When you hear a line like, “It’s all over but the screaming,” you’re curious. But when you hear it at the meeting of the world’s super-elite at the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, it really gets your attention. To be sure, it was said in jest. At least sort of: the basic point to which the comment referred is real. We are on the brink of seismic structural and social change.  And we’re not ready.

The overarching themes of the meeting have been widely talked about. Pretty much every journalist snickered that the Davos “Mountain Few” (as Jon Stewart put it) talked a lot about the worrying rise in income inequality, but when 85 people have as much money as the poorest 50% of the world’s population, well, how could they not talk about it? “Extreme science” is reshaping life, death and the very idea of nature (spider genes spliced into goat’s so that there’s spider silk in the goat’s milk, anyone?). Privacy and security are on everyone’s mind in a post-Snowdon world. And, underpinning all of this, as Thomas Friedman pointed out, is the convergence of globalisation and the IT revolution. The two new technologies most up for discussion were 3D printing (we’re already printing human jaws, next it will be houses) and cognitive computing which could replace entire industries.

Taken together, these trends represent fundamental shifts in how our world works. They probably won’t feel like science fiction as they start to unfold – every change builds on one before so we become habituated to them. But they will be profound. The difference isn’t just machines doing our work for us and displacing certain kinds of labour. That trend has been around since the Industrial Revolution. And the difference isn’t just even that the so-called knowledge economy will collapse around us because knowledge per se won’t have much value anymore. Rather, the most significant difference will be in the way these trends could impact deep values like social inclusion, democracy, social stability and a belief in individual growth and potential.

On the threshold of the structural changes we’re in for – and mindful of the potential screaming – it’s more important than ever to be asking some big questions. The ones I heard repeatedly in Davos were where the jobs of the future will come from when whole industries are transformed or eradicated? And how do we avoid winner-take-all economies and the civil unrest that might go with them?

These are important. As Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee said, societies that don’t think about the future don’t tend to do well there. And there’s no doubt that the world’s governments will need very good policies and practices indeed to manage the coming changes.

But there are other important questions that we need to ask too. And for the most part, I didn’t really hear them in Davos. I was left wondering what it will mean to be human in this new world? And what will we need to flourish? Setting policy aside – what should we as individuals be seeking to nurture in ourselves through the coming transitions?

Considering not just the wealth of data on well-being but also its consistency, I’d venture that the things we’re most going to need to cultivate is connection. Not just social connection through smart phones or Skype or maybe even virtual reality. God knows these have their merits, but we need to think more deeply about the sorts of connections we need to be happy, healthy and (because I think we’ll need it) grounded.

We’re going to need meaningful connections to our own bodies. This means remembering that we’re not machines to monitor and measure (one delegate on a healthcare panel, referring to the wearable device Jawbone, said, “We wouldn’t dream of driving a car without a speedometer, so why are we trying to manage our health without these?”), but rather living animals who need to play and move. We need to walk long distances, dance, jump in puddles, skip and play. We need to be connected to our bodies through the use of them, not just through machines that read back our vital signs to us.

We also need meaningful connections to the world around us through our bodies. We need to touch and feel things with our hands and skin. We will need to gasp at the shock of cold lake water, pull away from the clingy fabric of spiders’ webs, feel comforted by the warm skin of a beloved’s body, and savour the richness of a tomato picked from the garden.

We’re going to need – more than ever – a connection to where we’ve come from, to the traditions that have shaped us and the human skills that are so awesome and beautiful that they’re worth cultivating and keeping even when they’re technically redundant: penmanship, stonemasonry, pottery, baking, needlework and so on.

And we’re going to need connections to a creativity that isn’t defined by or directed to technology alone but rather is valued in whatever form it takes, whether it’s the community spirit of a street musician or the social observation of a novelist.

These comments aren’t a romantic lament for a lost world. In a time in which people seem to be defining themselves as technological optimists or pessimists, I see myself simply as a realist. As it stands, we’ve got a whole lot of evidence that while the material benefits that technological innovation have brought are real and need to be acknowledged, we’re also grappling with unprecedented rates of anxiety, depression, obesity and so on. But there’s plenty of research out there that suggests what humans need to thrive. And it’s not technology, or at least, not just technology. It’s the connections that remind us of our very natures.

