The greatest challenge is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Cost of Happiness

Hefty price tag for happiness - The Drum Opinion (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Why does it cost almost $2,000 to achieve happier, more joyous lives?

I refer here to the registration fees for the Happiness and its Causes conference at the Sydney Town Hall in March this year.

Shouldn't the pathway to happiness and contentment be open to all, especially those on low incomes, the unemployed, the homeless, people with physical disabilities and those left untreated and unhappy because of our struggling mental health system?

The Happiness conference is proclaimed as "the world's leading conference examining the varied causes of a happy and meaningful life."

Keynote speakers include:

- "world-renowned Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Sogyal Rinpoche; 

- founder of positive psychology Dr Martin Seligman; 

- acclaimed ethicist, philosopher and author, Peter Singer; 

- pioneering researcher into successful ageing Ellen Langer; 

- playwright and National Living Treasure, David Williamson; 

-  ground-breaking journalist, Ita Buttrose; 

-- best-selling author Peter FitzSimons; 
- mother and media personality, Jessica Rowe;
- the world's leading Feng Shui practitioner, Lillian Too; 
- interfaith minister Stephanie Dowrick, 
- comedian Ahn Do and
-- two of Australia's most popular broadcasters Angela Catterns and Wendy Harmer."

The topics look promising, if not rapturous:
  • Happiness – In Your Hands
  • Happiness & A Meaningful Life
  • The Upside of Down
  • Happiness, Meaning & Work
  • Flourishing: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness Well-Being
  • Happiness, Love and Children
The workshops will no doubt be very useful for the vulnerable at risk in Australia who would greatly benefit from attending such seminars as:
  • The 16 Guidelines for Life
  • Living In Harmony – Starting With Ourselves
  • Mindful Living for Health and Happiness
  • Ten Keys to Happier Living
All seem very impressive – and the Buddhist teacher I'm sure will be inspiring and inspirational. No doubt there are many who want to know if felicity and harmony are just a thought away and how we can create a more blissful world.

Conferences cost a lot to stage but at $1,855 for the two-day 'gold pass', this is a bit much for those on welfare, or the many struggling to pay for basic goods and services or obtain access to a proper health service.
It's a bit much for carers who can't access respite services so they can find out how to be happy while providing 24-hour, seven-day-a-week care to someone with complex health problems.

The poor, welfare recipients and the disabled can always skip the Happiness and its Causes Conference and settle instead for the Happiness & Its Causes 2011 DVD set at just $150. Last year's causes for happiness may still be valid.
This annual conference is widely endorsed by many fine organisations and questioning its worth will produce a chorus of criticism.
Those attending will insist that they come away with a wealth of knowledge and insights to be shared with colleagues and, hopefully, the people they treat or represent.
Yet having attended my share of health-related conferences, I am always left wondering why the very people they are aimed at hardly ever attend?
 I haven't been to a Happiness conference, as working for a non-profit organisation means money is tight. When you factor in airfares, accommodation and transport, it can cost about $2,500 for a two-day event, a sum not unusual for conferences in the health sector.

The conference 'merry-go-round', where one often sees the same people giving the same presentations to the same audiences. They fly to nice locations, stay in up-market hotels, enjoy the conference dinners and gatherings, collect a designer show bag of papers, maps, flyers and really cheap pens, and go home thinking we have made a serious contribution to society's betterment.

Conferences like Happiness and its Causes are worthwhile and informative and are mostly a good for those who attend. But these happenings are almost always staged way beyond the means of those who would arguably most benefit from some educational information or spiritual or emotional guidance. 

Inequality is one of the main causes of unhappiness, 

...and there is certainly an inequality in terms of who can afford conferences like this.

Workshops would arguably benefit from the homeless, the dependents and those other 'outsiders'  
who could bring different and perspectives and lived experience to bear.

People with mental or physical health problems are not necessarily 'unhappy'. But the notion that there is an answer to unhappiness suggests that the cheerless and joyless need only attend a conference like this and they will find either betterment or a sense of rapture.

Despite the realities of shortfalls in mental healthcare funding, the lack of health services in regional and remote Australia and the ongoing workforce shortages in community managed care services, happiness is just $2,000 and two days conferencing away.

If there is a science of 'happiness' and its mysteries can be unlocked, shouldn't this boon be provided for free, or at least not at a cost beyond the means of most Australians who fall into the 'unhappy' category?

Simon Tatz is the Director of Communications at the Mental Health Council of Australia. These views are entirely his own. View his full profile here.