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Rebuilding happiness for our times

We preview the Wellcome Collection season ‘On Happiness’, and hear from contributors Thomas Dixon, Lynne Segal and Robin Dunbar.

08 June 2021

This July Wellcome Collection will launch On Happiness, a season of free events, activities and two exhibitions – Joy and Tranquillity – which will bring together voices from across the cultural, scientific and spiritual fields to reflect on the elusive subject of happiness. How do people find resilience, hope and even joy at times of duress? How might we rebuild happiness for our current times? 

Wellcome Collection curators Laurie Britton Newell and George Vasey said: ‘As curators how do you tackle one of life’s most elusive and slippery concepts? Ideas about happiness change across cultures and history and are not universally felt or understood. But one certainty which has underpinned all of our research, is that everyone wants to feel good. We have been developing this project at a time of tremendous difficulty and uncertainty and it has become increasingly important to think about how we might reclaim happiness and make it fit for purpose now. The exhibitions will invite artists, scientists and our audiences to reflect on what makes us tranquil and what brings us joy.’

At the heart of the On Happiness season will be the concurrent exhibitions Joy and Tranquillity which will consider different routes to experiencing these positive feelings. From the uplifting sensations of dancing and laughter to the calm of being in nature and diary writing, the exhibitions will consider the effects of emotion on our self and others. Newly commissioned works and multi-sensory installations by contemporary artists including Jasleen Kaur, Chrystel Lebas, Harold Offeh, Amalia Pica, Stefanie Posavec and David Shrigley will be on display alongside historic objects dating back to the 15th century from Wellcome’s collection. The exhibitions will consider ideas from different schools of thought including neuroscience, religion and psychotherapy offering a range of perspectives on the connections between emotions and health. 

In addition to the exhibitions, the season will offer a varied programme beyond the museum and online. Stefanie Posavec’s interactive digital commission and playful wellbeing questionnaire Updating Happiness will invite participants to submit their answers to a growing archive of definitions of happiness. An audio guide and podcast will bring together interdisciplinary voices to explore the themes of the season. On Happiness will also include Harold Offeh’s live dance-a-thon Joy Inside Our Tears; digital stories exploring happiness through the ages; artist in conversations, amongst many other free events and activities.

Emotional historian Professor Thomas Dixon has been working as the historical consultant for the season, liaising with the curators on this subject over the past few years. Professor Robin Dunbar and Professor Lynne Segal provided interviews for the exhibition audio guide; Dunbar talks about his research into social bonding and friendship and its impact on health and longevity, and Segal about radical and collective joy. Below, we hear from them, partly based around our summer edition theme of ‘from poverty to flourishing’.

On Happiness season at Wellcome Collection launches 15 July. | #OnHappiness

Illustration: Updating Happiness, Stefanie Posavec

- Find more on happiness in our archive.

A wealth of words and concepts

My role, as a historian of emotions, has been to discuss with the curators their choice and interpretation of images, texts, and objects for the two exhibitions. I am a pluralist about emotions and so was pleased that the objects chosen ranged widely through the varieties of positive feeling that have existed across time and cultures – grouped separately into exhibitions on Joy and Tranquillity. The idea is to use art and history to look beyond 21st century notions of ‘wellbeing’ and ‘happiness’, opening our eyes to other ways of thinking and feeling about all sorts of states of passion and emotion, including not only joy and tranquillity, but also euphoria, ecstasy, transcendence, calm, contentment, pleasure, serenity, and delight. 

The term ‘happiness’ itself contains a historical tension. It shares a root with words like ‘happenstance’ and ‘perhaps’ and originally meant chance or good luck rather than anything to do with emotions. In 1776, when the American Declaration of Independence referred to the inalienable rights of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’, the intended emphasis was on the right to pursue good fortune and material prosperity rather than to aspire to feel good. 

Since the 18th century ‘happy’ has come to describe a particular kind of feeling as well as that sense of being lucky or fortunate. For some, the term ‘happiness’ has become so deeply connected with positive psychology and corporate wellbeing programmes, that they have looked for other terms, such as ‘flourishing’ to name the states of thriving and balance that people have sought over the centuries. It’s certainly helpful to put a bit of distance between feel-good ‘happiness’ and a broader idea of flourishing which will include a wider range of emotional experiences, some of them difficult and painful.

My hope, then, is that the ‘On Happiness’ season will inspire people to rediscover a wealth of words and concepts for states of euphoria and serenity, and also to think again about the difference between the two historical senses of ‘happiness’ – as a good feeling on the one hand, or a state of fortune and flourishing on the other. 

- Professor Thomas Dixon is a member of the Queen Mary Centre for the History of the Emotionsyou can learn more about their work at The Emotions Lab website.

Friendship is the single most important thing

Friendship is the single most important thing affecting our psychological health and wellbeing, as well as our physical health and wellbeing. Most of the things we do with friends – laughing, singing, dancing, feasting, telling emotional stories, the occasional caress – all trigger the brain’s endorphin system. Endorphins make us feel relaxed and contented, and trusting of the person we engage in these activities with. 

Should you prefer money to friendship? The short answer is an emphatic “No!” Money may buy you luxuries, but luxuries are here-today-and-gone-tomorrow. Friendship lasts a lifetime. Friends will always there when you need them. Are happiness and flourishing the same thing? I’d say: “Yes”. If you are happy, life’s a breeze. Nothing stresses you, and you’ll sail unperturbed through the worst the world can throw at you.

- Robin Dunbar is Emeritus Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Oxford.

Are you happy now?

‘Do what makes you happy’ is the advice we are most likely to hear in situations of self-doubt or conflict. Here, happiness is seen as a matter of individual feeling, something we can work at or design, perhaps drawing upon that army of happiness gurus to advise us. Nation states have even been busy monitoring and comparing the ‘happiness’ scores of their citizens. However, I fear that one underlying trigger for the emphasis on ‘happiness’ is actually concern over the mounting evidence of individual misery, with some awareness of the economic costs and market inefficiency of rising rates of depression. Faced with what some call the ‘happiness’ industry, its commercial remit escalating from the 1990s, critics like me remain cynical about the underlying assumptions of the advice on offer in countless self-help books. They share a characteristic disavowal of the many causes for sorrow or anger in what remains our deeply unequal world. 

We’re often told, for instance, that money can’t buy you happiness, when what is far more certain is that poverty, workplace stress, homelessness, unemployment, and so many other conditions of lack, will probably make you miserable. That is why emotions, of whatever kind, but especially happiness, always have a public as much as a personal dimension. They are not best seen as merely individual attributes, but rather as atmospheres circulating between us. We need to bring our explorations of happiness into the public arena, not rejecting the idea of ‘happiness’, but linking it to possibilities for identifying with the lives and feelings of those around us, near and far. In my view, maintaining our ties to others, whether in joyful endeavors or in any shared pain, will be as significant in keeping us attached to life as any more precarious state of contentment. This is why happiness is best seen through a collective lens, with our moments of shared joy all the more solid when connecting us with the lives of others and with some sense of the potential for human flourishing overall.   

- Lynne Segal is Professor of Psychology and Gender Studies at Birkbeck College, and author of Radical Happiness: Moments of Shared Joy)