and Sarah Turvey of the University of Roehampton for their pioneering work over the last decade on reading groups and book clubs. Their latest project is taking reading groups into prisons. They have expanded the number of such groups from 4 to 30. Great work.

Here’s a BBC radio programme about the fast-developing science of hallucinations.

From 3 Quarks Daily, here’s communitarian philosopher Charles Taylor in an hour-long discussion with Confucian philosopher Tu Weiming, asking if we’re leaving the secular age.

And here’s an essay with Tu Weiming explains why he thinks we’re moving beyond the Enlightenment and philosophy is taking a ‘spiritual turn’.

I’ve had some wonderful emails from people who have read the book over the last fortnight – thank you very much. It means a huge amount to me and makes me feel the hard work is worth it. You can help me in my work by buying the book for yourself or others, spreading the word, or writing a review on Amazon or Good Reads. We finally got an offer from the US (hooray! thanks for your support on that). There’s still a lot of work to be done, so your help in promoting the book is hugely appreciated.

In the meantime, here is a photo of the nominees for this year’s Booker Prize, with Will Self at the back showing how to do book promotion.

See you next week,


A manifesto for the mass intelligentsia

A few newsletters back, I talked about the idea of the ‘mass intelligentsia’, and posted an interview I did with Melvyn Bragg about the term (he used it in this programme on class and culture back in March). I’ve been digging into this idea a bit more since then, for an academic research project I’m doing on philosophy clubs. I’d like to unpack the idea some more, if that’s alright by you.

The main idea of the mass intelligentsia is that today, in the words of Bragg, “a very substantial minority is prepared to put time and effort into subjects that used to be the preserve of a very small minority”. There’s always been an intelligentsia, it’s just become a lot bigger, and turned into a mass phenomenon in the last 30 to 40 years. As David Brooks put it in the New York Times back in 2008: “People in the 1950s used to earnestly debate the role of the intellectual in modern politics. But the Lionel Trilling authority-figure has been displaced by the mass class of blog-writing culture producers.”

The chief driver behind the emergence of the mass intelligentsia, as Bragg told me, is the expansion of higher education since World War II. Back then, less than 5% of the population of OECD countries went to university. Now, the OECD average is around 35%. This expansion of higher education was part of the emergence of what Daniel Bell called ‘post-industrial capitalism’, or Peter Drucker termed ‘the knowledge economy’.

The industrial sector of the economy shrank, as did the number of blue-collar jobs, while the services sector grew, along with the middle class. Higher education expanded to create what Bell called a ‘new intelligentsia’ to work in the services sector of the economy, in academia, scientific R&D; communications, computing and digital technology; in think-tanks and policy, and in the arts.

Steve Jobs combined the scientific intelligentsia's love of tech with the cultural intelligentsia's desire for personal authenticity

The new intelligentsia has two wings – cultural and scientific – with quite different temperaments and attitudes. The scientific intelligentsia tends to be positivist, to believe (naturally enough) in the power of science and empirical measurement to arrive at truth and improve society. The cultural intelligentsia tends to believe in creativity and authenticity, it tends to be anti-positivistic, wary of the de-humanising potential of technological advances, and resentful of the spread of scientific metricisation into the arts and humanities. Sometimes they clash, sometimes they find compromises: Steve Jobs is a good example of someone who combined the scientific intelligentsia’s love of tech with the cultural intelligentsia’s ethos of personal freedom and authenticity.

The mass intelligentsia is characterised by the pursuit of lifelong learning. They are the creators of a new ‘learning society’. Some theorists of the learning society characterize it as a desperate attempt to keep up with rapid changes in the knowledge economy. That’s the wrong way to see it.  Instead, learning is pursued by people as a good in itself. Learning is pursued for pleasure, knowledge, community and enhanced experience – and jobs are another means to those goals, rather than the end which learning serves. People work for money, but they mainly work for new learning experiences.

The best companies adopt many of the features of the university: Google Campus

The transition from university to the marketplace is a continuation of the learning process, rather than the end of it. ‘Market-place’ is probably the wrong word for the modern work-space. It’s a ‘learning-space’. The best companies realise this, and adopt many of the features of a university.

Robert M. Hutchins, author of the 1968 book, The Learning Society, suggested a good model for the future society was ancient Athens, in which “education was not a segregated activity, conducted for certain hours, in certain places, at a certain time of life. It was the aim of the society. The city educated the man.”

