by Sam Wren-Lewis – an Embercombe Volunteer
At the end of 2016, I left my job and life in the city to search for a different way of living – one that answered to my call for more connection, with others, the natural world and myself. I had spent my 20s doing the whole career thing – going to university, doing a PhD and then (finally) getting an interesting and worthwhile job. Yet, in my early 30s, I realised that I wanted more, or at least something different to what I had worked hard on over the past 10 years. And so it was that I found myself at the end of last year applying to be a volunteer at Embercombe in 2017. I don’t regret that decision for a moment – I’m writing this blog post during my final week here at Embercombe and the entire volunteer experience has been wonderful.
This is not a particularly unusual path for the kinds of people who come here to volunteer. However, one of the reasons I’m writing this blog post has to do with the particular career and job that I left behind. After becoming disillusioned with activism in my early 20s, I started thinking about happiness, and eventually did a PhD on the subject. I wanted to know why, within more economically developed societies in particular, so many people were unhappy and how we could all live happier lives.
Since embarking on that adventure, the academic study of happiness (mostly led by ‘positive psychologists’ and ‘happiness economists’) has grown exponentially, and is now receiving attention from policymakers and practitioners around the world (including the UK’s own National Wellbeing Programme). The study of happiness, however, is not without its critics. Is it the role of governments to
make us happy? Can we even measure happiness? And isn’t happiness a bit trivial – should we be focusing on other things instead, such as contentment, fulfilment or meaning?
The reason I wanted to write this blog post is because I have found these questions pop up everywhere, including Embercombe. One of the great things about being in Embercombe is that many of the practices and philosophies that form part of the programmes here also form part of daily life for those living here in community. These practices encourage volunteers and assistants to be their authentic selves – to fully accept and welcome who they are, and to do the same for others. Personally, I was overwhelmed at how accepted and welcomed I felt within the first 24 hours of arriving at Embercombe. This aspect of living here has helped me to continuously explore who I am, what I need, and who and what I can be. And for that I am so grateful.
At first, this culture may seem very far from the idea of being happy. In fact, if you were to come to Embercombe, you may witness a fair amount of unhappiness! Accepting ourselves and others is not easy – there are so many parts of ourselves and others’ behaviour that we don’t like, that scare us, or are
painful. But, if we really want to change these things, we need to look at them, see them for what they are, and work with them to try and improve our lives. From this process there may be many moments of sheer joy, complete bliss, and excitement and hope; but there may also be utter despair, crushing loneliness, and frustration and grief. Being happy is far from guaranteed.
But I think it would be a mistake to say that Embercombe is not a happy place, or that its focus is something other than happiness (e.g. authenticity, changemaking, meaning, purpose, connection, etc). Happiness is an elusive concept, meaning many different things to many people. This is not to say that we can use the term in any way we like, but that it is something we haven’t really figured out yet. Evidence from the study of happiness is starting to show just how difficult happiness is to achieve – in short, very few things (if any) make us lastingly happy in the way so many of us commonly desire. In light of this, I believe we should start thinking about happiness differently. Rather than searching for the few things in life that may make us happy, we need to think about happiness much more broadly. This requires embracing uncertainty and opening ourselves up to all of the possible joys and satisfactions in life. Re-orientating ourselves to what is possible in this way inevitably opens us up to all of life’s sufferings and pains, as well as its pleasures. It means we will experience joy and beauty on some days, and sadness and fear on others – for both are part of the rich tapestry and infinite possibilities of life. If the two are inseparable then it is meaningless to talk about a kind of happiness that does not include both.
This is the kind of profound happiness that I found at Embercombe.