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Politics of Well-Being

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.

Can governments stimulate ‘collective effervscence’ in their citizens?

The physicist Lawrence Krauss recently argued that education should teach all children the central tenet of science – ‘nothing is sacred’. Not God, not human rights, not democracy, not the environment. Nothing.

Emile Durkheim, one of the founding fathers of sociology, would disagree. Durkheim argued in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) that, though no one should dispute ‘the authority of science’, we still need religion to bind us together and to renew our moral and social consciousness through what he called ‘collective effervescence’.

fritz-goro-australian-aborigines-filled-with-the-spirit-of-the-kangaroo-dancing-to-honor-the-sacred-marsupialHe used Aboriginal society as an example of religion in its purest and earliest form. Aboriginals would periodically gather together for festivals, and a sort of electricity arises between them. They eat together, dance together, cry, chant, intoxicate, perhaps even swap wives, and whip themselves into such a state of delirium that they are transported beyond their individual selves, and feel filled with the spirit of the tribe. The rituals and totemic symbols of their tribe reminds them of this exalted state of collective consciousness, and connects them back to it in the calmer periods in between the festivals.

We might call this state of consciousness ecstasy, but that has supernatural connotations. Durkheim is at pains to show that this ‘collective effervescence’ (or group fizz, if you prefer) is actually perfectly rational, natural, and necessary to tribal functioning. What is really happening in such rituals is that man is transported from the individual into the social and tribal. Religions celebrate and perpetuate society – ‘the idea of society is the soul of religion’.

We may have lost touch with Jehovah, but we still need these periodic orgies of collective effervescence to rejuvenate our collective moral and tribal consciousness. Durkheim was a lapsed Jew and a devout citizen of France, and thought the French Revolution was a great example of secular effervescence. He wrote:

Society’s capacity to set itself up as a god, or to create gods, was nowhere more visible than in the first years of the Revolution. In the general enthusiasm of that period, things that were purely secular were transformed by public opinion into sacred things: homeland, liberty, and reason.

The Tennis Court Oath during the French Revolution
The Tennis Court Oath during the French Revolution

The Elementary Forms was published a few years after William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, and the two books approach religious ecstasy from opposite poles. For James, religious experience is the individual soul in commune with the divine – he has no interest in collective ecstasy. For Durkheim, religious experience is always social and tribal – he has no interest in individual ecstasy. The truth must be somewhere in between.

But both share the idea that in ecstatic moments, we somehow transcend ordinary reality and access what Durkheim calls the Ideal, from which we draw power and inspiration down into material reality. So ecstasy is a bridge between two worlds – the material-empirical, and the ideal or spiritual.

James is prepared to suggest that this ‘other world’ of the spiritual genuinely exists. Durkheim is more wary – he puts forward a sort of emergence theory of collective consciousness.

Every other species, he says, are biologically determined, and confined to the material realm. Only humans have the capacity to transcend this realm and to access the Ideal. We have this capacity through the chemical fusion of ‘collective effervescence – all our consciousnesses come together and create such an electrical charge, such a fizz of effervescent bubbles, that we can leap into the Ideal, and bring back ideas and symbols from there which become actualized in the material world. This is all entirely natural and human – gods are just ideas, as real as any other idea, as long as we believe in them.

This is an interesting idea, and could be compatible with Giulio Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory of consciousness. But humans aren’t the only animals to gather together – why don’t bees or wildebeest also achieve transcendent consciousness when gathered together? Why do most great religious visions or scientific discoveries happen to individuals when they’re on their own? And why does collective effervescence sometimes lead not to moral advance but moral regression?

Durkheim thought Europe in 1912 was in a state of ‘moral mediocrity’ – ‘the ancient gods grow old or die, and others are not yet born’, he wrote, sounding like JRR Tolkien. But ‘a day will come when our societies will once again experience times of creative effervescence and new ideas will surge up’, new festivals, new symbols, new gods.