As we venture into what Thomas Friedman calls this ‘Gutenberg-scale moment’ let’s keep the notion of the good life front and centre. It should be guiding not only the policy choices with which we’ll be managing these structural changes, but also the daily choices (and refusals) we make.



I’ve got a new Scope piece out!

“It seems axiomatic that photography is a sighted person’s art form. But Gina Badenoch, who facilitates photography workshops with blind people and marginalized communities, argues that it’s also a language that can connect us to each other, and help us to see.” Please come and read my interview with Gina at: <http://www.scope-mag.com/2013/11/our-cameras-our-minds&gt;.

I’m thrilled to post that my most recent article for Scope Magazine is now up at the link below. Happy reading – and hope you enjoy some wild time this week!

“Today’s children spend less time in nature than any generation before them. Jon Alexander, brand strategist at the UK’s National Trust, and filmmaker David Bond tell SCOPE about the implications for children’s well-being, and about their ambitious (and irreverent) Project Wild Thing, a documentary that looks at what it would take to get boys and girls back outside.”

You can view the article at: http://www.scope-mag.com/2013/09/into-the-great-wide-open

I’m delighted to share my recent interview with Peggy Liu, for Scope Magazine:

“If rampant consumerism is a cultural — not just economic — phenomenon, can a culture be deliberately changed to minimize its effects? Peggy Liu leads China Dream, a project that aims to achieve nothing less with the world’s most populous nation and oldest civilization. SCOPE asks her how she plans to succeed.”

You may view the latest post at

In 1916, my great-grandfather Harry was one of thousands of men in the trenches in France. Their suffering is legendary. But it’s also hard to imagine. Novels, photos, poetry, movies…it’s as close as most of us can get. You might feel something of their fear, camaraderie and revulsion, but it’s usually guided by some sort of interpreter’s hand and veiled by time.

But last year my uncle gave me an extraordinary gift. My great-grandfather had written dozens of letters to his wife and daughters from France in WWI, and over the course of one summer, my uncle and my cousin set about transcribing them. It was hard work. They were faded with age and my great-grandfather’s writing was often unclear. But they eventually got through them and my uncle compiled them in a bound volume and gave a copy to everyone in our family.

The letters begin in Camp Bramshott in England, on what I like to imagine was a fair day in early June 1916, and end just before his death, in France, in October that year. As my uncle notes in his preface, the letters are extraordinary because they tell a great love story between Harry and his wife Edith, but also describe appalling suffering. They’re also matter-of-fact – astonishingly so. There as yet existed no narrative frame or meaning to the war, so he was just describing the experience as he lived it.

While the letters as a whole are gripping, there are a few things that stand out to me. The first is that fear wasn’t necessarily the men’s worst enemy. Some did fall to pieces. Harry writes of one man, W. Craig, who wound up directing traffic as his nerves had “gone completely”. But Harry himself was comparatively sanguine. In one letter, just two weeks before he was killed, he was in the middle of musing about what post-war life would be life when he had to break off due to German bombardment. Catching up later, he wrote:

Just as I was writing the above, the Germans started dropping shells right on our street, and blew down a house. The bricks flew in all directions. They dropped one close to our billets about 30 yards away. There was some excitement I can tell you.

On the other hand, Harry hated the filth and degradation. His letters are peppered with references to the difficulties of keeping clean. He hated the lice (which he called “livestock”) and the mud was no friend either (if “part of the game”, as he put it). In one stint in the trenches, he couldn’t take the same set of clothes off for a month, even at night. On occasion, he was also tormented by self-doubt, in particular, whether he should have enlisted, and how he was possibly helping the war effort doing what he was doing.

But what’s more moving, and I think, instructive, is what kept Harry going. In some ways, it’s the same old human story. Passionate love for his wife, love and affection for his daughters, memories of home and faith in God: these were the shining things that helped him face each day.

However, it wasn’t just the abstract idea of his family, or even the well of his emotions for them, that kept him going. Rather, Harry drew his strength from thinking about specific things that he actually did with his family, like going for walks, working in the garden, or having big Sunday dinners. His love for his family was bound up in their shared experiences; simple family practices that build and sustained their relationships, even when they were separated and he was living amidst horror and suffering.

