The following is a provocative and insightful interview by Wilson Bentos, a Brazilian communication professional, political consultant, radio host and journalist, with Evan Sutter, the co-founder of The Happiness Compass.
1) What is The Happiness Compass and why have you created it?
The Happiness Compass is a social enterprise with the vision of empowering individuals with the tools to be happier, healthier and more fulfilled through a range of initiatives, programs and events encompassing Emotional Intelligence, Positive Psychology, Mindfulness, Resilience, Social Intelligence and physical wellbeing. I created The Happiness Compass because I felt there was a drastic need for a more proactive approach to our health and happiness. Everywhere I looked I saw a type of modern and chronic unhappiness that has somehow become the norm. All I continually saw were reactive band-aid fixes that simply were not effective, nor creative enough, to have any impact on the burgeoning mental and physical health problems.
2) Tell me about your life history and how you got here to creating The Happiness Compass.
I followed a typical path, at first. I graduated from university with a degree in business and went onto work in Finance and Advertising. I always felt unfulfilled and thought that this wasn't how I was supposed to live my life. This lack of meaning meant I looked everywhere for my happiness and always in things outside of me; mainly in alcohol, sex, drugs and basically anything that would give me some reprieve from the monotony anddullness of my day to day life. These things became 'covers' so every time I felt bored or lonely I'd simply 'cover' them up and these things became well-entrenched, and very unhealthy, habits. I like to call this the 'pleasure trap' and I was stuck very firmly in this - overindulging in all its short-term fixes every chance I got. I wanted to change and probably knew I had too but doing something different to the status quo is always more challenging.
Then came an email from my brother, many of them actually, encouraging me to visit him at his home, a Monastery in the South of France. I spent three months living with my monk brother in a small hut with no electricity on the edge of the forest. Here I stepped away from all the usual distractions, I was no longer able to run away from my boredom, loneliness and other sufferings - instead I had no choice but to see what they really felt like. I spent time with new and interesting people, practised mindfulness and yoga, spent a lot of time by myself for the very first time, changed my diet and gave up sex, drugs and alcohol. Not forever, I wasn't becoming a monk, but for a long enough time to realise why I started running in this frantic, never-ending, circle in the first place.
I returned home and saw what was unfolding around me - more and more people trapped in both the 'pleasure trap' and the 'busy trap' and I felt there had to be another way. What started with merely writing some articles and doing some talks on happiness and other related topics, led to what you see today - The Happiness Compass - with many great initiatives, programs and causes to breathe life in 2017.
03) We know that the world has plenty of books and advice about happiness; it seems you are looking for a more scientific approach. How can The Happiness Compass differentiate itself from the self help books and other courses that promises a way to happiness?
Happiness is a skill and we can all train for it, but no one is going to give it to you in a book or in a 4 week course. We instigate a proactive approach to happiness by providing all individuals with the tools so they can take a more proactive approach to their own happiness. We need to strongly encourage all people to take responsibility for their own lives and become the creators of their own lives. Just like with my story - if we continually look outside for our happiness, fulfilment and freedom we will probably never find it, and if we do it will only ever be a short-term solution.
The Happiness Compass tries to combine a good mix of science, psychology, emotional and social intelligence, resilience, mindfulness and even relevant philosophies into everything we do so people have their own toolkit that they can call upon at anytime without having to rely on anything, or anyone, else. We try to further our differentiation by tying everything we do into an important social and environmental cause. We try to do more and be more and believe we have a strong responsibility that dictates everything we do and don't do.
4) The Trump victory, Brexit and the growing of right wing parties seems to promote individualism and selfishness instead of tolerance, empathy and happiness as a goal for society. Could you please talk about these trends in our world? Is Civilisation going backwards?
I think our society has always promoted a kind of selfishness, whether intentionally or not, through the media and advertising, as opposed to empathy, tolerance and happiness. There is a greater push now from a growing section of people focusing on these areas but, unfortunately, their voice is drowned out by the constant bombardment of mass media and the billions of dollars behind it. If you looked at all the key elements of civilisation you certainly wouldn't say we are moving forward at any great rate - the fact that the environment and a great deal of species, including humans, are extremely fragile would highlight this. What does the Trump victory and Brexit mean? Is there a trend? Time will tell - and any attempt to answer this will only add to the confusion - I'll leave that to those who specialise in politics.
