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I’ve just found out that 20th March is International Happiness Day. It seems like there’s an international day for pretty much everything now (the 20th March is also shared by “Snowman Burning Day” in the USA and Switzerland), but there is something rather nice about the first day of spring, the spring solstice and international happiness all coming together on the same day. It feels appropriate that as we welcome in the Persian new year (Nowrooz) we also celebrate happiness, and encourage it in our lives.

But what is “happiness”? It’s something we all want, but it’s not always clear how we get there. Here are some thoughts…

While the coming of the 13th Baktun of the Mayan calendar failed to bring about the end of the world on the winter solstice of 2012, other voices came forward to suggest that it was not an absolute ending that the ancients predicted, but the beginning of a new era. In particular, the Mayans of present-day Guatamala believe that this new era will be one in which big social and environmental issues will find resolution.

While I’m not one to jump to superstitious conclusions, it does seem that with the advent of the global financial crisis, enduring poverty worldwide and the rise of climate change as a pressing issue in our social consciousness, more people are questioning the values we live by and seeking to improve them.

At the very heart of this process of enquiry is our understanding of happiness, and the means by which we try to achieve it. A recent documentary, The Happy Movie, is a fascinating insight into the conditions in which happiness thrives in cultures across the world. One of it’s most poignant conclusions (taken from recent cross-cultural studies into happiness) is that a middle class American person has the same level of average happiness as a rickshaw driver in India, working 16 hours a day and living in a tiny shack with a large family and only basic possessions. In one fell swoop this documentary, and other similar films and writings, undermine the line our modern economy has been built on – that happiness and prosperity are won as a result of accumulating more, whether it be wealth, sexual appeal or Facebook friends. Instead, they present a version of happiness which is based on a basic level of financial sustainability and deep social connections.

It’s no secret that mental illness, particularly depression, is on the up in time-stressed Western societies as communities become fragmented and families get smaller and dispersed across the world. Think tanks like the new economics foundation (nef) have advised on the inevitability of shorter working weeks to encourage more time outside of the office participating in community-focused activity, and also wider distribution of wealth. What that means in practical terms, very few companies have figured out yet, but thought leadership like this is like a seed freshly planted – it takes time for them to develop root. But it seems like more and more people are in on the game of re-imagining how we might organise our social and economic systems to encourage more people-focused, rather than wealth-focused, priorities. Bhutan’s decision to adopt GDH (Gross Domestic Happiness) over GDP as their primary measure of national prosperity is one macro example of how these ideas are manifesting.

The key seems to be that in happier societies, people come first. Social relationships are valued over financial wealth and material possessions. People are content with owning less because their lives are enriched by strong, cross-generational emotional bonds, and collaborative social activities. Both the ancient mystical traditions and science tell us that compassionate and empathetic activities don’t just help other people, but also make us happier and healthier.

As Rumi says: “When we practice loving kindness and compassion we are the first ones to profit.” There have been several campaigns and initiatives I’ve come across in recent years which have tried to galvanise more compassionate action, from Karen Armstrong’s Charter for Compassion to the (perhaps more gimicky) Free Hugs campaign. And of course there are all of the individuals, organisations, carers, spiritual movements and religiously driven initiatives that work on local, national and international levels to bring happiness into people’s lives.

These are great and necessary, but at the end of the day, the only thing that can make us truly happy is ourselves – we have to work at it and, as the Dalai Lama says, “Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.” We can’t buy it off the shelves, or receive it from a friend. It’s something we cultivate; it’s a state of mind. Abraham Lincoln once said that “People are just as happy as they make up their minds to be.” And I think it’s true. Happiness almost always seems to walk hand in hand with contentment; be happy with what you have and you will always be rich. Seek riches and you will never have enough.

So, I guess my new years resolution is to value more what I already have, and try to find happiness through positive action. Happy Nowrooz to all my Persian-speaking friends and family… and make the new year/spring solstice bring good health, new adventures and happiness to you all!

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After watching Avatar a couple of weeks ago I have been living in my imagination’s recreation of my life as it would be on Pandora. A return to life reunited with nature, an understanding and connection with all living things, the training of becoming a warrior and making the most of our body’s capabilities, and of course the flying with dragons part – that was just unbelievably cool.

There’s something so timelessly attractive about the stereotype of the enlightened “native”. The concept of knowledge being based entirely on necessity, and utter the immaterialism of rural life seem to erase everything that we negatively associate with the modern world of capitalism which, for want of a better word, SUCKS. On Pandora there is a sensitivity, an attention to detail, a respect of all things as they are and a brutal honesty which, sometimes, I feel is lost from our urban metropolises.

I remember one wise man who asked, in response to a friend musing on the simple, pure spirituality (in the human sense, not necessarily the religious one) of rural dwellers, what would happen if you took a villager and placed them in a city? Chances are that after a few weeks they would be no different from any urban dweller with their lack of attention to the environment, their surroundings and other people. What is it that the city does to us that grates away our humanity in such a subtle, but present way?

I don’t want to suggest that everyone who lives in an urban environment is an asshole, but I think many would agree that life in the metropolis is a hectic game of travelling as fast as possible from A to B, working hard to afford a decent lifestyle, and forces one to develop a resilience to human suffering which can allow us to walk past the several homeless people we inevitably see suffering each day as we rush about our business, and not be devastated by the thought of it. The fact is we don’t have time to. Why? Because in capitalist societies the metropolis is the centre of individual opportunity, achievement and success. As long as capitalism is our economic paradigm, we will continue to flock to the cities to pursue personal gain and development, at the expense of our energy to care about much else and remembering the core human values that our native predecessors survived on: collectivism.

