Making yourself happy


I was at an event a few days ago. There was chilled Pinot Grigio, wooden walls, and the sound of a vacuum cleaner in the background. It was a bunch of thought leader types looking for ways to build a hopeful community. Well, that was the brief. The main speaker repeatedly mentioned how that event was all about ‘people connecting’. Meanwhile, he used his mastery – and what a master he was – to hog attention and energy. But hey, who’s free from such contradictions?

About two thirds of the way through, another speaker – a finance consultant – said the following. That he worked with the people who did well, if not best, in the current system. And that as much as he could see, those people were mostly not happy. Then the conversation moved on, and the thought passed.

It stayed with me – and has been resonating since, as one of the saddest things I’ve heard. I wrote a short Linkedin post about it – which resonated with people. So here I am, expanding on those reflections.


Aristotle proposes that happiness – eudaimonia – is the purpose of the good life. It is also the sign of a life well lived. Happiness here is not simply the experience of pleasure. It is an emergent property, arising from satisfaction taken in the exercise of an activity. But not only that, it is also the result of long term accretion, as one goes through life, and develops friendships, knowledge and healthy habits. So never listen to the life advice of a grumpy old man. Their misery signals a life poorly lived.

Sure, happiness is partly dependent on luck, placing material goods and people of compatible temperament in our way – or simply giving us a favorable starting point. It is, in equal part at least, dependent on our choices, our commitment to cultivate the cardinal virtues of prudence, courage, justice and temperance or moderation. Happiness is thus something that we develop consistently, over time. Irrespective of where we start, we can become happier.

More, in the views of Aristotle and other proponents of virtue ethics, happiness is something we must cultivate. As a teenager, I became obsessed with Andre Gide. In his journal he writes: ‘It is a duty to make ourselves happy’. I have adopted that sentence as a motto, and an encouragement to cultivate virtue. Not that I have never fallen prey to depressive or anxious spells, but that – as a fundamental beacon for my own life, I should look at what would yield consistent, long-term happiness.


How did we come to build a system where the people who ‘succeed’ are not happy? I mean – I see the contradictions of our post-colonial, partiarchal, neoliberal capitalist societies – but how does the model perpetuate itself? Why are leaders, and other ‘successful people’, not putting a stop to it all, saying ‘this makes me miserable’? For those who were less privileged to start with – or failed to build the right habits – well, their lack of happiness would make sense. But surely, a good system is one where success comes with profound fulfilment.

My default first step towards the answer is not exactly joyful. One of my favourite pieces of political philosophy is a text by Montesquieu, from The Spirit of the Laws, where he describes the distinct passions that underly different political regimes. A true republic, says Montesquieu, relies on a collective desire for virtue. Aristocracy relies on honour. Tyranny rests on fear. Corollary, you know what regime a country lives under by observing what passion dominates among its people.

This doesn’t bode well for us. In spite of much hand-wringing about democracy (and its purported threat from China, Russia, Iran and other rogue states), the dominant passion I observe around me seems to be fear, much more than a passionate love of virtue. Whether it’s corporate types avoiding responsibility, or millennials retreating from the world to nurture their generalised anxiety. Workplaces at least – no matter how many Chief Happiness Officers they might appoint – do not seem to nurture the consistent practice of healthy habits (or virtue), leading their employees to experience deep lasting happiness. Gin cocktails and ping pong tables notwithstanding.


In late 2020, I joined hands with a peer – facilitator extraordinaire Helen Palmer – to organise a little digital experiment. We brought together a bunch of friends to design and test mourning rituals. The proposal was to experiment with DIY models to process the negative emotions accumulated through the pandemic. The hopes and aspirations that would not manifest, the futures desired and never come to life, the senses of self shattered under the pressure of forced isolation.

It’s been a long obsession of mine, that the present times call on us to process enormous amounts of grief. It’s not just COVID – it’s climate change, environmental collapse, the death of species, and the overall experience of living in the end times. As many other middle class Europeans, I grew up in a joyful utopia of globalised consumerism. It was the end of the Cold War, infinite growth, human progress, and diminished suffering. Many of my childhood dreams played out against the background of an expanding world. And though new dreams have come, new real possibilities of real happiness – many ghosts remain.