5) Politically speaking, how can we build a happier world? We know that today people look for happiness through consumerism which comes from competition and selfishness. There is an entire culture based on individualism and ego-centrism - how can we change that?
It has to start in school. The current education system, here in Australia at least, is deeply flawed. We promote an overly outward looking approach, everything is externalised, from a very young age we are taught to find our happiness, and everything, in something outside of us. Whether it be recognition through grades and test scores this competition and comparison stays with us, and gets stronger, as we age. This helps make the ego-centrism, selfishness and competition so prevalent. We don't cultivate anything internally so as we age we continually look for this recognition, praise and satisfaction in something material or superficial, and this becomes an extremely unhealthy habit where we try to buy our happiness. Of course, this satisfaction only lasts for a second and as quickly as we get it, it disappears again. So we do the only thing we have been taught to do - quickly try to get it again - and the circle just continues.
6) We live in a world where people aspire for a standard of living which the planet simply cannot afford. If, for instance, less than 50% of the people could reach the standard of living of the American medium class there wouldn’t be world enough for that. Would a culture of happiness help us to deal with that?
I recently read a statistic that illustrated that once personal wealth exceeds about $12,000 (US) a year, well below the American medium class, more money produces virtually no increase in happiness. So as long as you can make enough to get the basic necessities, anything extra doesn't mean you will enjoy any greater level of happiness. A culture of happiness would completely transform all aspects of our lives, how we live, what we value and the entire world around us. We would see that we don't need more 'things' to be happier and a higher standard of living in a material sense can very well just make us unhappier.
7) We live in a society that denies sorrow, grief, death and all kinds of suffering. They are replaced by all the things that consumerism and capitalism can offer us. Bhutanese society which emphasises happiness, teaches its citizens to think about death five times a day. Is the fear of suffering the cause of our unhappiness?
We buy things so we don't have to feel. We buy things so we don't feel bored and we buy things so we never feel lonely; the irony being that we only become more bored and remain lonely forever. It is the same with all our suffering - we consume to forget. Zen master and Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says something that I find really powerful - "the trick is not to run away from our suffering," but our consumer, capitalist world teaches us to only do the things that feel good and avoid, at all costs, those things that feel bad. As human beings it is inevitable that we will suffer, avoiding and running away from it instead of finding more appropriate ways to deal with it will only cause more suffering and more unhappiness. I personally think about death many times throughout the day as a way to stay inspired, passionate, positive, grateful, fulfilled and free and to remember this could all end at any moment. I think if more people did this we would make it easier for ourselves to find greater happiness.
8) Not long ago, things like empathy, happiness, cooperativeness, solidarity had a kind of new age approach, they were things of hippie, alternative people. Now they have become mainstream issues. Why has it happened and why does it matters to the world we live in?
I would like to think they can become mainstream things but they still have a long way to go, especially here in Australia, before we can say that. It might be happening out of necessity more than anything else, people see that there has to be another way, a better way, and these things can help provide that. We are witnessing an environment that is dying and human beings that are suffering physically and mentally like no epoch in history - that's why these things matter and why they should be mainstream things in all countries on the planet.
9) Brazilian people are thought to be a happy people who play soccer and dance samba. But this country is facing a serious crises and it is divided into two kinds of people who consider themselves leftists and rightists. They are involved in verbal fights through social media and sometimes it gets physical in the streets. How can The Happiness Compass help us to deal with this?
We focus on empowering individuals to take control of their own health and happiness. To be the creator of their own lives, to take responsibility, to be free-thinkers, curious, creative and free. Many people get pushed into these sides because they lack aspiration, meaning and the toolkit to manage their emotions. People like this tend to grasp tightly onto their preconceptions and anything that challenges their ideals is seen as a direct attack. I really enjoyed a recent trip to Brasil and see that these things are not too dissimilar to what is happening in Australia and what I saw when I lived in the United States. Education, innovative programs, powerful social initiatives, fresh journalism, events where like-minded people can get together, building strong and vibrant communities for health and happiness, re-thinking our school systems and what we teach kids - these can all plant seeds for change in Brasil, Australia, the U.S and throughout the world.
Interview by Wilson Bentos, a Brazilian communication professional, political consultant, radio host and journalist who is worried about the fate of the planet. Passionate, vocal, curious and inspired, Wilson stands firmly behind those people who think alike.
If you prefer to read Portuguese then you can check out this article and all his writing here.