Be careful what you wish for. He noted in passing that effervescence can lead to barbarism, bloodshed and attacks on ‘scapegoats’, as in the Crusades, and this is just what happened a few decades later with the Nazis, an ecstatic new cult of the state, led by a man who was the embodiment of Durkheim’s description of the demagogue: ‘He is no longer a simple individual speaking, he is a group incarnate and personified’.


Since then, western thinkers have been understandably wary of looking for ways to ferment ‘collective effervescence’ for political means. But there has been a return to Durkheim’s ideas in the last few years, notably in philosophers like Martha Nussbaum and Simon Critchley, and the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, whose TED talk on ‘ecstasy and the hive-mind’ is a contemporary riff on Durkheim.

Durkheim’s ideas are a useful way of understanding some contemporary political problems. You can see the Charlie Hebdo attack as a clash of sacred narratives, for example. Muslim radicals see the cartoons of the Prophet as taboo, and therefore punishable, and they think the democratic state is a false god. For French Republicans, the Republic is sacred, and any attack on free speech is taboo.

Durkheim’s work also helps us understand the United States’ continued inability to control gun sales. The Constitution is sacred, the United States is sacred, its origins in private armed militia are sacred – therefore any pragmatic attempt to control arms sales in order to save lives is taboo.

More positively, Durkheim recognized that ‘games and major art forms have emerged from religion and long preserved a religious character’. Certainly, football is a collective ritual – the fans join together, chant the same songs, tattoo the sacred signs of the collective onto their bodies, applaud the players when they kiss the badge, and even, in some inarticulate way, see the team as transcending death. Individuals rise and fall, but as part of Liverpool FC, you’ll never walk alone.

Rock and roll is another modern ritual, a modern means to collective effervescence which arose from religious roots, and ‘every festival, even ones that are purely secular in origin, have certain features of the religious ceremony…Man is transported outside of himself.’ Rock n’ roll is a much less toxic form of collective effervescence than, say, fascism.

I’d suggest that the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony brought together all these modern rituals – the celebration of the state, the sacredness of the NHS and the monarchy, the sacredness of sport, and the sacredness of British rock and roll, all orchstrated with rare skill by Danny Boyle and Underworld. But the 2012 Olympics was a one-off for England. A genuine ‘new ritual’ needs to be repeated every few years. Is that possible, in a multicultural megapolis like London or the UK? Have we become too skeptical and rational to let ourselves be carried away en masse? And should politicians be dabbling in the Dionysiac, or is that playing with fire?

More broadly, is society sufficiently transcendent to satisfy our longing for transcendence? I’m not sure it is. I think human consciousness longs for something bigger than just the tribe, and I find Durkheim’s political conception of religion claustrophobic and potentially toxic.

When we immanentize our longing for expanded consciousness, project it onto the state, and yearn for a revolution to heal our pain and boredom, we risk making a false idol of the state. We then make blood-sacrifices to that false god, to try and perpetuate our state of ecstasy. That’s what the Crusades did, it’s what the Nazis did, and it’s what radical Muslims are doing with Islamic State. I’m all for fizz and effervescence, but that moonshine will kill you.


In other news:

Here’s an interview I did with Gus O’Donnell, former head of the civil service, about the politics of well-being.

Erik Davis, psychedelic journalist, considers ‘psychedelic culture at the crossroads’ – is there a renaissance of psychedelics, or something more complex?

Another trial of a resilience-programme in schools – this one in Holland. No real results, alas.

The Department of Health has launched a new plan for children’s mental health. Doesn’t look like it has any significant new policy proposals to me, I might be wrong.  Meanwhile, education secretary Nicky Morgan seems to be taking Personal, Social and Health Education more seriously than Michael Gove, at least.

Here’s a good debate on ‘teaching character’ in schools, featuring Anthony Seldon versus Toby Young.

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas considers the extraordinary work of Jean Vanier, the philosopher and lover of humanity.

Great Martha Nussbaum essay on her hero Bernard Williams.

Ernest Shackleton’s experience of the ‘fourth man’, and the science of ‘felt presences’.

OK, that’s all, have a wonderful weekend, hope England win the rugby!