Of all the things that sustained Harry, the most important seemed to be music. He refers to it often in his letters. For example:

June 16, 1916

I can just picture you all in Saskatoon today. The girls will be good [piano] players now, and I am pleased Louie is learning to play Offenbach’s Barcarolle. It is one of my favourite pieces, and I am sure you will enjoy it. Bells at Eventide will always be one of my favourite pieces dear. It has so many associations attached to it. You will always be able to have good music on Sunday. I think of the many Sundays we had together dear, and how we used to have music after supper, and wonder how soon we shall have the pleasure of having them again.

September 3, 1916

I miss the singing more than anything, after singing so long in the choir. Nearly all the mean from the choir are out here now, and I can quite understand there being only five men singing there [that is, remaining back at home]. However, after the war Charlie will, I hope, take the choir over again, and we shall have the great pleasure of once again singing there. I wish we could all be back to sing the Te Deum when peace is declared.

The last letter he wrote was to his daughters, on October 2, 1916. It’s brief – just four short paragraphs – but in it he says:

I am so pleased to hear that you are doing well with your music. You know how much I would love to hear you both playing. I am looking forward to it very much.

Reading the letters is a pretty overwhelming experience. They are a voice across time, a chance to know a little about the great-grandfather I could never meet, and the formative years of my grandmother, whom I adored. And of course, they’re an incredible reminder of just how brutal war is, and how incredibly lucky we are if we don’t have to go through it. But, more than that, they’re a reminder that you make a family through doing: working together in the garden, going for walks, making music. I remind myself of this now when I have to nag my daughter to practice her piano, or when my son wants to help cook but I know it will take twice the time. All those things are so much more than the moment.

Trench Mortar Image Courtesy of  Great War Primary Document Archive: Photos of the Great War - www.gwpda.org/photos

Trench Mortar Image Courtesy of Great War Primary Document Archive: Photos of the Great War – http://www.gwpda.org/photos

Canadian Soldiers in a Trench Image Courtesy of Great War Primary Document Archive: Photos of the Great War - www.gwpda.org/photos

Canadian Soldiers in a Trench
Image Courtesy of Great War Primary Document Archive: Photos of the Great War – http://www.gwpda.org/photos

Mira practicing piano at home

Mira practicing piano at home



Monsoon rain is like nothing else. It hammers down from the sky like something solid, not water at all. When you’re outside, you either run like crazy to get out of it or give up entirely and let yourself get soaked.

It’s loud too. In fact it’s so loud that I did a double take when our hostess, Phyu Phyu Tin, owner of Yangon’s (aptly named) Monsoon restaurant told us that the building was haunted. “What?” I whispered to the woman next to me. “Did Phyu Phyu say it was ‘swamped’?” “No, haunted,” she whispered back. Phyu Phyu carried on, her voice raised over the din of the rain and the gentle swoosh of the ceiling fan, “It’s the ghost of a woman. We don’t know who she is. But we tend not to work late alone.”

Phyu Phyu was speaking to twenty-five or so delegates and spouses attending the Young Global Leaders (YGL) meetings at the World Economic Forum’s East Asia Summit earlier this month. It was the second day of the summit and the 300 or so YGL delegates had scattered across Yangon to attend “Impact Journeys” – full day immersions into different facets of Myanmar business, life and culture, from urban infrastructure to healthcare to the arts.

Our group had signed up for a full day immersion into the subject of Myanmar cuisine, with a focus on the potential relationship between Slow Food and economic growth. “Slow Food” refers, of course, to the movement founded by Carlo Petrini. Given that its roots are in Italy, “Slow Food” tends to conjure images of la dolce vita: picnics under olive trees, hand cured meats, artisanal cheeses, earthy wines sipped in the afternoon sun. It can also bring to mind uncomfortable images of food elitism, Tom Wolfe-like scenarios of over-privileged yuppies braying on about the merits of one particular Tuscan olive oil over another.

