Monday, November 18th, 2013

Reasons to Cheerful: ESRC Festival of Social Science

by Lucy Robinson


On Friday 8th November  I introduced and chaired the ESRC Festival of Social Science sponsored event ‘What is Happiness?’ organised by Mass Observation at the Quadrant Pub, Brighton. On a rainy, dark, Friday evening four different academics sat in the pub to talk about how their work illuminated the idea of Happiness.  The project’s resident blogger has responded to the overall session, and the discussion, but I thought I’d share part of the introductory talk I gave.  After introducing the Observing the 80s project generally I talked about what I might have gathered about happiness from Observing the 80s, and why it has made me so happy to be involved.

Partly Observing the 80s made me so happy because working with the team, as a collaboration was a way to get away from the individual isolation and anxiety of lone research. Obviously because the team are so lovely.  But also because it brought together two things that whilst not perhaps causes of happiness per se, mitigated against unhappiness – and an absence of unhappiness is sometimes enough.  They both relate to conditions of work and networks of people.

The first is the relationship between teaching and research, and indeed between staff and students. Often the two are rather at odds. One getting in the way of the other, or one being privileged over the other, by top down policy. For me blurring the boundary between the two was a genuine source of happiness; students as co-researchers, and teaching as a form of research.  It felt like a reflection of the creative potential between the different elements of my work.

Secondly Observing the 80s produced the sort of outputs and connections that bring people together.  Rather than hefty academic tomes, we produced , a youtube channel, spotify playlist, infographics and a facebook timeline.  Its led me to go off in new directions, thinking about why the 80s is a list.  Why listing, controlling and ordering things makes us happy. But also thinking about how social networking allows us to collaborate and interact with lists. Subsuming our lists of friends, links, photos into wider lists. Allowing people to connect, share ideas, and find recognition of their own interests in the contributions of other. I suppose here I’m alluding to the idea of happiness as a process of self-actualisation – of feeling like we are being who it is we really are, or becoming that person as a key to happiness.

Ok so beyond why the project made me happy – what did it teach me about happiness?  I think these two points, self-actualisation, being who we think we are,  and interconnectedness, being with those we think we should,  are useful things to keep in mind.


I thought I’d explore two MOP directives that invited people to evaluate what had impacted them most, and think about how the values given to events correlate with their emotional significance – in other words with what makes people happy.

The Autumn 1986 directive invited respondents to reflect on the year 1986, particularly with a focus on the relationship between media representation and ‘experience’.  In fact the responses suggest a complex relationship between the two.  With how things were represented and how things were experienced blurring together.  Similarly respondents read public events through their domestic experiences.

In the Spring 1990 directive, respondents were invited to produce a retrospective of a pre-defined period, the whole of the 80s.  Again their experience is posited against media representation. With public events marked against a more linear sense of personal domestic change.

When I read through both sets of responses one of the things that jumps out is the sense of  actual, possible, or just avoided, disasters. 1986 saw the Challenger Space Ship Disaster, Chernobyl, and Hillsborough for example.  The roundups of the decade in 1990 broadened these specific disasters out to more general concern about the environment, homelessness, AIDS and Famine.  Not a lot to be happy about it seems.  But in between these public concerns MOP shows moments of public and private happiness were being found in hopes for the future; a child’s first steps, or the marriage of children and birth of grandchildren were marked and celebrated alongside the marriage of Sarah Ferguson and Prince Andrew.

The public and private are understood in complex ways.  Sometimes the public is understood through its impact on the domestic, individual, familial and everyday, sometimes the personal provides insight into the public. Each both links and boundaries. F1373F AUT1986 sums up the relationship ‘When looking back over this year the things you remember most are events which affect you personally or make you angry, happy or sad’.  So a new porch can sit alongside Catherine Cookson’s 80s Birthday, Chernobyl and Myra Hindley (F1145F AUT1986)

So one of the men, H1369 AUT1986 finds that he has very little sense of engagement with the public world.  The year was ‘overcast by [his] first year’s experience as a full time father’. Remembering the challenger disaster largely because it fell on his 10th wedding anniversary and squeezing his daughter first walking in his numbered list between Chernobyl and the Superbowl.

Even one respondent who begins by called the 80s a ‘sinful decade’ is able to find first hope, and then personal happiness.  He finds hope in the lessons learnt from the decade in terms of environmental awareness. But he finds happiness in elements of his life that bring people together.  He writes of the ‘highlights’ being his children’s health, and that they are ‘enjoying life’.  Taking pleasure in his family’s happiness.

On Jazz he wrote

‘I’m delighted to witness a resurgence of jazz music in Britain, a music that brings black and white people together, both to listen to and to play a music that can bring great pleasure.’


We have been crowd sourcing a playlist of songs about or that induce happiness. It is a collaborative spotify list so please feel free to add your music to the mix.

With these thoughts of the happiness of bringing people together I moved on to introduce our speakers, Annebella Pollen, Emily Robinson and Ben Jones.


Photos by: Kevin Reynolds, at VeryMovingPictures