Dr Mark Williamson, honorary doctor of letters

“Listen to your instincts and follow your passion”

Dr Mark Williamson is director of the charity Action for Happiness. He studied electronic engineering and spent time in Silicon Valley before switching to management consultancy and becoming Director of Innovation at the Carbon Trust. In 2010 he co-founded Action for Happiness with a bold but simple aim: to try to create more happiness in the world. Mark becomes an Honorary Doctor of Letters.

My Dad’s an engineer by background and my Mum was an English teacher. I guess I got a bit of both. In my career I’ve moved a long way from the technical engineering challenges where I started. But I’m still looking at things through a problem-solving lens and I love trying to find solutions to complex issues. The difference now is that the challenges I’m working on are about our society, our relationships and people’s “inner lives”.

From the outside, my decade as a management consultant must have looked really successful. I was doing well and in some ways I was really enjoying the work. The responsibilities kept growing and it was all very intense and exciting. Then I developed chronic back pain. I’ve always been very sporty and initially I thought it was an injury that would get better. But it didn’t. My wife had decided to quit her career in PR and retrain as an osteopath and she gave me this book called Back Sense which explained that back pain is often caused by stress-induced muscle tension. I was sceptical, but the more I read the more I realised the author was writing about me. My debilitating pain was real, but it was coming from all the stored-up tension and unexpressed emotion I was carrying with me because my life was so out of balance.

That was my wake-up call. I made some simple lifestyle changes and started doing breathing exercises – what we’d call “mindfulness” now – and the effect was transformative. Within a couple of weeks I was moving normally again. I decided to get out of consulting and change the direction of my life. So I enrolled on an MBA. Most people do those degrees to improve their technical skills and command a bigger salary. I was the opposite. I realised that what really interested me was the psychology of it all – how people interact, what really makes them tick. At the same time I had the chance to experience therapy myself. It really was this huge emotional awakening. I came out knowing I wasn’t going back to the corporate world.

I knew I wanted to do something with purpose, so I went to work for the Carbon Trust. I’d become really motivated by the climate change challenge and wanted to make a meaningful difference. I hadn’t made the happiness connection yet, but it was coming. The technical questions we were looking at were fascinating, like how to make radically cheaper solar cells or more efficient offshore wind turbines. All stuff that really matters. But what was increasingly preoccupying me was the link between consumerism and economic growth on the one hand and environmental destruction and declining mental health on the other.

I met a coach, Neil Croft, who encouraged me to answer three questions to help identify my life’s purpose. What are you good at? What are you passionate about? And what makes you angry? I knew I was good at solving problems, and I was passionate about doing something to make the world a better place. I just didn’t know what that was. What I was angry about was the fact that the conventional narrative for the “good life” was so clearly broken. The drive to have more, more, more was destroying our planet, and it wasn’t even making us happy.

I was aware of the economist Richard Layard’s work on happiness economics. I’d read his book, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, while I was preparing for my MBA and it had a big impact on me. Then one day I was flicking through the Sunday paper and I saw an article he’d written about the need for a new social movement to prioritise happiness. I met him and his collaborators and persuaded them to let me join as co-founder and director. I just thought, this is what I’m going to do with my life. It was visceral. I’d never felt so strongly about anything.

Action for Happiness has grown beyond my wildest dreams. It’s gone from being an idea on the back of an envelope to a mass movement with more than 360,000 members in 190 countries. I’m proud of the fact that it’s all evidence-based. Look at our 10 Keys to Happier Living and you’ll find solid research behind each one to show how and why they work. But the thing I’m most proud of is having brought together an amazing supportive community of people helping each other and working together for a happier and kinder world. We just provide them with the tools they need to do it.

The Dalai Lama was actually our first member. That was quite a coup! Richard had met him and they’d got talking about the Action for Happiness idea. The Dalai Lama really warmed to it, and so Richard asked him if he’d like to be the first person in the movement and he said yes. Now he’s our patron. I had the honour of hosting him for a live event we did in London which was amazing. Then more recently he joined in our tenth anniversary celebrations. That had to be virtual because of the pandemic, but I can tell you, he’s got the most beautiful Zoom background ever!

Let your passions guide you. When I was doing my MBA, we had a lot of business leaders come in to speak to us. Some had clearly sacrificed their health and happiness for career success. Others just weren’t very nice people. But there was one who really inspired me. It was obvious his decisions had been guided by values rather than money. He said the question he always asked himself was, do I feel excited to get up in the morning and do this? And I’ve tried to make that my guiding principle. So my advice would be, work hard at whatever you’re doing, but don’t be scared to change. Listen to your instincts and go where your passions take you. You’ll be happier and you’ll be helping make the world a happier place for others too.

Join the Action for Happiness community at https://actionforhappiness.org

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