If you’ve been to (or read up on) Myanmar, which is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, both of those scenarios could actually sound quite grotesque. People in Myanmar, especially in rural areas, don’t always get enough to eat: rice, a staple, can simply be too expensive. Malnutrition makes children vulnerable to childhood illnesses and dysentery. The food transport system is virtually non-existent.

So, why did it make sense for us to be in Phyu Phyu’s humid and elegant restaurant, learning about Burmese cuisine and thinking about Slow Food, while the power dipped in and out and the rains fell outside?

The answer is that Slow Food is more than a gastronomic movement. It’s a political one. Conviviality, nurturing local knowledge and traditions, environmental sustainability, celebrating particular customs in an era of globalized production and consumption…. These aren’t frivolous, or even neutral, values. They are a statement about the importance of human social life and tradition, and about the right of everyone, not just to eat, but to eat in a human, healthy and connected way.

These values are starkly relevant at this moment in Myanmar’s history. For decades, the well-being of the population of Myanmar was subject to the whim of a series of authoritarian generals. Tax rice, devalue the currency, close off trade – it’s going to have a big impact on how and what people eat. But now, under Thein Sein’s leadership, and with Aung San Suu Kyi out of prison at last, Myanmar is on the threshold of change.

This defining moment is precisely why the World Economic Forum was meeting in Myanmar. Should development be allowed to happen pell-mell, or at the dictates of the market? Or should the people of Myanmar – not just its leaders – be empowered to engage in development in a way that fosters the health and well-being of the people of Myanmar as they see it?

The people of Myanmar whom we met, like Phyu Phyu, definitely want things to improve economically, but they also want development that’s human, sustainable and consistent with local values. Phyu Phyu herself described her shock when she visited the US and saw rampant obesity and streets colonized by fast food chains. That wasn’t her vision for prosperity in Myanmar. And that vision is knocking hard at the window: a Korean fast food chicken chain was just about to open a block from our hotel.

Slow Food is also an ideological framework for thinking about how development could unfold in Myanmar. There are concrete expressions of its implications, like the idea of creating a local food festival that celebrates Myanmar cuisine the way the Mistura Festival celebrates Peruvian cuisine. But Slow Food could also frame how other aspects of development go forward, for example, by ensuring that small farmers are included in decision making, by bringing global food brands into conversation with local food producers, and by keeping food justice squarely in the public debate.

Phyu Phyu and her team taught us how to make Burmese lentil soup, “bachelor” chicken curry (so-named as bachelors might make it after a big night out, with a pinch of marijuana if they’re extremely naughty), spicy fish curry, tea leaf salad and Burmese-style spring rolls (based on a Chinese recipe, but jazzed up with tamarind in the dipping sauce). They also taught us a thing or two about the excitement and anxiety of being part of a culture poised on the edge of drastic change. And they reminded us that certain patterns don’t have to be inevitable. Models for the good life exist. They’re there, ready to be adapted for what’s needed. Myanmar can turn on the lights and banish the ghosts – be they of the past or unwanted futures.

“Bachelor” Chicken Curry Ingredients

My contribution!

My contribution!

Mortar and Pestle for pounding chilis

Mortar and Pestle for pounding chilis

Downtown Yangon

Downtown Yangon

The Sule Pagoda: a focal point of Yangon's spiritual and political life

The Sule Pagoda: a focal point of Yangon’s spiritual and political life

A lot of jokes about happiness are mean. For example, an anonymous post on an Internet joke site says, “What ‘s the difference between a Dementor and marriage? One will suck out every good feeling, every happy memory and drain the remaining peace, hope, and happiness left inside you. The other is a dark creature from a children’s fantasy novel.”

And that’s one of the less cringe-inducing ones.

There’s irony in operation here because many of the subjects that get mocked most – male/female relations, marriage, child-rearing, social participation – are elements of life that have been proven to promote happiness and well-being.

Perhaps “happiness” is an obvious victim for this sort of thing because it sounds so kittens and rainbows. Plus, we might live in a self-help culture, but many of us still feel a little squeamish when it comes to talking about emotional topics. It’s awfully earnest. And, even if you get past that, it can still seem uncomfortably narcissistic. I’ve worried about that very thing in an earlier blog.

