Are Writers Happy People? The Happiness Dilemma at Sydney Writers’ Festival

As writers, we are compelled to look beyond and ask ourselves the big questions in life. Set in the Main Stage area of Pier 2/3 at Circular Quay, Paul Dolan, Matt Haig and Amanda Lohrey spoke to Australian social researcher and writer Rebecca Huntley about one of these big questions: what does it mean to be happy and to live a meaningful life?

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The Happiness Dilema… Image Credit: SWF

Matt Haig, author of Reasons to Stay Alive, spoke about his experiences with depression and the impact such an illness has had upon his pursuit of joy and happiness. Paul Dolan, professor of behavioural science, brought examples of research and social experiments into the discussion as a way of demonstrating how purpose and pleasure – which he defines as the two essential components of happiness – shapes our behaviour. Amanda Lohrey, author of the novel Short History of Richard Kline, talked about the baffling nature of happiness and our equally baffling search for meaning.

Having dealt with depression, Matt found that he could appreciate happiness more than he had ever before because something like depression changes you and gives you a new perspective in life; something like depression is like the muddy waters from which the lotus flower then arises to become something beautiful and breathtaking. Happiness, Matt noted, is the permanent state you attain after passing through those muddy waters: it is an act of change and transformation. Paul built upon this idea of permanence. He pointed out that you could love ice-cream but if you ate too much of it, you would feel sick; similarly, you could love the sun but if you stood too long beneath it, you would get sunburnt. Here, Paul made an important assertion, which is that pleasure must be balanced with purpose in order to achieve an enduring happiness.

But Amanda admitted that happiness is “baffling” and that to this day, she fails to comprehend what this concept encompasses. She provided a humorous anecdote: “My neighbour… Everyday he pulls apart his lawnmower and then puts it back together, yet he is happier than me.” It is a paradox: if happiness is something so simple as deconstructing and constructing your lawnmover, why do we spend our whole lives trying to find it? Amanda suggested that perhaps happiness is a ritual and that we as human beings constantly invent and reinvent rituals to make ourselves happy. Indeed, as Paul added, happiness is when we forget that we are happy; it is listening to your favourite music without consciously paying attention the music.

Amanda provided further insight into the concept of “profound boredom” and how we as human beings attempt to escape that boredom through distractions. For instance, in one fascinating experiment as outlined by Paul, a group of people were shocked with a painful shock ball that they did not like at all, yet when placed in a room with that same ball for hours on end, a surprising revelation was revealed: those people began to shock themselves despite the pain. Perhaps, Paul went on to suggest, it is not just about happiness; it is also about our simple and very human desire to feel something in moments of complete stagnation.

Ultimately, The Happiness Dilemma was both highly entertaining and tremendously thought-provoking. Featuring a friendly and engaging atmosphere, a panel of inspiring and down-to-earth individuals, and a great deal of laughter both on stage and off, this was indeed a happiness-inducing event, one definitely worth the time and attendance.

Katherine O'Chee

Katherine is a writer and part-time blogger, an avid reader and a collector of inspiring quotes. Having been in love with stories from a very young age, she is always looking to transform daily observations into beautiful, philosophical tales. She is currently studying Bachelor of Arts (Media and Communications) at the University of Sydney, and hopes to one day inspire positivity, provoke deep thought and give a voice to the voiceless. You can read more of Katherine's writing here.

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