In the learning society, leisure-time is increasingly used for intellectual stimulation. The mass intelligentsia construct thousands of informal networks, online and offline, to learn, collaborate and expand their minds. Informal learning websites like the Khan Academy, TED, In Our Time, the RSA and Philosophy Bites feed the rising public demand for intellectual stimulation. There is also a craving for new forms of intellectual community. In the 1990s, book clubs mushroomed across Britain, and the book festival scene exploded: there are today over 300 book festivals in the UK. Social entrepreneurs create new informal schools for lifelong learners, like the School of Life, the General Assembly, the Faber Academy, Mumsnet Academy, or Jamie Oliver’s Recipease.

The University of the Third Age: radical grannies

Much of the innovation in learning is peer-led. The internet lowers the barrier for entry, and makes it much easier for small, grassroots clubs to organise themselves. The University of the Third Age is an example of what can be achieved – it started off as a top-down organisation for learning with the elderly in Australia, and then became a grassroots peer-led phenomenon here in the UK (the same thing happened with Skepticism, by the way, which was a top-down movement in the US and Australia, and then turned into a grassroots peer-led movement in the UK. It’s now a good combination of top-down organisations and grassroots clubs), in particular, sparked a revolution in peer-led learning and mutual improvement. There are today 2,162 book club meetups, 1,799 art meetups, 1,009 environmental meetups, 811 philosophy meetups, 524 Skeptic meetups, 348 animal rights meetups, 260 history meetups, 230 ethics meetups, 124 feminist meetups, 110 astronomy meetups, and 610 meetups interested in ‘intellectual discussion’. You can find, on any given evening in London, art history in the pub, philosophy in the pub, psychology in the pub, even live therapy sessions.

British universities struggled, on the whole, to recognise the potential for the new adult learning market, with the exception of the Open University, which makes 22 of the top 100 courses on iTunes U, and is the only UK university to appear in that list. Many of the most influential British intellectuals now work outside of academia. Universities have, perhaps, been weighed down by their history and bureaucracy, and can be suspicious of innovation and entrepreneurialism. However, the rise of Ed-X heralds a period of rapid change for higher education, as it finally adapts to the lifelong learning needs of the mass intelligentsia. The university of tomorrow will follow the Open University model, and have multi-media production and adult learning at its centre, rather than at the margins.

What’s wrong with the mass intelligentsia?

The growth of the mass intelligentsia is often portrayed, by elitist intellectuals, as socially and morally undesirable. Modernist intellectuals criticised it in the 1920s as the rise of the ‘middlebrow’, and the end of avant garde. In a similar vein, some recent thinkers have criticised the growth of informal learning on the internet as the triumph of the ill-informed amateur and shallow thinking. It’s also easy to criticise the commercialism of informal learning entrepreneurs like Jamie Oliver, Alain de Botton or TED’s Chris Anderson. They are giving the people what they want, rather than what they supposedly ‘need’.

Houellebecq's Atomised criticised the mass intelligentsia as cut off and morally lost

The mass intelligentsia as a class are often depicted as selfish, narcissistic, obsessed with personal growth. The communitarian philosopher Charles Taylor, for example, warned in A Secular Age that the individualistic ethos of 19th and early 20th century bohemians had become a ‘mass phenomenon’ in the 1960s: now we’re all selfish seekers after personal freedom and authenticity, and have recklessly rejected the traditional forms of church, family, corporation and political party. Robert Putnam also warned of the erosion of social capital and civic virtue, while labour sociologists like Richard Sennet and Jeremy Rifkin have suggested that the knowledge economy’s increased volatility has made us lonelier, more anxious, and less virtuous. This generally negative view of the mass intelligentsia was well-expressed by Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised, in which the two main characters, representatives of the cultural and scientific intelligentsia, are cut-off, selfish and morally lost.

I have some sympathy with this pessimistic narrative. It is easy to argue that the widening of education has come at the expense of a flattening. Where are the geniuses of the 19th and early 20th century, where the contemporary equivalents of Joyce, Marx, Freud, Mill, Picasso, Wittgenstein, Einstein? Where are the great plays and novels? Perhaps we are even in a period of intellectual stagnation. We have more and more media on which to communicate ideas, and ever-fewer things to say, with the result that the same ideas and case studies are endlessly recycled in books touted as the Next Big Idea.

