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An Interview with a Happiness Researcher

In this post Florence Scialom of the Network of Wellbeing (NOW) interviews Gaël Brulé, who is a happiness researcher at the Erasmus University of Rotterdam and part of the happiness think tank, La Fabrique Spinoza.

Florence: Firstly, could you say a little about why you are interested in the topics of happiness and wellbeing and why you think these are important areas for people to focus on?

Gaël: I would actually turn this question around and ask why would anyone not be interested in happiness? I think happiness and wellbeing are the ultimate goals of almost anyone. As Aristotle stated, everything we do has a reason, except for happiness, for which we don’t need a particular reason; happiness is a goal in itself. I think that even if happiness and wellbeing are gaining credit as credible political and economic goals, a lot still need to be done; a lot of brakes to happiness need to be removed. Happiness is far from embedded in the cultures of most institutions, governments and companies; it is still not recognized everywhere as a serious or achievable goal. Some people might think it’s naive or counterproductive, whereas once you look into it you realise it is actually the opposite.

Could you tell us a bit about the different projects you are involved in relating to happiness and wellbeing?

My professional relationship with happiness started in 2010, when I contacted Ruut Veenhoven - one of the world leaders in the field of happiness research - in order to work with him. Ruut is well established; he works from the University of Rotterdam, he is leading the World Database of Happiness and he founded the Journal of Happiness Studies. On my side, I had lived in the Netherlands before so I knew the country fairly well, and it was a logical choice for me to work there again together with Ruut. Only a couple of months later, Ruut introduced me to Alexandre Jost, a guy who wanted to create a think tank promoting happiness based in France, called La Fabrique Spinoza (French for The Spinoza Factory). At the time, I didn’t know what a think tank was and I found the idea of a think tank dedicated to happiness quite intriguing. After a good chat with Alex I found his faith was contagious; I thus decided to jump on-board and get involved in this project.

Happiness is such an important aspect of life, and many people argue for the importance of happiness at work. It is interesting that for you, happiness is your work. Could you explain a little about how you first got involved in working on the topic of happiness?

I previously had a few ‘normal’ jobs as an environmental consultant. Not that these jobs were un-interesting, far from that, but I didn’t think the company environment left much room for flourishing or for being myself; in other words, I was not satisfied with my professional life, and I wasn’t really happy at work. I thought a lot about happiness at that time, and at some point I decided that working towards something bigger - increasing happiness in various environments and the knowledge about happiness - could help to make other people happier. As an engineer, I knew a bit about statistics, plus I was fascinated by culture, and of course happiness, so using a combination of these skills and interests I then started to investigate what makes some people happier than others and how cultures and happiness are connected.

The World Database of Happiness focuses a lot on happiness measurements and indicators, as does much of the work at the La Fabrique Spinoza. Could you explain why you think happiness measurements are important and why you think an alternative measure to GDP is needed?

The old social science proverb says: what cannot be measured does not exist. I think that’s perhaps a bit extreme, but there is some truth here: if you don’t measure something, you will have trouble working with it and convincing people of its interest. There has been many discussions around happiness and wellbeing measurements (and there still are), but measurements such as life satisfaction have proven to be useful tools to work with. Reality tends to converge towards its measures; in other words, what you measure eventually becomes the focus of our reality. Therefore, if you measure, let’s say GDP (Gross Domestic Product), the whole system will work for its increase, even though the inadequacy of GDP is so clear that it should no longer have to be proven (for example, it has been clearly shown that negative events – such as an accident or an oil spill – cause  GDP figures to rise). But if we start to bring some happiness more clearly into our indicators, the whole system will work towards trying to achieve more happiness. The question of progress indicators is therefore absolutely crucial.

There has been a lot of research looking at the connection between wellbeing and the natural environment. Many have pointed out that having a good quality of life need not involve damage to the environment, and in fact connection to the natural world is inherently good for us. What are your thoughts on the connection between wellbeing and the environment? Does this often come into the work you are doing at the moment?

I haven’t actually worked on this particular topic, so I wouldn’t say I’m a specialist on this question. But I would say if you look within yourself, in some ways you can get the answer. When you are surrounded by nature, when you are in a wild environment, your problems seem to evaporate. You see it clearly in architecture and urbanism; when you bring a bit of nature in to a built environment, the atmosphere changes immediately.

Are there other areas of happiness and wellbeing which you are particularly passionate about? If so could you tell us a little about these areas?

Within La Fabrique Spinoza, we created a group last year looking at the links between education and happiness. We look at the way we teach children, the way we evaluate them, the way they cooperate, the way their natural and built environment influence them, and we try to see how we can positively influence their wellbeing through education. Just as for work, education can often be considered a duty and a constraint in many of our western societies. Turning it into a fun and happy activity can improve ways of working and the way children develop, and a large group is dedicated to this topic at La Fabrique Spinoza. Besides this, overall, I’m just fascinated about cultures and about the complex mechanisms and relationships between culture and happiness.

And for those who would like to find out more, what is the easiest way to stay updated on your work?

La Fabrique Spinoza has a website; most of the reports are in French, but we have some productions in English. My personal website is mostly in English, although some of my blog posts are in French. And maybe in future we’ll also get to post some further contributions for Network of Wellbeing more regularly!

Great, many thanks for your time, Gaël, and for telling us more about your work. We look forward to staying in touch and potentially collaborating more in future!

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