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The best books on How To Be Happy

recommended by Anthony Seldon

The contemporary historian and educationalist Antony Seldon discusses his selection of books on how to be happy.

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Your current preoccupation is with how to rebuild a trusting and trustworthy society, so why

have we started with this work of philosophy by Iris Murdoch from the 1970s about goodness?

The book appeals to me because it is fundamentally about trust, because it says that the presiding fact about the universe is goodness. She is making the case that, whereas there are many reasons not to trust people, we should have an active sense of whether we can trust people or not. We should not have a blind trust, but if we have a presumption of mistrust we will find two things: we will make people mistrusting too and we will find that people are unworthy of our trust. How we treat people, so we find them and so they are. And her book is re-emphasising that underneath all else there is goodness. And she is also talking about the fact that creativity comes when we allow the goodness to flow through us, when we let it come through our pen or through our voice or, if we are a violinist or a pianist, through our fingers. And that this is the prevailing fact of the universe, this sense of harmony, goodness and oneness for which we become the vessel.

It sounds quite mystical.

It is mystical and it is true. Peter Shaffer was making a similar point in Amadeus about Mozart, that he was a vessel, someone who didn’t really even understand fully what was flowing through him. And you either have that mystical sense about the universe or not, but for me in this book Iris Murdoch is saying that it is a much better position to be actively trusting of people. That doesn’t mean that you don’t pay attention as you walk down a dark street at night, and it doesn’t mean to say that you trust everyone you come across. But the prominent colour with which you view the universe should be trust.

Your next choice is Deepak Chopra’s Peace is the Way. Is this a new take on our current plight as a planet?

He is saying that we have to trust each other internationally: if you beat a country at war or if you humiliate them as Germany was after the First World War, they will come back at you. If you humiliate any population you will not engender peace, you will engender a resentment that will flare back at you. The only way to have enduring peace is to have the greatest sense of respect for each other. That means that you have to listen and you have to forego the monopoly of your own rightness. If you listen to the Arabs and Israelis talking there is only one thing that they share, and that is that they are both utterly and irrevocably right. This cannot be the case. And this situation is a parable, what is happening there, with this struggle around the most holy site on earth, it is a parable about exactly what this book is talking about.


And reading this book will make us think again about conflict?

Well, I would say not think again, because thinking is not going to make any difference. I would say it is actually changing the way that you are that makes the difference. He also talks about how with other people, when relationships go wrong at work or at home, it is because we are not respecting each other, we are not listening to each other. The only basis for enduring relationships is to accept each other and within ourselves to accept our own limitations and make peace with ourselves. Getting blind drunk is a way of resolving one’s difficulties and is akin to nations going to war, or beating up your neighbour.

When it comes to causing resentment by marching in and taking over other countries, the UK has a lot of unfortunate history in that regard, not just recently: we have centuries of that resentment, so what do you do if you are the UK and you have that coming to you?

Well, where there is hurt one has to make amends, and clarify the grounds for peace. Similarly with family or with friends or with organisations that one has damaged relations with, that continue to trouble one, one will not be free and it will continue to scratch away until one makes amends.

I’m intrigued because I’m sure a liberal interventionist and someone who wanted to avoid conflict at all costs would use the same arguments – about making amends.

As I’m sure you know, Tony Blair quoted the parable of the Good Samaritan as a justification for Kosovo and for Iraq: and if one is asked in by a majority in that country and if one is going to be doing good and helping that country itself stand back on its feet then it’s probably a good thing, but not if one is going in uninvited and if one then stays. So liberal intervention is a good thing if it’s in the interests of the people there … that’s probably how you resolve that one.

And so to Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God – is it the case for religion? I have heard it described as a defence of unknowing rather than faith.