Yet I choose to hold a more optimistic narrative. If the new intelligentsia has abandoned some of the old forms of community, it immediately set out to create new forms – like Esalen, the Californian commune so ably mocked by Houellebecq. Yes, many of these new communities turned out to be vapid, or commercial, or even cultish. But the rate of social innovation has been incredibly quick, and those forms of community that work have survived and spread. Witness, for example, the success of Alcoholics Anonymous, which is the best example of peer-to-peer learning we have.

There have been many elegies written for the end of the traditional working class, the end of socialism, the end of working men’s clubs and the worker education movement – see, for example, Jonathan Rose’s wonderful book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, the last chapter of which delivers a tirade against the ‘weekend bohemianism’ of the new mass intelligentsia. But that critique seems misplaced. The rise of the mass intelligentsia is proof that the centuries-long drive for workers’ self-education succeeded. It’s just that it didn’t create a proletarian utopia, instead it created a hugely expanded middle class. The radical ethos of informal learning via mutual improvement clubs and corresponding societies didn’t disappear, as Jonathan argues: it went mainstream, and became the modus operandi for the learning society. (I’ll send Jonathan this piece and see what he thinks).

Philosophy clubs: Aristotle would have approved

You can criticise the mass intelligentsia as selfish and self-obsessed, as Charles Taylor does, but I think that’s unfair. We may have a problem obeying traditional hierarchies – but is that so selfish, when you consider how the Catholic Church has behaved over the last 30 years? The search for personal well-being and authenticity, which Taylor seems to find so narcissistic, has in fact rapidly led the mass intelligentsia back to ancient sources of wisdom. We’re searching for the good life. And we’re learning, increasingly, that the good life is best practiced together. We’re trying to construct non-hierarchical forms of community to practice the good life. We’re building a society that I think Aristotle would have welcomed: in which everyone has the opportunity to learn, to collaborate on meaningful projects, and to expand their awareness. That’s a society worth striving for.


Here are some interesting links I came across this week:

Yesterday I met Rob Symington, one of the founders of Escape the City, which is totally an example of what I’m talking about above: a platform, network and community to help people find learning experiences in the workplace. They have 100 meetups around the world, and have raised $600K in crowd-sourced funding on CrowdCube. Way to go!

There’s a great philosophy event next month: The Philosophical Society of England is celebrating its centenary with a weekend event, featuring Angie Hobbs talking about ‘ancient Greece and the future of philosophy’, Brenda Almond on ‘has applied philosophy lost its way?’, as well as Jonathan Ree on ‘philosophical societies and social change’. Jonathan is hopefully speaking at the London Philosophy Club in October.

Here’s a cool video on The Future of Philosophy, made by Leah Green, featuring Angie Hobbs and the London Philosophy Club.

Come to Interrogate, a festival at Dartington Hall in October, where I’ll be speaking, along with lots of other thinkers / practitioners on happiness and well-being. It will be brilliant.

Talking of happiness…I wrote this blog post celebrating English melancholy.

This account in last Saturday’s Guardian of RD Laing’s Kingsley Hall, and the orgies, LSD parties, black magic and naked wrestling that went on there, was extraordinary.

I have been doing a lot of research on Skepticism as a grassroots movement (an interesting part of the learning society). Thanks for everyone’s help with it. The community is clearly going through ‘growing pains’ as Massimo Pigliucci put it, or ‘a bit of a rough patch’, as Sid Rodrigues of Skeptics In the Pub said. Here’s one ex-Skeptic’s account of why he’s leaving the community, and here’s the founder of Atheism Plus’ account of misogyny in the Skeptic community has made her give up blogging. As a Skeptical theist (there, I said it!) I hope the community gets over this difficult patch.

At philosopher Brian Leiter’s blog, an old post that I came across and enjoyed: what are the 100 most influential philosophy books published since 2000? Above my pay grade… but I enjoyed Taylor’ Secular Age and Nussbaum’s Upheavals of Thought. And Sandel’s Justice – poppy, but good, and widely read.

Here’s a fascinating set of short articles by famous British philosophers in 1946, about why philosophy is in crisis and needs to connect with the wider population. Plus ca change…

Right, that’s your lot for this week. Let me know if you have any thoughts on my thesis above on the mass intelligentsia – I’m writing a report on it at the moment so would welcome any input and feedback.


PS Thank you for all the nice reviews on Amazon – 22 reviews on there now, 19 of them five-star. It’s looking hopeful for a sale to a US publisher – send me good luck in the next few days!