I don’t think it’s just me. I sense it around me. That collectively, we need to process the enormous grief of a society that hit its environmental limits. Grief not only for what has been properly lost – the Pyrenean Ibex, the Western Black Rhino, the Baiji, all gone the way of the Dodo – but also for lost futures, for the loss of imagined opportunities, predicated on infinite resources and energy. I have not been trained to deal with that much grief, nor has anyone I know. Nor do I see much effort to process this grief. In fact, much of the current blockages, resistance to climate action and system change, I ascribe to this emotional weakness. The people who did well in the current system – older upper and middle class white men, for most of them – are hardly capable of processing grief at all that I can see. The prospect of dealing with the loss of future worlds continuing their legacy far outstretches their capacity. So they remain firmly stuck in denial. And meanwhile the world collapses.


It was half a year ago, at an event run by Regen Melbourne, exploring a regenerative future for the city. The closing circle invited participants to reflect on their vision for the future of Melbourne. ‘I imagine a city full of glitter, and lots of sex,’ I said. It was an obvious provocation, but one anchored in the intuition that we cannot build a better world based on sad passions alone. I am a Catholic at heart, and experience it as an exuberant religion. The first miracle was turning water into wine – and good wine at that. We need a sense of abundant gratuitous joy, if we are to channel enough energy to go forward – and rebound after accepting the weight of grief. For this, we need to nurture our capacity to experience greater pleasure, with less material input. And this is also the cornerstone of moderation, basis of all virtues, and hence of happiness.

Values cards project – leadership

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: I remember, my Australian friends were shocked when I said that there was no word for ‘leadership’ in French.

B: Well, it’s one of those words that just bring together all sorts of different ideas under the one label. But then, the word ‘motivation’ didn’t exist 500 years ago, and people were still probably ‘motivated’. So, the fact that there isn’t a word for leadership in French might not mean very much.

A: I mean, how do you translate ‘leadership’ in French? The best equivalent I found was ‘meneur’, but then it sounds like you’re a gang leader. So, I wonder if it’s about not having the word or concept, or that we don’t value the concept in the same way?

B: What about, leadership is one of those things you recognise when you see it, but you can’t really define it. And maybe that’s because it’s about actions rather than intrinsic qualities. Leadership only manifests in certain circumstances. It’s a cliché, but there is no leader without followers, right?

A: True, I mean, there’s an illusion, from the word itself, that leadership somehow emanates from the person, rather than their position. It’s kind of an intrinsic something. And I think that’s a very American way of looking at things, very protestant.

B: In business, it’s one of those bullshit concepts – I mean, there’s a whole leadership industry, and a lot of it is just about trainers and coaches making money. I know you hate that kind of stuff. And then, all this focus on individual leadership, it hides an important part of the puzzle, which is about, how do you create the structures of an organization where effective collaboration is possible?

A: If I look at it with a less critical eye, I think, there’s something about leadership that… it implies that an organization is not a mechanical structure, but it’s alive somehow. Followers are not exactly like cogs, more like cattle. So, there is something, it’s like shepherds and sheep. And what that’s about is again, the leader as somehow on a different plane of reality, the leader as a superior being.

B: Coming back to the French context, we have this power structure, this class system, this network of grandes ecoles, and that’s what defines leadership. It’s the same thing in French companies, you have the engineers and Grandes Ecoles alumni at the top, leading. It’s like, their diploma gives them a kind of aura, and that’s why the rest of the company follows.

A: It seems like, the way we describe it, leadership is all about vertical relationships. I wonder then, could we say then that leadership is not a useful concept to think about collaboration. That’s, leadership will not help us think about better ways to relate with peers and equals? Or maybe, it’s saying something else, it’s saying that everything in a group starts with a person, so you need that one person to start the movement, and that’s what leadership is about?

B: Well, there is a problem still, that it’s about that mysterious intrinsic quality, and it makes you believe that leadership is that thing inside, that individual something, that creates whatever leadership is about, rather than the context. While I think… in an ideal company, there may not even be the need for leadership. That doesn’t mean all you have is process, but rather, if leadership is about making decisions and acting – and sometimes this demands courage – the role of an organization, of the structures in place, is to make it so that decisions call for as little courage as possible to be made. So, we have the effect of leadership, without need for that quality. I even wonder if we might be creating deliberately difficult situations precisely so that we can see leadership emerge, like a kind of masochism?

A: I like that, but then would you say, it’s possible that thinking in terms of leadership calls to mind a mafia-style model, and instead of complex and costly systems of organization, you just rely on that strong-man figure? And so, there’s something about keeping dysfunctional structures in place that’s about letting all that macho-stuff play out?

