He sat down and started to chat. But the stranger wasn’t lonely – he was Stan Rosenthal, coordinator of the world’s very first Happy Café, in Brighton, who had a simple idea: to create a friendly and welcoming place to promote happiness.
After a brief discussion about the weather and predictions for that afternoon’s football game, Thomas found himself telling Stan about his recent job promotion, and how, although he should have been pleased about it, he missed his team and social circle at work. Put at ease by Stan, Thomas eventually checked his watch and realised an hour had flown by.
‘Sorry, Stan,’ he said. ‘I must rush or I’ll be late. Thanks for the chat – you’ve really lifted my mood.’
In this designated Happy Café, at the Emporium, Thomas is another satisfied customer. Here, you can order a side helping of giving or relating along with a latte or English Breakfast tea, then chat with others and try out any of the 10 ‘keys’ to happiness, which include exercising, appreciating, trying out, direction, resilience, emotion, acceptance, and meaning (see panel on page 38).
The café is an officially ‘happified’ area, and Stan, 77, a former environmental activist, explains this means it’s a member of the Happy Cafe network, created by members of the Action for Happiness organisation. In these busy, politically-confusing times, being happier is something which doesn’t automatically happen and so the cafés are a starting point where anyone can learn to be happy.
The aim is simple, says Stan: ‘To lift the spirits of customers and provide a sanctuary from a stressed-
And from Brighton, the Happy Café network is
taking over the world – 30 cafés have now opened up across the globe from Italy, to the Philippines, Cambodia and Queensland, in Australia, all intent on creating locations where the emphasis is firmly on helping individuals, communities and society
They are a tangible product of the fast-growing Action for Happiness movement – an initiative created in 2011 which now has millions of people spread across 170 countries intent on taking action to increase well-being in their homes, workplaces, schools and local communities.
The cafés are havens of happiness set in the heart of communities, where customers can find useful resources and activities to make a positive difference to their own well-being and that of others around them.
‘The focus is always on positivity,’ says Stan. ‘And people say they have had the best conversations of their life in here.’ Anyone can turn up at one of the 19 Happiness Cafés around the world. ‘Our aim is to bring well-being into the mainstream,’ says Stan. ‘We want as many cafés as possible in the world to help change the culture away from so much negativity. We give people the tools to help them live happier lives by focusing on things that matter, not just things.
‘The movement is crossing boundaries – it is non-sectarian, non-political, non-commercial, so it is really open to anyone and everyone.’
The members have established neighbour-hood network groups, volunteered their time to help others, set up local Action for Happiness meeting groups, and given support among their circle of friends to infuse a sense of happiness in the society
Lord Richard Layard, founder of Action for Happiness, a professor at the London School of Economics and expert on health and well-being, says: ‘We all want to be happy and we all want the people we love to be happy.
‘Happiness means feeling good about our lives and wanting to go on feeling that way. Unhappiness means feeling bad and wanting things to change.’ The best society then is one in which there is the least misery and the most happiness, he says. ‘We wanted to spread more happiness in the community and the world.’
And happiness, research suggests, doesn’t just depend on wealth. Recent studies show that levels of happiness have not changed significantly since the 1950s espite massive economic growth. Levels of depression among the young have soared, inequalities in society are prevalent and many more people report symptoms of stress. So, if money can’t make the desired difference, what can?
The patron of Action for Happiness, the Dalai Lama, said: ‘Genuine and enduring happiness results not from material development alone, but also from the cultivation of inner peace. Moreover, we are all dependent on others for our happiness and therefore, we not only have a right to be happy, but are also responsible for the happiness of others.’
Action for Happiness helps people take practical action to improve mental well-being and to create a happier and more caring society. High-profile members of the movement include actress Goldie Hawn, British rowing Olympian Sir Steve Redgrave, UK poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, judges, lawyers, business leaders and academics.
The focus is now on changing priorities for individuals and governments, with a focus on enhancing relationships and connections rather than simply seeking to boost income.
As loneliness, closely linked to unhappiness, threatens to become a ticking time-bomb as great a problem as obesity to the world’s health, action is needed quickly. ‘Doing things for others in your daily life, whether small, unplanned acts or regular volunteering, is a powerful way to boost our own happiness as well of those around us,’ says the cheerful Lord Layard.
‘The people we help may be strangers, family, friends, colleagues or neighbours.’
He emphasises that giving isn’t just about money. ‘Giving to others can be as simple as a single kind word, smile or a thoughtful gesture. It can include giving time, care, skills, thought or attention. Sometimes these mean as much, if not more, than financial gifts.
‘Scientific studies show that helping others boosts happiness. It increases life satisfaction, provides a sense of meaning, increases feelings of competence, improves our mood and reduces stress. Kindness towards others is the glue which connects individual happiness with wider community and societal well-being.
‘Caring also seems to be contagious,’ he adds. ‘When we see someone do something kind or thoughtful, or we are on the receiving end of kindness, it inspires us to be kinder to others ourselves.’
The Happy Cafés are now preparing to lead a series of activities for World Kindness Day on November 13.
On the agenda is a plan to ask teachers to lead classroom-based projects to make schools kinder places for children and to instil in them positive values and attitudes to others.
‘Such small initiatives will go a long way in moulding their behaviours and contribute to a happier world,’ says Stan, walking over to a woman named Joanna, who has just stepped into the Happy Café in Brighton.
I’m Stan,’ he says, introducing himself and settling down with a latte.
Soon the two are deep in conversation, talking about the local arts scene, empathy, exercise, their plans for the future, and, oh yes, happiness.
Help others – caring for others is fundamental to our happiness and it makes us healthier too.
Connect with people – people with strong and broad relationships are happier, healthier and live longer. They make
us feel we belong, give support and meaning and all this brings self worth.
Look after your body – being active makes us fitter, lifts our mood and makes us connect with ourselves. It can help us sleep better too.
Live a mindful life – take the time to notice what is happening around us. From the way we eat to our relationships, it helps us get in tune with ourselves, reduces stress and stops us dwelling on the past.
Never stop learning – exposing our minds to new ideas helps
us stay engaged, curious and boosts our sense of confidence, accomplishment, and resilience. You don’t have to be stuck in a classroom. Learn to sing, paint or cook and you will feel
Set goals – challenging ourselves and looking ahead motivates us. Just make sure the goals are realistic!
Be resilient – there will be stress, loss or failure in our lives, but we need to learn to respond in a way which helps us bounce back and become stronger.
Create an upward spiral of emotions – joy, gratitude, inspiration, pride and contentment don’t just have an instant impact. Research shows that feeling these positive emotions regularly helps us to see the good, instead of the bad, in situations, so makes us happier overall.
Like yourself – none of us are perfect, but focusing on our flaws rather than our strengths makes it harder to be happy. Accepting ourselves as we are means we are kinder on ourselves and makes us more resilient, accepting of others and happier.
Find a purpose – people who have meaning in their life experience less stress, anxiety and depression. It could be our job, family, hobby, or being connected to something bigger than ourselves – say a charity, cause, or even political group.