Skip to content

Education policy

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.

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.