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Guest blog on Happiness – with a plea for female speakers on the subject

Posted on 1 August 2011 | 10:08am

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a Lecture on Happiness at Birmingham University. Today I give the blog over to KIRSTY MACK, the university’s head of stakeholder relations, so that she can ruminate on the theme, and also ask for your ideas on who might be a suitable (female) speaker on this theme next year.

Happiness is a topic very much ‘in vogue’.   Last week the Government announced that it was commissioning a report, led by Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell, to look into ‘what makes people, and therefore society, happy’.  This is not a new concept and is something that politicians, philosophers, economists and many more have been grappling with for decades.

Since 1976, the University of Birmingham has been running an annual lecture on the subject of “happiness – what it is, and how it can be achieved by individuals as well as nations”.  Not even the academy could sustain such a lengthy title and, over the years, the event has become known simply as, the ‘Happiness Lecture’.  Regardless of the title the question is simple – happiness, how can we define it and how do we achieve it?

The origins of this lecture are perhaps as unusual as its title.  Thomas Baggs was a graduate of Birmingham who went on to have a varied career as a teacher, war correspondent and in advertising, both in the UK and US.  On his death in 1973 it was revealed that Thomas had left a generous bequest to the University so that this ‘Happiness’ lecture could take place each year.  He probably didn’t appreciate at the time that this event would gather an extraordinary following both from the University and the local community, which, at its most popular, would attract over 1000 people.

Over the last 35 years, the topic has been handled by eminent speakers such as Yehudi Menuhin, David Attenborough, Peter Ustinov, Sue Lawley and Benjamin Zephaniah.  Three weeks ago, Alastair Campbell, tackled the same subject in the University’s Great Hall (watch it again here – or read it here ).  Some people thought I was – frankly – crazy, and more than a little insensitive, to invite a person who has suffered with depression to give a lecture on happiness.  But how are we to really appreciate happiness if we have not also experienced sadness to at least some degree?

Not surprisingly, the (free) tickets for this year’s lecture flew out the door and more than 1000 people crammed into the hall to hear Alastair speak.  Another 1200 watched online as it was streamed live around the globe, with people logging on from countries as far away as Iraq, Taiwan, Nigeria and the US.

Writing for the Observer, Rachel Cooke said that “David Cameron’s ‘happiness index’ is a pointless exercise because the emotion itself is so elusive”.  It’s a good point – defining ‘happiness’ is one of the most difficult parts of the whole exercise.  Just as Alastair said in his lecture, “Stimulation is not the same as happiness.  Excitement is not the same as happiness.  I’m not even convinced that contentment is the same as happiness, whatever the dictionary may say.”

We  shall await the findings of the Government’s Happiness Index – due to be published in July 2012 –  and in the meantime I shall begin the search for next year’s ‘Happiness Lecture’ speaker.  Suggestions on the back of a post-card please (or as a comment on here) ……….oh……..and they must be female.

To order signed copies of Alastair’s diaries via Waterstone’s, click here

  • Rubafunya

    Anne Widecombe

  • Claire Khaw

    I would be happy to give the talk on happiness next year, Alastair.   

  • Ehtch

    Mind has a mind of it’s own Alastair. We are all barking mad in our own way, male or female. I just love humanity, birds and bees. Makes me laugh seeing our local bats flying about catching moths in the evening, Yes, bats. Song time, I suppose,

  • Robert

    How about the Barber Institute’s very own Dr Ann Sumner?

    Perhaps on an art-historical theme – challenging the rather depressing notion of “Et in arcadia ego” by the very opposite – the power of art to be uplifting even in unremitting gloom?

    Perhaps based on the life and work of Kathe Kollwitz?

    (I am grateful that Dr Sumner went ahead with the book launch for “Court on Canvas” – my signed copy is a rare and precious thing!)

  • Marymot

    I would maintain that you cannot find happiness if you are without the things that are now considered necessities,,,,food, shelter and clothing are not quite enough nowadays. A telephone , refrigerator, washing machine, TV …  things that are not uncommon in most of our neighbours’ homes … the ordinary person needs them to live a comfortable life and you can’t be happy if you’re not comfortable. In other words if you don’t have what are now basics you become different and even peculiar to those about you and humans being being gregarious creatures need some love and approval.

    At the same time it seems to me that too great an abundance of wordly goods brings it own discomfort … the knowledge of being much ‘ luckier ‘ than the majority surely must make you ask ‘why ‘ occcasionally  Even if you;ve worked hard to attain your wealth
     you will know that a labourer may work hard all his life too and may still have to struggle.

    Maybe this is an argument for a more equal society …nobody too poor but nobody ridiculously rich. After all who needs two yachts!

    Ah me! dream on!

  • Carmelm_hennessy

    Why must they be female? That’s just PC gone mad, again. I’m tired of this rule that there has to be a certain amount of women in everything. It’s not fair, it’s discrimination against men and it lessens the value of those who vote because we as a public should be able to vote for a man or woman, young or old, straight or gay, black or white, fat or thin, tall or small etc. Why can’t we just vote for who we think is best irrevelant of their gender, colour or cred etc?

  • Marymot

    Following my original comment I should have added my choice as speaker. I would choose someone who has been poor and is now reputed to be rich ie Cherie Blair.

    • MicheleB

      I like your choice, I think CB is someone that has had to take a lot of horrible resentful flak, simply for being an aspirational smart person that so many have envied . 

      She’s had to put all that aside to concentrate on her family and work as AC has and if pride in one’s achievements can make one happy, she dang well should be.

  • Alison Hardy

    Jo Brand … she makes me happy

  • Pauline Scobie

    Why  does it have to be a woman? But on the understanding that it does I nominate Sarah Ferguson. She has like Alastair had ups and downs and I think you need experience of both to know happiness when it comes

  • Anonymous

    Of the suggestions I saw earlier, I quite liked the idea of Fiona Reynolds. Nature is the key to happiness. On Alastair’s theory that happiness is about fulfilment and fulfilment requires struggle, I suggest you ask Aung San Suu Kyi (hope I have spelled right)

  • Anonymous

    Mrs Becks … got it all

  • Carmelm_hennessy

    If it has to be a woman how about either Anne Robinson, Fiona, Catherine Zeta Jones or Mary Robinson.

  • David Hardie

    ANyone who can rid us of this shambles of a government would make me happy.

  • Mrs D

    Germaine Greer might be able to tell us if feminism has made us equal or happy… (or was that not the point)??

  • I don’t think getting a female perspective is a bad thing at all… would be nice to hear from a woman. 

    And I think Katie Piper would be an excellent choice. Her documentary “My beautiful face” was interesting and inspiring… and it would be wonderful to hear her views on what happiness is… 

    It just might also help us all get a bit of perspective. 🙂 

  • MicheleB

    I reckon J K Rowling could be interesting.

    She’s someone that’s not become flash with her dosh and obviously had real commitment and purpose before acquiring it it. 

    She’s never held back about her gratitude to the country and how she will never leave despite our tax rates ….. mind you she did say that under a different regime and when our tax was being used in ways she approved of.

    It’s looking already as if the topic of health is near the top of most people’s priorities, I’m not sure what’s happening with the Big Listen but given the remarks from Sir Roger Boyle I gather the promised slowdown never really happened.

  • Tauntoncider

    Pam Warren, the burns victim from the rail disaster a decade ago, or perhaps an alumni Victoria Wood. 

    I assume these speakers need to be famous to attract an audience, otherwise i would suggest inviting someone’s granny. If she is anything like mine used to be she will be able to speak for England and hold an audience’s attention easily with her anecdotes, observations and memories. Mine used to bring enough welsh cakes to feed a small army too 🙂

  • Gilliebc

    I think it could well be an argument for a more equal society Mary.
    How can it be right and acceptable that 40% of the world’s wealth is owned by just 1% of the people?

    Before the usual suspects start posting about envy and jealousy, I would just say that I personally have never experienced either of those emotions.

    But while there are innocent little children and adults starving to death right now in the horn of Africa and those people with more than enough money for themselves stand by and do nothing to help those poor scraps of humanity is nothing short of evil to my mind. 

    For example, the Rothschilds and Rockafellers could pay to help the Africans learn to feed themselves over a ten year period of education in how to grow their own food etc.  Given the combined Trillions of these two familys, the interest on their capital would be more than enough to help Africa.  But all that sort are interested in is more money and more power.
    No wonder the world is in such a bad way.  Suffering both financially and also from a total lack of simple humanity from the real powers that be.

  • Gilliebc

    Feminism was just another con foisted on the unsuspecting populous.  The reason for it was quite simply to get more women out of of their homes, working and paying income tax!

    Some women like to work.  That in itself is fair enough and good luck to them.  I had to work myself.  But to sell feminism as a sort of victory and a freedom for women was quite wrong.  It wasn’t done as a favour to women.  It was done to raise more taxes.

    I could go on about the terrible knock-on effect this has had on families and society as a whole, but maybe that’s for another day.

  • Lindawhite

    I would like to hear Cherie Blair’s view of happiness.

  • I can do “happiness in cyberspace”

    but sadly I’m no orator, I’d have to do it by online discussion….