My question is this: as the percentage of the world population living in urban areas begins to overtake rural populations, how will this massive migration affect human nature? Will we evolve our urban lifestyles to accommodate a sense of societal gain as priority over individual gain? Will we ever be able to return to a place where our leaders make decisions based on what is best for the whole community, rather than a select core group of elites? Even in a period of financial recession, which has threatened the current economic model world-wide, can we wake up and smell the cheese?

I doubt it. Watching Tony Blaire at the Chilcot enquiry gave me no hope of our paradigm of existence ever changing. A couple of nights age I went to see a talk called “Neuroesthetics Conversations: Improvisation, Creativity and Music” which featured the renowned jazz saxophonist, Gilad Atzmon, in conversation with neuroscientists Jessica Grahn and Stefan Koelsch at UCL. Gilad spoke about how good jazz musicians play without thinking, experiencing the whole essence of the music rather than being concerned about the details of their technique or technicalities of the piece they’re playing, which would put a damper on the quality of the music produced. He then compared this to the Chilcot equiry, saying that the enquiry was entirely tied up in the legalities of the case rather than considering the bigger picture of the ethics of what happened. It seems that this is becoming a more common trait in political and societal behaviour; getting caught up in the legalities and details of why and how atrocities happen, trying to unpick step by step what’s right or not by law, rather than making it simple and discussing the morality of our actions and their repercussions on our quality of life.

The following video perfectly expresses the notion of how possession, which is ultimately what capitalism comes down to, can ruin us as human empathisers:

I know that most people I interact with are good human beings, or at least we try to be. We care about others, we donate to charity, we buy the Big Issue… but it’s our political systems that are ultimately failing us. How can we change them? We can vote, yes, but a scratch performance based on verbatim interviews with people in the UK on their voting habits revealed to me that most people don’t feel as though their voices, or the votes, count in really making a marked difference in the governance of this country.

So what can we do to prevent our cities becoming the evaporating ground for empathy and the breeding ground for the need to possess? How can we stop the movement of human nature reaching the stage of the corporates in Avatar on their merciless search of ‘unobtanium’ (the only truly cringe-worthy part of the film – what an obvious and utterly uncreative metaphor)?

Maybe the answer is to paint ourselves blue and flash-mob Canary Wharf and the Houses of Parliament, showering petals on confused politicians and bankers, before releasing our army of fire breathing beasts and stray pigeons, and arming our bows with arrows to show them whose boss…

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Layering

Lately, when I am thinking about one thing or another – politics, for example – my brain decides to excavate the issue by visualising the layers beneath the issue I am superficially considering. I was considering Obama’s decision to discard plans for a missile bunker in Eastern Europe, and thinking of how the media portrayed and discussed the decision when in my minds eye a map emerged showing the layers and geology of the complex political structure and relationships that went into a decision such as this, and the different stages of the process for the idea to conceptualise and finally reach the public. My brain suddenly realised the complexity of the event and decided to draw a map for me to begin processing it. Only thing is, the map’s so fucking huge I have no idea with which element I should begin!

Is this something other people have experienced?

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1984: 2009

Last night I had an Orwell night at home. We watched Michael Radford’s Nineteen Eighty Four, followed by the cartoon version of Animal Farm, the 1954 version which is still so watchable.

I love being reminded of Orwell’s brilliance in predicting, with such simple clarity, the gradual descent into totalitarianism that we are experiencing in the world. I did not, however, expect to find that the details of Orwell’s 1984 that seemed just a little too fantastical, the elements which we like to believe were truly only possible in Orwell’s imagination, that would never be permitted to exist in the free, experessive and opinionated society we live in, to become a stark reality.

Yes, surveillance is catching up with us. In fact, it’s being smuggled under our radar unnoticed and installed in our homes before we have the chance to say ‘wait a min…’. Those all-seeing screens in 1984, that peered down from the wall 24 hours a day in the private home to make sure the individual conformed to the party’s vision of life, are at present operating in 2,000 homes in the UK. OK, so they don’t talk back yet, but CCTV is being used in the private sphere now in ‘Family Intervention Projects’ to keep ‘trouble children’ in line to do their homework and go to bed on time, and parents are expected to sign contracts promising to raise their children well enough to stay out of drugs and crime and perform well academically. The government will be able to ‘intervene’ (whatever that means) if they feel that parents aren’t fulfilling their contracts. The best bit? It’s costing £400 million pounds. That’s right… we’re paying for this enterprise ourselves.

Don’t believe me? It’s all here… and here… and here… but what worries me is that I haven’t yet found it in any national papers… why is this not being covered beyond independent news sights?

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Draft

it is summer but

leaves are browning

pools of sunlight gather around the last monumental buds, but

shadows form at the edges

inking the landscape until the sun is a blind spot

balancing on the cusp of silence

 

i open my book

.            .             .

the pages are blank.

whisperings tell me that i am to write the story

myself

or else history might forget

that it ever existed at all

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Thank you, wordpress.

Yes welcome all of you to my new blog. It has migrated from its former Warwick University location (http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/enuecm), along with most of the old posts, to a new identity – Wolves and Lovers. The title of this blog can mean anything you want it to – it’s from a line in a piece of my writing which I happen to quite like.

I hope that this blog will encourage me to write more often, about all sorts of things, and engage with online writing more actively. I also hope it will bring enjoyment to those who stumble upon it.

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Writing about web page http://www.thomhutchinson.com

Thom Hutchinson is the latest gossip in the world of celebrity-to-be. If you don’t know about him already – WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN!!??

Become a fan today by visiting his website and educating yourself about this witty, mysterious, sexy and FAMOUS man!

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