Thomas looked up from his newspaper as a man walked into the café. He paid little attention to him as he sipped his latte – apart from noticing his cheery demeanour and broad smile.
As he took a second glance, the man caught Thomas’s eye and asked: ‘Mind if I join you? I’m Stan Rosenthal, coordinator of Happy Café, by the way.’
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, about leaving behind his social circle and embarking on the next chapter of his life. Engrossed, Thomas eventually checked his watch and realised an hour had flown by.
‘Sorry, Stan,’ he said. ‘I must rush or I’ll be late for my art class. Thanks for the chat – you’ve really lifted my mood.’
In this designated Happy Café, in Brighton, UK, Thomas is another satisfied customer. Here, you can order a side helping of Giving or Relating along with a decaf 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. The café is an officially ‘happified’ area, and Stan, 77, a former environmental activist, explains this means it’s a member of the network, and contains a range of materials about the happiness organisation, including postcards featuring the 10 keys that spell out ‘great dream’.
Within those subject areas, followers are encouraged to focus on tasks such as: do things for others, connect with people, take care of your health, notice the world around you, keep learning new things, set goals, find ways to bounce back, take a positive approach and be comfortable with who you are.
The aim is simple, says Stan – ‘To lift the spirits of customers and provide a sanctuary from a stressed-out society’.
First set up in Brighton, the Happy Café network is now expanding across the globe. From the UK to the Philippines, Cambodia to Queensland, cafés are now being ‘happified’ to create locations where the emphasis is firmly on helping individuals, communities and society become happier.
They are a tangible product of the fast-growing Action for Happiness movement – an initiative created in 2011 that now has more than 55,000 members from 168 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 neighbourhood 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 and community.
Lord Richard Layard, founder of Action for Happiness, a professor at the London School of Economics and international expert on health and well-being, says: ‘We all want to be happy and we 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 despite 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 that connects individual happiness with wider community and societal well-being.
‘Caring also seems to be contagious. When we see someone do something kind or thoughtful, or we are on the receiving end of kindness, it inspires us to be kinder 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. ‘I’m Stan,’ he says introducing himself and settling down with a latte.
Soon the two are talking about the local arts scene, empathy, exercise and, oh yes, happiness.