Welcome to our January Business Briefing.

The coming week is meant to be the ‘most miserable of the year’, in the northern hemisphere at least. So this month the topic we explore is happiness.

We’re also making sure that our mailing list for our Business Briefings is fully up-to-date and will shortly be asking you to sign up to keep receiving them (more details below).

“Happy days”

“So here is one of my theories on happiness: we cannot know if we have lived a truly happy life until the very end.”

Those of you who know your Greek philosophers will recognise that this is how Aristotle wrote about happiness almost 2500 years ago. For ‘the ancients’, happiness was something that could only be viewed over an entire life. In Aristotle’s case, he thought it was about how satisfied you could be in looking back on what you had done over a life spent in business, or politics or in academia.

Solon, his near-contemporary actually said “consider no-one happy until they are dead”. Aristotle even wondered if your happiness could be said to change after you had died. Think about how people would talk about you (“poor so-and-so”) should one of your gifted/attractive/successful close relatives turn out to be a horrible murderer after you’ve gone!

But the quote above actually comes from Alastair Campbell writing in the Guardian on his experiences, including his reflections on living with depression. In this, Campbell like the ancients arrives at the conclusion that happiness is most importantly something to view over the long-term, and not how we happen to feel at any one moment in time.

What do you think happiness is? A psychological state which you try to assess by looking inside yourself to weigh up how you feel and which only you can judge. Or something that can be objectively tested, including by others, through examining your ‘projects’ and achievements?

And is it something which is all about the ‘here and now’, living in the moment, or is it something that you can only determine in looking over a whole lifetime?

These distinctions are important. Personal happiness is now more sought after, more talked about, more researched and more advised on (books, DVDs, courses, therapy, policy think tanks, this article…) than at any other time in human history. The BBC even reported on a ‘happiness manifesto’ for Slough. Prior to the start of the Enlightenment in the 18th Century, there was no widespread expectation that people (especially the common masses) had any right to personal happiness and few had much chance to enjoy it – either the daily pleasures we take for granted or the successful pursuit of ambitions over a lifetime of doing and achieving.

“Am I happy?” is a question most people today ask of themselves at some point - perhaps often – but is unlikely to have gone through the head of your average Londoner in 1700. Such was the revelation that individuals might have a right to happiness that the pursuit of it was put it in their Constitution by the independent Americans.

So we should take our privilege seriously and reflect on what happiness is and what, if anything, we need to change in pursuing that (assuming, and it is a proviso, that we do want to be happy). Daniel Kahneman provides some useful evidence to help us in this. Most fascinating is his exploration of the difference between ‘experience’ (how we feel in the moment) and ‘memory’ (how we feel in remembering about past events).

Kahneman touches on the past and present. Our considerations of happiness must also take into account how we think of and about the future. For some, much of life is spent in hoping for things to come, dreaming of what might be, making plans. The disappointment is then not so much from having strived to achieve these things but in never getting around to doing anything about them.

For others, the future is a place full of worries and dread that casts its shadow back onto the present. Robert Burns (who Scots will celebrate traditionally with haggis, neeps and tatties next Wednesday, January 25th) laments this human capacity. After ploughing up the nest of a field mouse he pities the creature’s suffering but then reflects:

“Still thou are blest, compared wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!”

Perhaps from all this comes a few lessons for us all:

  • don’t let the bad memories crowd out the good experiences that really happened
  • try to not to spend too much time in the future, either being overly anxious of what it may bring or overly reliant on happiness lying there
  • put your energies into things (relationships, work, hobbies) that are meaningful for you and that you will look back on with satisfaction
  • make the most of the moment.

Hopefully without sounding too maudlin, do allow yourself to dwell on the sun shining, the dog running, the music playing, the children laughing. To be “surprised by joy” and embrace “unplanned delight” as various other poets have put it.

From the past: A few follow ups…

Thanks for the responses to our last, festive Briefing. From this, we were delighted so many of you joined our New Year personal productivity webinar. You can find more here including the recording and the main presentation from the online seminar. Please feel free to share this highly evaluated resource with colleagues. Lots of you commented afterwards that the insights shared were the best overview of all the ideas and tools they have come across in this area.

Also, some of the ‘Words of the Year 2011’ that you reported: architecture, engagement, socialization, dissemination, change, disintermediation, transformative. We admit to liking some of these!

To the future: looking ahead to the next Business Briefing

Our next briefing is on the theme of choice…and we will be giving you a choice as well as writing about it.

For 5 years we have run an ‘opt out’ policy on the mailing list for these Briefings. Now, (in contrast to the very sensible policy in transplantation services), we are going to move to an ‘opt in’, one-off refresh of the mailing list that sends these Briefings to many, many people. So looking ahead you can:

  • choose to opt out this month, using the buttons at the bottom here as you have been able to for 5 years or so
  • wait till next month’s Business Briefing and then decide whether to opt in for our Briefings in the future.

Best wishes

Phil and Ross
January 2012

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