20 September 2016

Stan Rosenthal is the National Coordinator of the Happy Café Network, created by members of the Action for Happiness movement.

A man smiling.

I have spent much of my life commuting to London, holding down a demanding job and keeping up with all my other interests and obligations.

All these pressures concentrated my mind wonderfully on what we really need to be happy. So when the charity Action for Happiness was formed five years ago I jumped at the opportunity of becoming part of a, non-commercial, non-religious, non-political movement which provided many of the answers I was seeking and had spreading happiness as its goal, particularly as this mission was based on scientific research into what makes us truly contented.

Since it began the movement has gone from strength to strength, now boasting a worldwide membership of over 70,000, a social media following of many times that, and the Dalai Lama as its Patron.

What prompted me to create the Happy Café Network was the concern that although information on how to live happier lives was reaching more and more people through our website and staged events, it would not be sufficiently embedded at the social and personal level unless it was more widely accessible and could be reinforced by face-to-face, day-to day contact with likeminded people (much in the same way that Weight Watchers encourage meetups to reinforce their guidelines on how to lose weight).

I found an answer to how the message could be spread in this way in Alain de Botton’s inspirational book Religion for Atheists. In one section De Botton describes how Christianity was initially spread by gatherings around a table (usually laden with wine, lamb and loaves of unleavened bread) to commemorate the Last Supper.

As De Botton puts it “Like the Jews with their Sabbath meal, Christians understood that it is when we satiate our bodily hunger that we are often readiest to direct our minds to the needs of others. In honour of the most important Christian virtue, these gatherings hence became known as agape (meaning ‘love’ in Greek) feasts and were regularly held by Christian communities between Jesus’s death and the Council of Laodicea in AD 364”.

Adapting the idea to a non-religious setting De Botton imagines an ideal restaurant where strangers come together and “as in church, signal their allegiance to a spirit of community and friendship”. As he goes on to say “the proximity required by a meal – something about handing dishes around, unfurling napkins at the moment, even asking a stranger to pass the salt – disrupts our ability to cling to the belief that outsiders who wear unusual clothes and speak in distinctive accents deserve to be sent home or assaulted.” Highly relevant in post-Brexit Britain of course.

He adds that “the moments of ingestion of food are propitious for moral education. It is as if the imminent prospect of something to eat seduces our normally resistant selves into showing the same generosity to others as the table has shown to us.”

As with De Botton’s Agape Restaurants, Happy Cafés are convivial places where strangers can come together, share their experiences, and hone their happiness and caring skills over a meal or just a coffee, making that face to face connection that is so vital for our mental health. People have described their Happy Café conversations as some of the most meaningful in their lives. Anyone wishing to talk to others at the café can identify themselves by wearing Action for Happiness badges available at the café.

Also available at such cafes, in addition to the usual menu, is a menu of advice on how to enhance your mental wellbeing based on the scientifically researched Ten keys to happier living, drawn up by the Action for Happiness movement. These keys include relating well to others, feeling good by doing good, trying out new things, adopting a positive approach to life, and being comfortable with who you are. They are set out in postcards, pamphlets and posters at the café and a range of related books might be on the shelves for those who wish to delve more deeply into these matters. It might also be possible to indulge in a wide range of wellbeing activities (such as talks and movies on this theme, yoga, mindfulness training) if the café is appropriate for this purpose.

The first Happy Café was set up at Emporium (now 88 London Road) in Brighton nearly two years ago. There are currently three more in Brighton, another thirty or so throughout the UK, and several abroad, notably in Italy, Germany, Poland Romania, Cambodia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Costa Rica and Australia. Full information with links to the related material and resources can be found at our Happy Café website.

My hope is that this piece will at least give you food for thought about what makes you happy, preferably at one of our Happy Cafés.

...the movement has gone from strength to strength, now boasting a worldwide membership of over 70,000, a social media following of many times that, and the Dalai Lama as its Patron.