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 – http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/oncampus/baggs/index.aspx 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