  • Ehtch

    But “happiness” is a relative term, isn’t it? We all try and divert our minds to things going on in the world, don’t we? I personally don’t mind when Mother Nature plays up, but when humanity is stupid and plays up, that does bother me, mice and men and all that.

    How about an actress? Cybil Shepherd, the cock-eyed blonde, always comes across as infinitely happy always, and is a very very funny lady. OK, Cybil Shepherd might sound random, but I like her spirit.

  • Ehtch

    Calm down, Keep your balls in your trousers will you. : )

    Women tend to be more sensitive to the happiness factor, I think. And when your woman isn’t happy, life can be total hell, ear ache style!

  • Ehtch

    Yes. Alastair – brilliant speak Alastair, top quality bloody drawer. Top damn quality mun. Enjoyed it from start to finish. You’re a hero.

  • Dave Simons

    Yes I agree. I think things like competence should get a look in too. At the same time a lot of the groups you list – woman, gay, black in particular – have had to struggle against different kinds of exclusive clubbishness which also subordinate competence.
    Incidentally when Laura Brown says it ‘would be nice to hear from a woman’ , I’d suggest it depends on who you are. I work in a female-dominated environment and I can assure you I hear from women all the time!

  • Dave Simons

    I don’t think Cherie Blair has ever been what most of us would understand as ‘poor’. She is certainly now ‘reputed’ to be rich! Am I missing an irony?

  • Dave Simons

    I once saw an exhibition of Kathe Kollwitz’s work and found it utterly depressing. I don’t agree that it showed the power of art as an uplifting force, but it certainly reflected in her case the unremitting gloom of the circumstances in which she found herself. That, to me, was its power.

  • Dave Simons

    Bit tough on the moths though – not only having to be swallowed by bats but having to posthumously witness you laughing about it!

  • Claire Khaw

    “The key to happiness: feminism or fascism?” would be my proposed title.   

  • Claire Khaw

    “Does feminism make us unhappy?  Could Fascism make us happy?  Is not Fascism in the early 21st century genuine Conservatism *demonised* by the Liberal Left?  Are the Liberal Left making us unhappy?  They made Anders Breivik and the Muslims who blew themselves up on 7/7 very very unhappy indeed.  Is it time to show the Liberal Left how unhappy they have made us?  Communism was abandoned by the countries that took it up, why is the West now embracing it?  Communism always follows a failure of government.  Has Western government failed?  If so, will its failure be followed by War and Revolution?  The West has started several wars abroad.  Will revolution now follow at home?”

  • Claire Khaw

    Should the female speaker be a member of the liberal political establishment when they are the ones who have made us so unhappy?

  • Ehtch

    By the way, Dave,  I have a great great relationship with many many female musical artists from all over the world. And the one that is more condusive to my naughty uncle thomas humour is Lady Gaga! Yes, her! She laughes her buttocks off at me, but I don’t mind.

  • Ehtch

    She’s welsh, and a bit of a depressive, by definition. Still think Cybill Shepherd would be good next year, or even Ted Danson, or his misses, Mary Steenbecker. Met Mary in Carmarthen years ago, of all places, when Ted was inspecting the beaches after the oil tanker spill in Milford Haven, with his charity stuff.Stunning woman, Mary.

  • Ehtch

    Mary Steenburgen, even, WHOOPS!

  • Robert

    David – I fully understand – that’s how I found German Expressionism when I first saw it, simply looking away repulsed.

    However – and perhaps this is the real reason I suggest having a straightforward topflight art historian giving the talk – when my art history tutor Dr Frances Wilson-Copp took us through, explaining in laymans’ terms the manifestos of the Die Brucke and Der Blaue Reiter (apols if mispelt) and the truely gruesome worlds of Otto Dix and George Grosz she gave it all structure, meaning, context of people surviving, coping making the best of life in the worst circumstances.

    That’s why when I feel in the dumps a trip to Leicester New Walk to see their collection of German Expressionist works changes my frame of mind for the better.

  • marymot

    No irony intended.  She was brought up in Liverpool by her paternal grandmother and by dint of hard work achieved her scholarly success and career even before meeting Tony Blair.


  • MicheleB

    I’m sure feminism has made us more content than we would have been before it.

    It wasn’t the reason why a very early and mucho macho boss placed incredible trust in me and sent me off hither and thither as his rep but it’s brought about legislation we have benefitted from, there’s less reason for F>M resentments.

    Until feminism the chances for women’s careers were very limited, let’s not forget that our first woman MP was a millionaire American that just happened also to be married to a British aristocrat (our very own Sam’s gran).  However, more important even than feminism has been egalitarianism in terms of one person one vote; the first suffragettes were not interested in that, they were simply asking for the wives of property-owning men to have votes too, they didn’t worry about votes for non-property owning men (or their sisters/wives etc).

