Alaistair Campbell: 'my nervous breakdown was one of the best experiences of my life'

Alaistair Campbell, formerly the press officer and arch spin-doctor of prime minister Tony Blair, gave a speech at Birmingham University last night on happiness. As someone who was at the height of politics for a decade, and also someone who's been very honest about his struggle with mental illness, you'd expect him to be interesting, and he doesn't disappoint. Some highlights:

On happiness and the media:

"Despite the phonehacking scandal, I promise that I will not do my usual rant about the modern media. But it is very hard to see how as a country we can be deemed happy when every day more than 2 million of our people feel the urge to buy the Daily Mail. How can we be happy knowing that merely to step out of our Middle England front door is to risk being mugged by out of control kids and asylum seekers?Envy, hatred and anger do not lend themselves to happiness. Yet much of our media, most of the time, is now slavishly dedicated to making people feel jealous of others, blaming others for their problems, hating others for their actions and attitudes. They have created a kind of whingocracy in which the issues for moaning are put into the papers, and then the radio and TV stations can moan about them for the next 24 hours until the next lot of whinges come round. Add in the criminality we have seen exposed recently, the amorality, the venality, and it is not a happy scene.

The relentless negativity is a relatively new thing. The positive to negative ratio in our national press has gone from 3-1 to 1-18 in three decades. And if I have one big suggestion for a nice base for happiness – it is to focus more on your own life and experience and put the media largely to one side. There came a day when I genuinely ceased to care what the media said about me. It was liberating. It has helped my happiness."

On how happiness is the fulfilment of goals:

"To me, any sense of happiness requires a sense of fulfilment and any fulfilment, worthwhile fulfilment, requires struggle. It doesn’t come easy. I know this is not a universal view. Fiona’s version of my mum’s ‘why can’t you just be content?’ is ‘why do you keep needing to do so much?’ Her observation of my life patterns is that I decide to do something, throw myself into it, do it well, but then decide I need something else. ‘You’re never happy.’ That is not strictly true. I have moments … but the building of happiness through fulfilment is a long game.

So here is the theory I want to add to all those that previous speakers have given you on this theme – it is a rather dark one I confess, but then one of your local former MPs once called me the man who lived in the dark – it is that for the individual, we cannot know if we have lived a truly happy life until the very end. I am now at the age, 54, where I do at least think about my own mortality. On the back nine of life as a golfer might say. I don’t think I am alone in wondering what death will be like, wondering what my final thoughts will be, wondering what the obits are likely to say – I have a fair idea of that one already. On the final thoughts, I want to be able to say I had a full and fulfilling life because then I think I will die happy."

On how surviving a mental breakdown gave him 'post-traumatic growth':

"..This may surprise you but if I look back and think of some of the best experiences of my life, that have helped shape the relative developing happiness I have now one would be my nervous breakdown in 1986. Why? Because it was the worst experience of my life and I survived it. Because it gave me a yardstick for the rest of my life against which to compare other bad experiences. Because it taught me what I thought and what I valued – family, politics, doing rather than just talking. And because it gave me a taste of my own vulnerability and my own mortality. It was an irrational thought, but I thought I was going to die, and like a lot of people who have been to that abyss and come back, life is a lot better after that.

I’m happy that I can stand here today and remember as if it were yesterday the day I cracked up, and be fairly confident it won’t happen again. Quite an experience. I don’t urge you to have one. But if you do I urge you if you do to try to turn it into something good. So on that deathbed I will give thanks for my family, Fiona and the kids especially. I will thank friends, dead and alive. I will thank the people who gave me all the amazing opportunities I have had to do things in work and play. But I will also have a little nod to my madness vintage 86."

Finally, and I think most interestingly, he describes that strange sense of emptiness when we do actually fulfil out goals:

"When I think back about happy moments, they are a strange mix, and the ones that you might expect to be there are not. I was closely involved in three election wins. These are big moments not just in my life but the life of the country. When I transcribed my diaries, I spotted a trend. Let’s start with 1997 …

The scene is Tony Blair’s house in Sedgefield and here is my diary entry, late at night after the campaign has finished and the country is about to vote …‘TB said afterwards he would never have been able to do it without me. I said I’d loved every minute, then said “that’s a lie by the way.” I called home and spoke to the kids… I said life is never going to be the same again, because this is part of history and we’re all part of that, our whole family. Calum said “are we definitely going to win?” I loved the “we”. I said yes, I think so, and we might win big. After I put the phone down, I sat down on the bed, put my head in my hands and cried my eyes out. I don’t know what it was. Relief it was over. Letting go of the nervous energy. Pride. A bit of fear. It was all in there. But I felt we’d done a fantastic job. We were going to win and we were going to make a difference. I’d felt the emotion welling up in me for days… I’d been worrying about Dad’s health and was glad he and Mum would both see this happening, but sad that Bob (Fiona’s father) who’d always said one day Labour will get back, wasn’t there to see it, or even know that Fiona and I had been involved. ‘

Then fast forward to the next day, we have won bigger than any of us had ever imagined – we were even winning in seats we had not campaigned in – and here is my diary entry for the Festival Hall … ‘It was weird. I felt deflated. All around us people were close to delirium but I didn’t feel part of it. We were taken up to a room afterwards, and I said to TB, this is so weird, you’ve worked so hard for so long for something, it comes, you’re surrounded by people who are so happy, yet you don’t feel like they do, and you just want to get home to bed. He said he felt exactly the same. ‘

Four years later, we have won another landslide, the only moment I feel any joy was when I saw my other son Rory waiting for me at Millbank Tower when we came for the victory party, and here is how I close the entry for this, the day of our second great victory . ‘In some ways, I had enjoyed the night more than in 1997, but I still didn’t feel the kind of exhilaration others seemed to. It was also because I knew there would be no let up, and in all sorts of ways the future was unclear. Maybe it was just my nature.’

Now I am only up to 2001 in the published diaries but I am going to give you a sneak preview of 2005, another win … this is after the victory party in London … ‘I was now beginning to share TB’s sense of disappointment at the result. It was light by the time I left and I got a really nice reception from people as I was walking to Victoria Street. A few people were shouting out congratulations from cars,… but I felt a bit low about it all. … I said goodbye to a few people at party HQ and as I made for the door, there was a spontaneous round of applause. I stopped and looked back and there was a standing ovation going on, which I found really moving. I felt like these were the people I really loved working with … I felt my eyes filling with tears and must have looked like I was crying when I got into the cab home. ‘You should be happy,’ the cabbie said ‘Three in a row.’

So what do I make of all that? Well one, I cry a lot – as Rory said when The Blair Years was published – Dad, do we really have to have all this crying crap?’ Two, I cry when I am happy in the sense of my being fulfilled, job done. Three, it is family that has the capacity to move us most, because they are the people we love most. Four, I will always resent the fact that I did not enjoy three of the greatest days of my life. Five, other than in sport I find it hard to lose myself in mass emotion – I prefer to stand out against it than go along with it. But six, I never stop thinking about the next thing, and the next thing, and the fears about the challenge ahead will drive my mood every bit as much as any pleasure there may be in the moment."