Pink and yellow balloons, some with smiley faces and some with sad faces

What is happiness

A philosopher, an improv comedian, a psychologist and an economist walk into a Sydney Ideas webinar... to discuss happiness. Can we find ways to be happier than we were before, while in the face of ongoing uncertainty and a global pandemic?

Happiness. There are entire industries dedicated to helping us find it. Endless social media advice, self-help books and gurus promising health, wealth and happiness if only you do that one thing. 

But it can be hard to feel happy in the face of a pandemic – extended lockdowns, the chaos and uncertainty of working from home, of home-schooling, or simply feeling like everything is just relentless.

What are we really chasing, and why? What is the difference between being happy with your life compared to being happy in your life?

Hear from award-winning comedian Rebecca De Unamuno, economist Dan Nahum, psychologist Tim Sharp (aka Dr Happy) and philosopher Dr Caroline West.

This live event was originally hosted virtually on Thursday 26 August, 2021.

Watch on-demand

Catch up on podcast


Welcome. This is the Sydney Ideas podcast, bringing you talks and conversations featuring the best and brightest minds at the University of Sydney and beyond.

Welcome to Sydney Ideas. The University of Sydney's public talks program.

My name is Fenella Kernebone. It is a great pleasure to be your moderator for today's conversation all about happiness: What is happiness. 

But before I begin proceedings, I would firstly like to acknowledge and pay my respects to the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we all meet, where we live, where we work, and we share ideas, wherever you happen to be joining us today. 

I also acknowledge the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation as it is on their ancestral lands that the University of Sydney is built, and as we share our own knowledge, our teaching and our learning, research practices within our university may we also pay respects to the knowledge that is embedded forever within the Aboriginal custodianship of Country. 

I'm on Gadigal land. And again, it is a great pleasure to be joining you today for our conversation, which is all about, what is happiness. 

It is an absolute delight to have your company. It's a big conversation. We've already had some really fantastic questions that have come through already.

And if you're joining us on Zoom or on Facebook Live, hello to you.  We're going to be talking about what happiness means, how we might find happiness, especially in this time, this current moment; the ongoing pandemic, the lockdowns, I hope you're all doing well. It does feel unrelenting.

Sometimes I look on my Facebook feed or my social media screens and I see endless offers of things that promise me that I am going to be happy.

Maybe I just need to do this kind of exercise or eat this type of food or get a dog or have some more money or something like that. But will these things make me happy?

What is happiness? These are the kinds of questions we're going to be talking about today and so much more. 

Our first guest of course, is Rebecca De Unamuno. She is an award winning improviser and a stand up comedian. She's a radio host and she is a voice over artist.

She's appeared on many popular TV shows like Just For Laughs, Kath and Kim, and is a regular on ABC Radio. Hello, Rebecca. 

Also joining us is Dan Nahum, who is an economist with the Centre for the Future of Work. Hello, Dan. His research interests include industrial transformation, labour markets in low carbon economies, government finances and inequity and inequality.

Hello, Dan, good to see you too, welcome. 

Dr. Tim Sharp is well suited to this conversation. He is – aka Dr Happy – an internationally renowned leader in the field of positive psychology, a former academic and the founder and CHO – Chief Happiness Officer – of the Happiness Institute which is Australia's first organisation devoted solely to enhancing happiness in individuals, families and organisations. 

Our final speaker of course is from here at the University of Sydney. She is a senior lecturer in philosophy.

She specialises in ethics free speech, philosophy of well being and happiness is currently working on a book on the philosophy of happiness.

And if you have a chance to see or listen to her talk at Raising the Bar in 2018, that was the inspiration for today's session. Hello, Caroline. Good to see you.

Hello, Fenella. Thanks for having me.

Today's seminar is called What is happiness? Our speakers really do know their subject inside out in all the different permutations of what this might mean.

So let's begin with the the topic title of our webinar today. It seems a simple question, but perhaps it's one of the most complex and it is simply what is happiness.

So Caroline I want to start with you as a philosopher. What's your perspective? What is happiness?

Well, I think happiness is an umbrella term that covers a range of really very different states that are much more different than ordinarily acknowledged. So ranging from a short term, transient emotions like joy to longer term moods,

like tranquillity or contentment, to not feelings at all, but cognitions, you know, belief states, like I'm achieving my major life goals, or, you know,

I think I'm getting most of what my what I want, or most of the important things from really something that harks back to a very, very ancient way of thinking about happiness, philosophically speaking, the idea that happiness is sort of equivalent to leading a good life.

And those are really very different ways of thinking about happiness.

If you ask an ancient philosopher what happiness is, well, they didn't use the word happiness, they use the Greek term eudaemonia, but they'd say happiness is a matter of leading a certain sort of virtuous existence, that's constitutive of the good life.

But if you ask many modern people, you know, if you took a mic out in the street, and you ask people what happiness is now you get much more sort of subjective psychological state answers like, happiness is enjoyment or happiness is joy or happiness is something like that, getting what I want ticking off the checklist of major goals for my life.

And that's a quite different, modern, distinctively modern way of thinking about happiness.


So there's many different ways to consider the question. I mean, briefly, how did you fall into the subject of happiness as a philosopher Caroline, what's that story?


Well, it's an embarrassing, I fell into the topic of happiness, I was working on other things, free speech and moral responsibility and things like that.

And I was, at the time I was deciding with my partner, we're deciding whether or not to have kids and one of my colleagues turned up at my office door and with this book, you know, sort of brandishing at me saying this is essential reading, chapter six.

And chapter six was just this kind of extensive documentation of the happiness undermining effects of having kids. You know, there were charts that charted you know, you the, the giddy heights of unfettered coupledom, you know, and then you cohabit for a bit fantastic.

