Is being happy overrated?

Rebecca Atkinson, 13.10.2014
Happiness on trial at conference
It may seem pointless to argue against happiness – for many people, it’s the purpose of life, after all. But happiness is a relatively modern concept that means different things to different people.

Unhappiness is often a driver to great artistic creations, and other values that museums have (truth, for example) may be at odds to a happiness agenda.

Following on from last year’s excellent session, participation on trial, delegates at the Museums Association conference in Cardiff were tasked with the very difficult task of deciding whether our efforts to make people happy are worthwhile - or completely misguided.

The mock trial was presided over by judge Nick Winterbotham, the interim director of the Happy Museum Project, who asked whether museum director job descriptions of the future would include responsibility for visitors’ wellbeing, or if happiness KPIs would be used by funders.

There were four charges brought against happiness in the trial:

1. Happiness is immeasurable and subjective

2. No one or no museum can make someone happy

3. Our current happiness can only be bought at someone else’s expense – now or in the future

4. We are taking happiness too seriously

The difficulty in defining happiness, the importance of self-agency, the human cost of materialism (stuff makes us happy, or so advertisers tell us) and how silliness is underrated were among the ideas used to bolster the debate. Delegates (the jury) were then left to discuss the charges and vote guilty or not guilty.

The end vote found happiness guilty of the first charge, and not guilty of the other three.

This session raised lots of interesting points for me, although in hindsight I think we should have ruled it a mis-trial based on the fact that my table at least couldn’t agree on what happiness means. Does someone bringing you a cup of tea when you’re feeling a bit down bring real happiness? Is there a human cost to the happiness we feel from a walk in a park or a run (especially if you wear Nike trainers)?

Mostly, we asked a lot of questions, which is my favourite pastime anyhow.

There are no answers, but I liked Nat Edwards summing up: “Museums are a fantastic asset to promote happiness, but it’s up to people to find those assets and do it.

“Our job is to make it as free, as accessible and as easy as possible. Don’t try to make people happy, just let them be happy in your museum.”


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26.11.2014, 21:38
I feel I ought to respond to Anonymous regarding Happiness agenda. When the Happy Museum project was founded in 2010, there was no such thing as a 'happiness agenda' from this government. Happy Museum argued for systemic change, noting that museums could play a part in shaping a society where consumption and growth was not the key measure of success. It suggested that individual and communal well-being were served through a greater understanding of environmental sustainability and that museums were well-placed to explore this notion.

Happy Museums aims stated in 2011 seem remarkably similar to the themes of Well-Being and Better Places of the MA's Museums Change Lives of 2013
16.10.2014, 10:15
The 'happiness' agenda is the worst kind of Orwellian double speak and very revealing of how the government's agenda is so closely followed by museums. Museums, haven't you a voice of your own?
Jonathan Gammond
MA Member
Access & Interpretation Officer, Wrexham County Borough Museum
30.10.2014, 18:25
Jeez, i thought I had become a miserable old grump, but it appears I must be a ray of sunshine compared to the people who attended that debate. My diagnosis - far too many people in the museum profession read the Guardian which is as skilled at making its readers feel the world is a terrible place as the Daily Mail or the Express. My prescription would be to read up on the Happy Museum project - a good place to start would be their manifesto. It is a positive contribution to the debate on the role of museums in the 21st century.