B: I don’t know, I think…. I think it might be cultural. It we look at a traditional Japanese organization, the problem is, there is an aspiration to consensus, but it’s not explicit why there is this aspiration. There’s very strong peer pressure not to make any mistakes. There’s a fear of being blamed. Then you’re, exiled from the village, and you die. So that’s why there is a whole system in place, so that people can avoid responsibility. In Japan, the director of a department will spend their whole day doing nothing. Their main role is to apologize if there is a problem. And it’s true that they do nothing, that’s what a good director does, they just maintain personal connections internally. But that’s essential, because it allows the younger or the more junior staff to do the job, and take risks. Because the director is responsible, and if things go wrong, they know the director will apologize. So, the staff don’t have to fear anything. And that’s leadership too.

A: I like that, because then, we can say that the features of a good leader is whatever makes sense in whatever structure. Or even, that the traits of the good leader come forward through the structure, because of the structure. So, the good leader may be the shepherd, or the macho warrior, but the good leader might also be the one who stays calm, and leads by inaction. We recognize the leader by their silence, they make room for others. Ha, and when I think of it, it may be particularly difficult, particularly for, say, more American models of leadership, to focus on that deliberate inaction.

Values cards project – dignity

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: There’s this idiom we use, we speak about ‘human dignity’, but it’s just a set phrase. In Japanese, there’s two different terms. There’s ‘son-ke’, which is respect for whatever is above you, and it implies a hierarchy, it’s tied to the notion of a status. And there’s ‘son-cho’, which is about universal respect, and that’s tied to that concept of human dignity. What son-cho’s about is that every person deserves a certain form of respect, there are things you just can’t do to them. Like you can’t lynch a criminal.

B: So there’s something about dignity that’s unconditional?

A: Yes. It’s also connected to the word ‘respect’. ‘Le respect de la dignité’, it’s a set phrase in France. But then, when you hear the way that it’s used, often the person who’s asking for that dignity to be respected, I’m getting the impression that they’re asking for conditional respect, not unconditional. I mean, they seem to want respect in for a competence they don’t have. Like, they’re smart, or they deserve something, when that’s just not the case. So, it’s associated with a kind of entitlement.

B: Well, that reminds me of this thing that happened to me. There’s an organisation here called Leadership ***, and they run programs for migrant community leaders. I saw that pop up in my feed one day, and thought I might apply. I got shortlisted and went to their session for shortlisted appliances. And then I had a shock. I was the only white person in the room, and there was this woman talking to us, and she was saying things like, ‘so, there’s 45 of you shortlisted, but we only have 30 places in the programs, so you must understand that not everyone will get in. Duh. But if you’re from Africa, we’ve got a program that’s for African community leaders, so you might also get into that.’ And she was using – I don’t know, there was a tone, and the way she was talking to us, it was like we were complete idiots. And I was thinking, wow, we’ve been selected as community leaders, and that’s how they’re treating us. I actually, I almost ran off. They needed you to be there at certain dates for the program, and they said ‘and we expect you to be there at all those dates’, and I raised my hand and said I was travelling on those dates for my work, so was it worth me doing the second interview? And she seemed annoyed, but said, then probably not. And after I left, I realised, it was the first time in my life I got condescended to. As a middle class white man, it never happened to me before. And that time I understood what it feels like, and I told all my women friends and my Chinese friends, it’s horrible! But so yes, I guess that’s what condescension is about, it’s refusing a certain unconditional dignity. It’s saying, if you want a relationship, it’s gonna be based on a strict hierarchy, and you’re starting on a lower rung.

A: Wow, that sounds tough. I mean, when I hear that, I wonder if dignity is actually about unconditional equality? One thing we might look at is how each culture handles its minorities. When you look at France, we have a hierarchical relationship with black people from Africa, and for Muslim populations, it’s rejection. In Japan, there’s a hierarchy where white people are at the top, but you might still be rejected as a foreigner. It’s a rejection on principle. It’s like you’re excluded from a club, and you won’t ever get in, no matter what you do. That’s actually what racism is about. It’s a hierarchy that’s based just on status, not actions. While dignity, that’s about the capacity to develop a relationship on the basis of radical equality. And so, when you there’s somebody that gives you this unconditional dignity, but they still disagree with your actions, then that disagreement has a real weight.