    Fi Glover has always been very grounded, right from being Chris Tarrant’s foil when very young.

  • MicheleB

    speak for yourself please

  • Dave Simons

    Thanks Robert – I shall have to get down to Leicester.

  • Dave Simons

    In his time Sir Oswald Mosley was regarded by some Establishment figures as a robust Conservative rather than a Fascist. William Joyce (later Lord Haw-Haw) certainly found Mosley a bit reluctant to be anti-Semitic. However if Mosley and his Blackshirts had gained power I don’t think the ‘liberal left’ would have been alone in its unhappiness. If you look at the record of Fascism in the twentieth century there is no political group that demonises it better than itself.
    I haven’t noticed that what you mean by Communism (and what I regard as the exact diametrical opposite of genuine communism) is being embraced by anyone in the West. Communism doesn’t always follow a failure of government – what followed the Weimar Republic in Germany was Fascism, which completely swamped any support for the party representing Joe Stalin’s definition of ‘Communism’.
    Will revolution now follow at home? I haven’t noticed much appetite for revolution since the early 1970s, more a general reluctance to appreciate what limited freedom and democracy we have (thanks to the hard work of previous generations).

  • Dave Simons

    She’s also a first class twit – like her former husband. Can’t we just once get away from Royalty and Celebrity and look for genuine articles?

  • Dave Simons

    Loads of people have done that. Poverty is relative. I’ve never been what I would define as poor in my life, but I was born in a prefab and my parents were working class by anyone’s definition. I’ve never earned the national average income. I was at college with one of AC’s colleagues who is now in the House of Lords. He always used to get a lot of mileage out of his Blackburn working class origins. He’s married to a friend of Cherie Blair. Cherie Blair’s dad was a TV actor on ‘Till Death Do Us Part’ in the late 1960s. Cherie Blair poor? Let’s not overdo it. And let’s not forget that in global terms nobody in the UK has been really poor this side of World War Two.

  • marymot

    If you call poor someone without enough food, clothing and shelter  then Cherie (Booth) Blair was not poor but in ’50s Britain hardly anyone suffered that. Tony Booth was never a real father to his two daughters and her mother had to give up any hope of an acting career to look after them along with their Gran. She probably started in the ”social scale ‘ along with yourself but no-one can deny she has used her talents to best advantage.
    Her autobiography is available at bargain prices!  Worth a read.

  • Liesbet

    Eva Illouz, professor of sociology at Hebrew University Jerusalem, author of a wonderful book Cold Intimacies, The Making of Emotional Capitalism, find on Wikipedia, and much work on self-help culture. Don’t know whether she is a good speaker, but a great thinker for sure.

  • Gilliebc

    “Her autobiography is available at bargain prices!”

    That says it all! 

  • marymot

    Even  Nelson Mandela’s autography has gone down in price!

  • Rebecca Hanson

    My mum starved during the second world war pre-welfare state.  I absolutely agree that it’s important we don’t forget the change the welfare state and the NHS brought to this country.   It worries me that most people today don’t know.

  • It is such a fascinating subject. 

    I blog about happiness, depression, memories, and how to seek out whatever happiness is when it is possible. I wish I had studied something more relevant, I’m fascinated by biological, political, sociological, physiological definitions of happiness. Like the assumption that funny people are happy (humour is my biggest defence against depression and sadness).

    Mostly I’d like to hear more about instant gratification culture and happiness – mobile phone pictures ‘posed’ to suggest informal and spontaneous actions which are actually crafted, ‘off the cuff’ tweets generating a narrative which can veer from joke to argument via cry for help and frippery, status updates and their endless platform for passive aggression, surveys to assess how depressed you are by mostly agreeing. So much to say.

    I don’t have a good suggestion of a high profile speaker but will think about it.

  • Nigel Martin

    My suggestion is the outgoing President of Ireland, Mary McAleese. In recent years Ireland has been fortunate enough to have two strong and capable female Heads of State, the previous incumbent being Mary Robinson.
    McAleese has used much her presidency in the pursuit of reconciliation in Northern Ireland between the various factions and divided communities. In my view, part of her “angle” on happiness is that personal happiness is bound up with the happiness of others. |
    The fact that her term of office is coming to an end, you actually do have a really good chance of booking her for the lecture.

    Best wishes as you consider all the options. I enjoyed the Campbell one very much.

