Our first speaker of 2017 was Sir Anthony Seldon, former head teacher at Wellington College, in Berkshire, who has written or edited about 40 books, including biographies of John Major, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and David Cameron. He has also set up several influential groups, including the Centre for Contemporary British History and Action for Happiness - and, indeed, his talk was called "How to Live a Happier Life in 2017"
Sir Anthony told us on January 13th that - out of his experience as a schoolteacher for ten years and a school head for 20 years, as well as a parent to three children and 60 years of challenging living - he had come to believe that we each have our own intensely personal journey to make in life. He suggested there are three distinct levels on which we can lead our lives and he offered suggestions about how we might move from one level to another.
The first level of human existence is the pleasure/pain stage, which goes little further than the behaviour of animals, he said. Life on this level is dominated by the incessant quest to maximise personal pleasure and to minimise pain. In his own case, after quite a fraught life in his 20s, Sir Anthony met his wife, Joanna, who helped him piece together his life again and he set out to explore many of the eight paths to happiness - from A for acceptance through to H for health.
He told us he came to realise that happiness is a totally different - and much more profound - experience compared with the pleasure he had pursued before. Longer lasting, it emanates from a meaningful connection with other people, from harmony with nature and works of art and with the deepest parts of oneself.
Sir Anthony said he noticed that the happiness of children was dependent to a huge degree on the quality of the parenting they received, and that some parents with great wealth often used money as a substitute for love. He suggested the happiest and most fulfilled people, and those with the happiest children, were those who were either not particularly affluent, or who had an attitude of almost indifference to their wealth.
Both these groups had a sense of perspective about money and recognised that their relationships and their own inner lives were of infinitely greater value. The most anxious and least happy people, he added, were those with the most material benefits who lacked that sense of inner value. He began to explore a further five paths, from I for Inquiry to M for Meditation, this time taking them far more seriously. He said the experience felt like being completely loved and accepted, and as if nothing in this world could possibly touch or disturb that state.
He recognised this condition as the core of his own awareness, as something that is always present and always deeply contented. It exists on a completely different plane to ordinary happiness and can even be present in the midst of sorrow and distress - and he details this state in his book, Beyond Happiness, which sold out following his talk. He insisted there is nothing self-centred about this experience, which centres on goodness, wholeness and completeness - and no worldly success or material possessions can compete with this greater prize.
He told us he'd encountered many tests in his life - and none greater than being told in the summer of 2011 that Joanna had an incurable cancer. He told us it had brought together his family, cmaking them to savour the time spent together and not to fritter it away in petty squabbling and trivia. His love for Joanna deepened immeasurably as she declined until her untimely death in early December.
Sir Anthony took us through what he saw as the key steps to achieving a degree of happiness in an ever-changing and uncertain world. In a benign and non-hectoring way, he suggested:
1 Accepting ourselves is the first step on the path to happiness.
2 Belonging to groups, sharing with and receiving from them, is also important in our growth and is a potent source of happiness.
Sir Anthony said we are all responsible for our character - and added that everybody can exercise more self-control and discipline and, in doing so, we will immeasurably improve our lives and happiness.
3 To empathise with others can bring us happiness - dishing out criticism and rejection leaves us isolated and unhappy.
4 To find happiness, he suggested that we need a single focus or, sometimes, a series of focuses in our lives. Decide where we want to devote our energy and we become a different person
5 Decide whether our focus will be to minimize our pain and maximise our enjoyment, or to give our time and talents to help others. The latter will lead us towards happiness.
6 Good health is vital to happiness, yet Sir Anthony suggested that we wantonly wreck our bodies, pollute our minds and inhabit dirty environments. We need to learn to live naturally, by allowing our body and mind to function healthily.
7 Through inquiry, we will discover our fullest selves, including the contents of our unconscious mind. We will learn how to live fully consciously in the present moment, as opposed to being asleep, or half asleep, lost in thoughts about the past.
8 The aim of an inner journey is to travel inside and also beyond ourselves and our current self-limitations. And by doing that, we come to see the world afresh, as it really is.
9 Karma speaks not only of the impact of our thoughts and deeds but also to the way they come back to us. We are all interconnected in the most profoundly complex and subtle ways. Our good actions result in happiness and joy.
10 Common to all liturgies is prayer - and to move beyond happiness - we need to cultivate an attitude of deep appreciation of everything we have in life, including what we do not like. The aim is a quiet mind - one which is alert and completely focused on the present moment.
A highly appreciative audience of about 130 packed the hall on a very cold night and every copy of Sir Anthony's books - Beyond Happiness; Cameron at Number 10; and The Cabinet Office - was sold. Sir Anthony donates to charity all profits from the sale of his books.
"With barely eight words as notes, Sir Anthony led us for an hour through the stages which he felt necessary to achieve a state of happiness, as opposed to pleasure, and how even a condition beyond happiness can be achieved with the right mind-set and determination. He admitted that much of what he was saying has been said before - but the convincing way in which he put across his thoughts was so appealing that it gave it added impetus. I can't imagine many left the hall without a quiet determination to put some of his advice into practice - Bernard McNaughton, Oxford