The three Wise Men behind Action for Happiness

A new 'mass movement' launched in the UK today, called Action for Happiness...though actually it's not exactly new. But today was its official launch, complete with lots of media coverage, an all-day happiness event in North London, and a new website, which promptly crashed from excess happiness.

Action for Happiness sounds like a grass roots mass movement that spontaneously arose from the people like a big Mexican wave of euphoria. But in fact, it could not be more of an insider operation. It is the brain-child of three of the best-connected political figures of the last decade: Geoff Mulgan, Lord Richard Layard and Anthony Seldon. They are not, nor have ever been, the leaders of a genuine mass movement, they are insiders, backroom technocrats, who work through their institutional contacts rather than via a popular support base. I think they realize that their 'movement for happiness' has a democratic deficit, which is why they have started this 'mass movement'...We shall see how much of a mass it can assemble.

So who are these three wise men?

Let's start with Mulgan. He got a first class degree as Balliol College, Oxford, and then went to train as a Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka. That's unusual. Not many people in British politics have done that. So there's an intensity there, a monastic focus. However, he didn't become a monk, but instead returned to the UK and eventually became a serious player in New Labour, first becoming director of policy in Tony Blair's 10 Downing Street policy unit, then leaving to set up the think-tank Demos.

While at Demos, he pushed forward the idea that governments shouldn't just focus on their citizens' economic welfare and security, but should also try to foster the Good Life in them. He wrote in 1998, in a Demos essay collection called The Good Life, that governments should stop sitting on the fence when it came to how their citizens lived, and instead actively promote models of the Good Life based on 'timeless and universal values', which include, by his reckoning, 'the soul'. He quoted the Medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckhart, "God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by a process of subtraction".

Again, very unusual for a leading political thinker to be talking about the soul and quoting Meister Eckhart. Mulgan, you could say, seems to combine the Commissar and the Yogi.

After Demos, Mulgan became head of the Young Foundation, where he was instrumental - along with Layard and Seldon - in introducing 'emotional resilience' classes into UK schools via a pilot taking place in three local education authorities. These classes were designed together with Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology, and Penn University. Mulgan remains a key figure in British think-tanks - his staff seem to hold him in awe.

Next there's Anthony Seldon, who would have remained just one more public school headmaster (he is headmaster of Wellington College), were it not for two things. Firstly, he made a name for himself in the last few years as a historian of New Labour, writing books on Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Secondly, he introduced happiness classes in Wellington in 2006, based on the work of Martin Seligman and his colleagues at Penn University. This made Seldon a figurehead for the idea of 'happiness classes' in the UK, and for the 'wellbeing agenda' in general.

Seldon is a devout practitioner of yoga, and every student at Wellington learns how to meditate. He defines happiness as a state of 'inner harmony'. He is not shy of media exposure - if you go to interview him, as I did in 2007, you notice a leather folder in the waiting room, filled with press clippings about him.

Finally, the most unlikely of the three wise men championing happiness - Lord Richard Layard. Unlikely, because he is an economist, a representative of the 'dismal science'. Layard was a scholar at Eton College, then studied at King's College, Cambridge - you couldn't have a more establishment education. Layard then worked on welfare economics for many years, looking at unemployment and other macroeconomic issues. Why did he suddenly became the leading national champion of happiness? What possessed him?

Two possible answers: firstly, he married at 57. Is it possible his late marriage, and the sudden warm infusion of happiness that it brought, led him to question his dismal profession, and to seek for a more emotion-focused form of economics? I merely speculate.

Secondly, his academic work on welfare made him see how many of the unemployed were out of work because of mental illness, particularly depression and anxiety. That led him to look at the public funding for therapy, and one of his greatest achievements was securing £180 million from New Labour, and a further £400 million from the Coalition, for the Improved Access for Psychotherapies policy, which involved the huge expansion of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy in the UK. I personally am grateful to him for that achievement, and think it has done a lot to reduce suffering in this country.

From there, Layard seems to have really got the happiness bug. In 2007, he wrote a book, Happiness: Lessons From A New Science, which unashamedly banged the drum for Jeremy Bentham and utilitarianism, and which claimed that social science had finally developed the 'happiness calculus' which Bentham had dreamt of, which could analyse all actions according to the happiness or suffering they produced. He also became a believer in Positive Psychology, like Mulgan and Layard, and pushed for the introduction of Emotional Resilience classes in UK schools.

Layard is what we would call a 'late bloomer'. He celebrated his 77th birthday last month, and has never been so active or so influential. He is not a great speaker, he does not have the common touch. He is an insider. I remember seeing him at a conference in February, and he articulated the various academic definitions of happiness, and then said 'what I don't know, is what ordinary people think is the best definition of happiness'. Amazing - the leading champion of the 'happiness movement' confessing a total ignorance of how ordinary people define happiness. He is an insider, a member of the elite - he wasn't even one of the common masses at Eton.

Despite this apparent detachment from ordinary folk, Layard has complete certainty that his happiness movement is the future of western societies. He described the Sitglitz commission, which ushered in the official measurement of well-being in France, as a "historic moment in European history". He describes the spread of positive psychology as "a key development in world culture". There's something almost Leninist there, isn't there? He believes he is at the vanguard of history, and that the future is the science of happiness.

So those are the three wise men, all of them combining something of the commissar and the yogi. They have huge insider influence - Layard has already secured £580 million in funding for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and played a key role in getting the Coalition government to start measuring well-being. I expect the Coalition government to approve the rolling out of Emotional Resilience classes for all UK schools in the next few years, which would be another major achievement for Layard, Mulgan and Seldon.

You could note that the three don't, in fact, agree among themselves on what happiness is. Layard, like his hero Bentham, is a complete materialist and dogmatic utilitarian who defines happiness purely as 'feeling good'. Mulgan and Seldon are both devotees of eastern religion, and I wouldn't be surprised if both believed in reincarnation (although I have no evidence for this). They clearly take a more eastern and spiritual approach to well-being.

What the three wise men do not have, as of yet, is much popular credibility. Action for Happiness has been around, as a website and a concept, for several months, yet despite all the media coverage they have managed to get, they only have 5,000 followers - only five times what we have in the London Philosophy Club, and we've never had a single article written about us. That is the irony of the Action for Happiness movement: it sounds like a popular movement, but actually the whole idea of it is that ordinary people don't know how to be happy, and have to be told how, by technocrats, apparatchiks, statisticians and political insiders like Mulgan, Seldon and Layard.

Action for Happiness involves, basically, armies of 'happiness experts' going out to tell the poor lost masses how to be happy, teaching them how to meditate and keep gratitude journals, like missionaries teaching savages how to pray. It seems to me the wise men want to go back to before the Reformation, that sudden demotic fragmentation of European society, and to bring all of Europe back together beneath a new, secular, rational and scientific church of well-being.