    Nigel Martin, County Down

  • Kirsty Mack

    All great suggestions – thank you!  This is obviously a topic that gets people talking and I can’t see that changing in the near future.  In response to the ‘female’ thing – in the last 35 years only a handful of speakers delivering the Happiness Lecture have been women and while I’m not trying to even the score it would be good to slightly redress the balance 🙂

  • Happiness

    Can anyone define the
    word Happiness? What is Happiness we do not know because every single person
    has its own meaning of happiness. Finding the ways to be happy in life is
    only a way that can make everyone happy in this world.

  • Ehtch

    Saw Jo Rowling’s, aka JK Rowling’s “Who Do You Think You Are” last night on beeb telly, and blimey, I think it is the best yet I have seen of all. I only said she was welsh since she went to a welsh school on the english-welsh border in Monmouthshire/Gwent. But to have french blood in the Alsace, then german temporarlliy blood, via the Prussians invaders, was really interesting. My first ladlady in Croydon which I had after I left the armed forces was part alsation, who’s mother left there, after WWI, without the bark and bite. She treated me well, and maybe she wanted….. ahem!

    Brilliant episode, and the french military and authorities were beuatiful in helping her out. And for her to happen to meet a distant cousin of her’s in the Alsace at the end, really got my hanky out, good and proper. I am a siftie like that. Half a billion in the bank – WOW. She’s genius.

  • Ehtch

    Have looked into my own family history – I am from Wales but have a great-grandmother that is true Yorkshire, from Harthill, right next to Kinerton Park, between Sheffield and Worksop in Nottinghamshire. Elizabeth Laking. AND many of her family were famous footballers, especially one, but I will have to look in my other computer put away to remind me what his name is.

    BUT, in doing my research of my family, Elizabeth Laking, who became a Morris, lost a younger daughter at about one years old, called Hetty,two years younger than my grandmother. Elizabeth died too, in 1926, when my grandmother was 13, from TB.

    Anyway, I recommend everyone to research their family. It is quite interesting. I found many more fascinating facts, like I have a tailor great-great grandfather from Pembroke Dock giving me some jewish blood….

  • Ehtch

    OK, I knew all along but felt bashful to say, her cousin was Herbert Chapman the great. Another cousin of her was a star pre WWI, but I can’t remember his first name, something Laking his name was.

  • Ehtch

    Dragged my old PC out of the attic, and it is George Laking that played for Wolves and Middlesborough and others inter war. Good pic of him here,

    He is supposed to be my great-grandmothers niece, and with the Chapman cousins of hers, wanted Kiveton Park FC, just up the road from the old village of Harthill, where my great-g-m was born, to be some great football club now these days, but it didn’t happen. They’re info here, with their claims to fame,

  • Ehtch

    Anne Widecombe?!? We want a lecture on happiness not a lecture!

  • Ehtch

    Life is complex, my six foot three and a half had trials with Reading,  Bristol City and the Swans, but he did not have my brain, me, five foot nine with my personal artistic attitude, who could not cope with the football inner world for two minutes at all. I like cricket though. Won the Kent Border League with Selsdon CC three years running, with my number five batting and enthusiastic fielding. I am still renound as their biggest six hook at their background at Banstead CC. It sailed away, above all total trees – the umpire was calling for a new ball, well before it land. So many chinless wanted to shake my hand, after batting out with me on, I think 56.

  • Ehtch

    niece!!! nephew I meant, or second nephew, or whatever they call it. Son of her cousin.

  • Robert Puff

    it is very beautiful and  nice  site.This is a great article to remind all bloggers .this is a very great and nice  article.  What is happiness? Asking someone to define happiness is like asking him/her to define success.  

  • Two suggestions, Ruby Wax, not for the jokes but her understanding of UNhappiness. Diana Athill for her attitude to growing old and being happy.

  • Happiness is quite simple really, and keeping your life simple is the key to it. I can’t remember who said it but it comes down to ‘Something to do, someone to love, and something to look forward to.’
    Having a woman speak on happiness is a perfectly valid idea. Women are often the pivotal point in the lives of their family; we’re the person that our children come to about everything from their underpants to their friendships; we’re the person our husband comes to for counsel on work, friendships, family matters. We consult on everything, manage family logistics, catering, welfare and emotional life. It’s very easy to fragment, in this situation and I, like many women, have experienced that, with periods of depression and frighteningly explosive episodes where I really felt like I was going to lose the plot.
    Despite the explosive dummy spits, I am happy, most of the time. It’s my default setting. I’m lucky, but it’s also because I recognise when to simplify things, pull back, and when I’m overcommitting myself. Less debt helps too, and not being dependent on having a big income or expecting the ability to buy stuff to smooth the way for me. We, in my family, are very happy with less. But feel we have so much more.

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