My take on happiness: Time For Reflection at The Scottish Parliament

I was delighted when Cameron Buchanan MSP invited me to deliver one of the weekly TIme For Reflection talks at the Scottish Parliament earlier this year. In the sixteen years that the Parliament has existed, I am only the fifth humanist to have been asked to do this, so it was an honour.

The guidelines for TFR are pretty strict. You can’t make political points, make discriminatory comments or denigrate people of faith. And of course the script has to be submitted for approval, which isn’t automatic. I had to revise one phrase in mine – let me know if you can guess which it was?

This (I think) is pretty much what I said…

Presiding Officer, thank you for inviting me to speak today.

I hope you would agree that the aims of politics and philosophy are the same – to increase happiness and wellbeing.

Now happiness is a nebulous concept, but there are people who believe they can measure it, and when the UN compiled its latest World Happiness Report, Scotland – as part of the UK – didn’t even make it into the Top Twenty.

Which rather begs the question: would Scotland be happier in a different political landscape?

You may say so: I couldn’t possibly comment.

One Scottish city however, is punching well above its weight in the happiness stakes.

Two years ago, a survey found that Edinburgh was the happiest city in the UK: two months ago, Condé Nast Traveller called it one of the friendliest cities in the world.

Something has clearly changed.

For generations, we were lead to believe that life was a vale of tears, and earthly happiness, a snare and a delusion. Happiness might be your reward in the next life, but only if you toed the line in this.

That began to change in 1776, when Thomas Jefferson – inspired by the writings of the Enlightenment philosophers Francis Hutcheson and David Hume – enshrined ‘the pursuit of happiness’ in the American Declaration of Independence. We’ve since come to regard happiness as a universal human right, but – and it pains me to say this – we Scots weren’t the first to conceive this radical idea.

Almost forty years earlier, half way across the world, in the tiny Himalayan Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, the Legal Code decreed “if the Government cannot create happiness for its people, there is no purpose for the Government to exist”. Bhutan remains one of the world’s poorest states, but for forty years it’s inspired governments everywhere to look beyond GDP as a measure of a nation’s health.

Bhutan was the first country to measure Gross National Happiness, and now we’re all doing it. Just last week, the Office for National Statistics revealed that the happiest place in the UK is Fermanagh, while Londoners remain amongst the most miserable people in the country.

Now happiness may well be desirable, but the paradox of happiness is that we only find it by searching for something else. I think the 19th century humanist philosopher Robert Ingersoll put it best: “happiness is the only good, and the way to be happy is to make others so”.

Members of the Scottish Parliament: may you find happiness, by making the people of Scotland happy.

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