But what is God other than a state of total unknowing? One can’t know God with one’s mind. She quotes George Steiner saying one cannot begin to understand intellectually the impact that music has on oneself. And so with experiences of God: it means absolutely nothing at all, it is of absolutely of no consequence, that Richard Dawkins and the whole crew dismiss God. Because God is not an intellectual experience. But it is a human experience, to do with consciousness, an experience of being, not of having. She talks about the attempts of all the various religions to claim God for their own culture and often for their own gender: God is often phallocentric, and very elitist, and often rather elderly. And that is a grabbing hold of and a claiming of something that is only knowable through complete humility and not through acquiring, but rather letting go. And it is something that is so much at one’s very core that it is a journey to the place where you began, but knowing it for the first time, as T S Eliot said [‘The end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.’ Four Quartets: Little Gidding].

I’m interested that you put these mystical and religious texts in there with a philosopher like O’Neill.

O’Neill is an atheist, I think, and she is very Kantian, and she’s a hero because she raised the whole question of trust in a very public way in the Reith lectures in 2002, the year after 9/11. And she posed questions of such fundamental central importance that haven’t been answered seven years later, and it’s because they haven’t been answered that we have then had the credit crunch, we’ve had the decline of trust in politicians, and the year after the lectures we had the Iraq war which is the biggest single cause of loss of trust in government.

So she was putting her head above the parapet.

She is an intellectual pioneer and a hero: by asking fundamental questions and saying that we can’t batter trust into people, we can’t make them trusting by having laws, that trust is related to inner virtue. You are not going to build trust by installing more surveillance cameras or setting more targets, you are just going to make people more subtle and devious about finding ways around those cameras or around those targets. And I think she also has another fundamental truth, which is that the asking of the questions is more important than the answers. You can’t have a checklist of things that one never does as a trusting or trustworthy individual or organisation. It has to be an experiential change within oneself.

But you have written recently that there is a need now to be socially authoritarian to rebuild a cohesive society where trust is possible. How does that fit and how do you make people want to live in, as you put it, a ‘village’ society or within, for example, a traditional family structure?

The free market is not enough for people. Adam Smith himself said that there has to be a moral dimension. Climate change is one of the biggest single examples of the failures of the market, which always operates short-term. Your child, all being well, will now live to the age of 120 or 110 and the market doesn’t provide the answers. There has to be an element of higher values coming in, with structure and respect.

The way that you describe this goal, talking about a village … even those who may share your wish to re-evaluate what we want from society don’t want to go back to living in a village in a married couple with one of us chained to the oven.

The village is a parable for a community where you are known rather than ‘bowling alone’ as Bob Putnam put it [Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital, 1995]. The village could be a cyber village, it could be a very high-tech inner-city community, it could be anywhere where a number of people know and help and support each other.

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This is controversial stuff: on marriage and the family we’ve got a major pre-election political row between the parties already.

But it is generating more heat than light. Are they talking about it because of their perception of where that extra one per cent of votes lie or do they really believe it? Well, the truth is that marriage is difficult but it is a much better way of bringing up young people – to have a formalised bond and to make vows. Vows are authoritarian. We no longer have vows when we are 13, we have lost the initiation rites into adult life when we symbolically leave the bosom of the family. We need this because we no longer make that vow to humanity as a whole, which is what once happened.

People may feel as deeply as you about this but many are also very grateful for having escaped the plight of previous generations – particularly women.

Yes, but that was the church or the mosque with a very male-centric interpretation of what marriage is: the vows are about a marriage of equals and caring for each other throughout life. That is not how it has been interpreted by patriarchal religious authorities and by patriarchal faiths and patriarchal legal systems: I don’t see this as going back or forward; I see it as going more deeply into what marriage is.

So, finally, why have we got Richard Layard in here?

There’s just one point I really want to take from this book: he makes it very clear in this book that more trusting people are happier people. The less trust we show, the more we are suspicious of others, the less happy we become. The people who are happier are more trusting, so they have more friends; the less trusting are more isolated because they are more suspicious.

January 29, 2010

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Anthony Seldon

Anthony Seldon

Anthony Seldon is a political historian and commentator on British political leadership as well as on education and contemporary Britain. He is also Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham.

Anthony Seldon

Anthony Seldon

Anthony Seldon is a political historian and commentator on British political leadership as well as on education and contemporary Britain. He is also Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham.