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Wellbeing classes

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.

How Freud and Heidegger helped the Oxford rugby team to victory

John Carter - Oxford University v Cambridge UniversityJohn-Henry Carter is the most successful captain of Oxford rugby team ever, the only captain to lead the team to three successive victories in the Varsity match. The former flanker attributes that success not to his speed or his 6ft 3 frame, but to his training in psychodynamic therapy and existentialist philosophy.

After graduating, John played professional rugby at Sale Sharks in 2004, but his brief career was plagued with injury and he had to retire in 2007, after five operations. He was physically battered, but also morally disillusioned by ‘the primitive belief that meaning and consequence transpired through a scoreline’. He hadn’t found what he was looking for in professional sports.

He went to Oxford University to do a MSt in psychodynamic psychotherapy. While there, he got drawn back into rugby, and was invited to become manager of the team in 2011, at the age of 30. He became captain as well. At that point, although Oxford were winning games, the culture was “full of a misconceived idea of masculinity – sexism, homophobia.” He took on the challenge of leading the team because he thought he could change the culture and find that enigmatic thing he’d been looking for – spirit, being, soul.

At the same time, he worked on his PhD, about the mental struggles faced by professional rugby players when they retire. Based on in-depth interviews with six players, five of them internationals, it’s a fascinating insight into male identity and how it can find and lose itself in sports.

John uses the story of Peter Pan as an organizing myth for some of his insights in the PhD. He talks about how players live in ‘Neverland’ – a sort of dream-world of fantasy. The players he interviewed spoke of ‘living the dream’, ‘having to pinch myself’, ‘feeling high’, ‘like I’m on drugs’ when they’re playing at big matches. It sounds like ecstasy – or a sort of trance state. And in this dream-land, they will never lose, never get hurt, never got old.

They’re not just living out their own childhood dreams – they’re acting out the dreams of all the millions of spectators watching them too. The media like to say ‘the fans were in dreamland’. Well, that’s exactly right – fans use sport to enter trance-states, to regress to the fairy tale fantasies of childhood as they watch the game. The media feeds this fantasy, with language like ‘fairy tale’, ‘magic’, legend’, ‘talisman’, with every over-the-top slow-motion Wagnerian montage, and every ridiculously puffed-up publicity poster.




Bring on the World

The spectators like to fetishize their sports’ heroes inner lives. ‘How are you feeling? This must be the best moment of your life, is it?’ The same thing happens when an actor wins an Oscar, and they go into dreamland – that ultimate valorisation of their external self. And the truth is, they might not know how they’re feeling. Winning – for all that we fetishize it as the ultimate goal in life – is more emotionally complex than we realize. Many Olympic gold-medallists, for example, speak of their ‘depression, mourning, emptiness’ after they win.

As in Hollywood, the immersion in dreamland leads to a sort of ego-splitting – on the one hand you have the external self, the persona, a fantasy-self of power, heroism and invincibility. But behind that, hidden from everyone else, is the shadow self, which is weak, afraid, hurt and confused. But that self can’t be shown, can’t even be admitted to oneself, amid a culture (John writes) ‘defined by positive thinking and positive action through omnipotent dreamlike beliefs and tag-lines such as ‘Just Do It’’.

One reason many men love team sports is for the male bonding it allows – it enables them to be with each other and express love and physical intimacy, whether you’re a player or a fan. But men are often terrible at expressing that, and at being vulnerable and authentic with each other. So the vulnerability gets hidden behind a mask of machismo, sexism, homophobia, binge-drinking, ‘banter’ and the autistic exchange of sport stats and punditry. And beneath it all is a terror of losing intimacy and being on one’s own.

How did John do it differently at Oxford? Firstly, he redefined what it meant to win. Victory was not primarily about the scoreline, he insisted. It was ‘a commitment to the potential experience of being’. He says: ‘This commitment to ‘being’ felt like a spiritual alchemy – We embarked upon a voyage to simultaneously create and discover our ‘spirit’.’ The team embraced honesty, authenticity, trust, relatedness, creativity and play – the conditions to allow this ‘spirit’ to emerge.

In practical terms, this meant being ‘player-led’ rather than led by top-down diktat. It also meant John spent a lot of time talking to the players one-on-one, and in group conversations, in which all 30 of the team would take part and learn to be open, trusting and vulnerable with each other. ‘The consequence of it was much greater than I could have ever imagined. It was a really ethereal sense of being. I got to taste that sense of being.’

Again, this may sound unlikely, but it’s exactly what I do with Saracens, where it’s incredibly refreshing to hear players express their fear of failure, or death, and to be able also to express their feelings of joy, hope and love. It’s a mature model of male identity, of male strength and courage. John says: ‘It takes more courage than anything I’ve experienced to look at the parts of yourself you don’t want to see and to let other people see your vulnerability. That’s ultimate courage.’

The Saracens philosophy club (I'm the slightly smaller one in the middle)
The Saracens philosophy club (I’m the slightly smaller one in the middle)

I imagine some of you might be groaning and thinking this is the ultimate triumph of the therapised, feminised male – but John’s leadership made the team stronger, not weaker. If you think it made them weak, watch the highlights of their routs of Cambridge.

John’s now retired from rugby, for the second time. It is not easy to retire from rugby, because you’re losing your surrogate family. He describes retired players as ‘lost boys’. Of the six players he interviewed for his PhD, all of them said they felt depressed after retiring, and a third of them felt suicidal. Team sports allow men to recreate the small tribe in which humans have existed for most of their existence. And then, at retirement, suddenly you are in the lonely atomised world of modern neoliberalism.

But, after a period of grief and mourning, John’s enjoying his new life as a psychodynamic therapist, working both with sports teams, and with schools and individuals. What I personally admire in his work is his ability to describe and live a better sort of male identity than we sometimes fall for – more complex, more open to love and to suffering. Imagine if sportsmen went from being poster-boys for infantile fantasies of invincibility, to becoming ambassadors for the messy and sometimes wonderful experience of being human.

If you enjoyed this, read this piece on my first visit to Saracens, and this Telegraph article about my work with them. And here is a great journal article John wrote about his work.


In other news:

Here is the brief radio 4 thing I did on Aristotle and the politics of flourishing. And here is something I wrote on Neo-Aristotelianism in politics for the New Statesman, complete with an embedded animation about Aristotle made by the BBC and narrated by Stephen Fry!

It’s election season in the UK, and many politicians are making the right noises about mental health. But where’s the action, asks psychiatrist Simon Wessely.

Eurostat publishes new figures on European happiness – the Scandinavians are still the happiest!

Is studying philosophy a good protection against religious extremism? Interesting case-study of two brothers from Tunisia in the New York Times.

Wired magazine reports on Panoply, a new social network to improve mental health.

And here’s an article on a new headband you can buy for $300, that monitors your brain waves during meditation.

Julian Baggini has a new book out on free will, reviewed here by Terry Eagleton.

Something called ‘the Society for Atheistic Spirituality‘ has a $500 million donation to build a cenotaph for Newton. Hang on – was he an atheist?? Oh well.

Here’s a talk by my friend the psychologist Oliver Robinson, on why science and spirituality are friends, not enemies.

Finally, it’s Easter, a festival devoted to the idea that death is not the end for humans – an idea I happen to believe. Here’s a long and good article on the science of near-death experiences from the Atlantic magazine. Why, it asks, if NDEs are ‘just’ chemical, do they so often follow ancient mythical narrative structures of darkness and rebirth?

See you next week,