But there’s an interesting organization called Action for Happiness that’s trying to change this perspective. AFH is ambitious. Their goal is to create happier societies. Practically this means achieving a whole number of secondary goals: shifting the tone of public discourse, overturning our assumption that we should measure citizens’ progress and well-being by GDP, sifting through insights from fields as diverse as economics and psychology to put together broad patterns of understanding, disseminating information about happiness, and nudging public policy in directions that have been proven to promote happiness and well-being.

The people behind AFH are no self-styled prophets or happy-clappy, bead-wearing hippies. The movement was founded in 2010 by Richard Layard, a Labour peer and professor of economics at the LSE, Geoff Mulgan, chief executive of The Young Foundation, and Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College, an independent boarding and day school in the UK.  Each is a leader in their field, well-poised to influence public debate. If you will, they are the Establishment, albeit a progressive side of it.

The ethos on the AFH website is that we can cultivate happiness through action. Indeed, at several points on the site, the quote the Dalai Lama saying, “Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.” To that end, the website features resources designed to motivate people to do things to boost their happiness. For example, visitors can download a “Happiness Action Pack” created to put “the science of well-being into practice.” This action pack condenses insights from positive psychology into ten areas in our lives in which we can do things to boost our happiness. The first five relate to how we engage with our bodies and the world. It includes things like giving, connecting to other people and exercising. The second five relate more to managing our outlook and emotions, which includes setting goals, being positive and accepting oneself.

Perhaps because of the apparent simplicity of these messages, combined with the fact that one could imagine seeing this sort of thing in some of the fluffier women’s magazines, critics have suggested that AFH’s approach is facile. Writing in The Guardian last year, David Harper, a Reader in Clinical Psychology at the University of East London, said that AFH’s approach is “based on two flawed assumptions: that the source of unhappiness lies in people’s heads – in how they see the world, and that the solution lies in change at the level of the individual.”

To be sure, this line of thinking exists in AFH and in the wider world. It’s even got quite a pedigree. The Stoics said something along these lines. Buddhism does too. WB Yeats wrote that the soul is “self-delighting, self-appeasing and self-affrighting.”  And, thanks to YouTube, we’ve recently seen a surge in attention for David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement speech, “This is Water,” in which he urges graduates to take the opportunity to choose what they think about in order to transcend the boring, crushing or soulless moments of our lives.

This perspective probably has endured for some thousands of years because there’s some truth in it.

But it’s not the whole truth. For, while we do have remarkable abilities to school our minds, hearts and bodies to cultivate behaviors that help us cope with suffering and embrace happiness, of course the external world has an impact on us.

And this is where AFH’s critics aren’t quite being fair. In fact, AFH’s work is so interesting precisely because they acknowledge both sides of the coin. They seem a lot less interested in pushing all the responsibility either to society or the individual, and a lot more focused on simply seeing how the science of happiness tallies up and what we can actually do about it.

Some of the action does need to come from industry and government: no question. People are happier when they’re valued, so dehumanizing work processes are going to foment unhappiness. People feel happier when they live in clean and secure environments, so public policy that allows environmental degradation is going to spread misery. But even here we’re theoretically not entirely subject to the whims of state, at least, not in democracies. We can vote. We can create campaigns. We can create art. We can write stories. We can find ways to enter the public debate and try to influence happiness-promoting practices and policies.

But perhaps one of the most interesting spheres for action that AFH talks about is that which lies right at the meeting point of the individual and his or her community. It’s not policy, it’s not just positive thinking…it’s the stuff we do daily as we interact with the people around us. In an interview for the digital commons site openDemocracy, Geoff Mulgan alludes to the idea that engagement spurs well-being.* And the actions that AFH’s website encourage include examples of these small-scale but meaningful points of engagement: between parents and children, people and their workplaces and people and their communities. Just to take one example, they suggest volunteering. They cite the science that shows how volunteering boosts happiness and they provide a whole heap of resources to get people going. It’s not that sexy, but it’s right.

Mean humour, alas, might provoke a wry smile, but it doesn’t promote happiness. But connection and engagement do. And if Action for Happiness is as successful as they deserve to be, we’ll all be feeling the positive effects of their efforts.


* I am taking a few liberties with Mulgan’s extremely interesting interview here, but I think this is very much in the spirit of what he says.


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