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.