And then you have a first child, and it's like, you know, an aeroplane dive, that's when you're bottoming out. And if you live long enough, and your kids have have children, so you become a grandparent, then and only then do your happiness, levels begin to intersect again with a so for those, for those of us with kids, this kind of makes a very sobering reading. I mean, the PostScript to that story is I decided, you know, I did bring the studies home, I did show them my partner, 'stare these in the face, do you still want to go ahead'.

But we did have kids. And part of the reason for that is I think those studies raise very important questions about, you know, what's being measured is what's being measured in those studies, happiness or happiness of a kind that really matters? Is what we care about moment to moment, feelings of joy, or whatever, or do we care about, you know, having a sense of meaning and purpose, because people with kids score tend to score higher, higher than that.

Of course, my colleague who doesn't have kids and showed me the study, he's got two dogs. And he says, What's important is joint projects, you know, so if you can find more hedonically meaningful joint projects, like, you know, joint custodianship of dogs, anyway.


That could be actually the solution for sure. And I think we're going to certainly be talking about what the measures, how we measure happiness in in a moment as well, because I know that's what you look into Dan, but maybe Dr. Tim sharp, or Dr. Happy if I if you don't mind me calling you that we ask Caroline, this question at the very top of what is happiness for you.

And obviously, from your point of view, as a positive psychologist.

Firstly thanks for having me. And secondly, just to preface to say how good it is to have such a diverse panel discussing such a complex topic.

I think happiness does mean so many different things to so many different people. And it's important to consider all the various perspectives, I think, from obviously psychology, which is my expertise, but philosophy, economics, and there are very different ways of thinking about it, and Caroline's touched on a few of them.

I think for most people, happiness is a form of positive emotion. That's the easiest way to think about it. And that's something like joy or satisfaction or calm, but Golden's also touched on the broader definition, the deeper definition, and really what what positive psychologists are mostly interested in is not just that positive emotion of feeling good, but what the philosophers might call living a good life or living a great life, living our best life.

And although that does involve positive emotions, positive emotions are very important. It's also about having meaning and purpose, it's also about having a clear direction, it's also about being physically fit and healthy.

And it's also most importantly, about having good quality relationships. I mean, I think too often happiness is just seen as a subjective experience that I experienced on my own.

But it's really much more than that one of the strongest findings from the research in all different ways is that happiness is about connection.

It's about belonging, it's about good quality relationships. So if we think about that, in the broader sense, again, that's what positive psychologists called thriving or flourishing, which is, I think, probably in some ways, a more important concept than, than happiness in and of itself.


Okay, Rebecca, listening to this, and obviously, coming to it from the perspective of someone whose job is to make other people laugh, which is the business of happiness in itself. what's what's your perspective? How do you see this idea in a different life?

It's interesting, because the arts in particular during these lock downs is it seems as though we have kind of lost our identity, who we are in this world where we had a place before that was very set.

And you know, our job was to make people laugh, but it also meant that we had to book gigs, turn up to gigs, write material, the whole works.

And I feel that my level of happiness if I'm to put it in a personal perspective, and I think having spoken to so many of the performers I have, is that without that sense of who we are being able to be expressed, our level of happiness has diminished.

And so I think for me as a performer, and particularly an improv performer where honesty and truth is fundamental, I think living your true self and your true life is, for me, what provides happiness.

And it's all about connection to and there's so many other different kinds of ways I love the term that you talked about having meaning and purpose,

Tim before as well. I mean, Dan give us give us the perspective, from an economists point of view, because uh, you know, kind of like Caroline brought up the concept of measuring happiness before in lots of different countries do do this, give us a sense of how we could think about happiness as a concept in economics specifically.

So most mainstream economists don't really talk about happiness, they might sometimes use use terms like thriving or well being.

Maybe they even use the term happiness. But that's not often what they really mean.

Often, what they're talking about is as a concept as utility, which is really about preferences.

And it's a bit of a leap of faith to go from the idea that the choices that you make in transactional situations, and of course, we're economists, so we're often thinking about markets, that the choices that you make a properly representative of happiness.

You can make choices that don't make you happy, or that only make you happy in in quite specific ways. So I think utility is quite a limited concept in certain ways.

And I think that, that psychology and economics probably have something to teach each other about how happiness is both experienced and also, what sorts of things need to be done to promote it.

Now, in terms of what needs to be done to promote it, I mean, certainly, what economics can do is help governments, policymakers, and so on distribute resources in such a way that is optimal for people having the building blocks or the scaffolding that they might need to pursue happiness.

So I think that things like access to amenities, health care, you know, education, all those sorts of things. I'm reminded here of the idea of, you know, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that doesn't actually say happiness, it says, you know, here are the opportunities to then go and pursue it, yourself.

And I echo what Tim said a moment ago about our happiness being deeply enmeshed in the happiness of others around us. And I think that one of the issues with mainstream economics here is that it is methodologically individualistic.

So it really looks at what's working for you as an atomized individual. And it has trouble thinking about how your preferences might actually be very much tied in with the preferences of those around you.

So, Caroline, what are your thoughts listening to that in terms of the preferences of those around us?

How does that play in with the way you think about it from a philosophers point of view?


Well, I was thinking, as Dan started saying, you know, that economists basically they, they traditionally define happiness in terms of what you choose.

So whatever you choose makes you happy, regardless of whether it makes you miserable or whatever. If you don't mind that, then that's fine.

That actually harks back to a very old way of thinking about happiness; when the term first the term happiness comes from the Middle English word 'Hap' meaning fortunate or lucky.

And first occurrences of written occurrences of that around the 1300s and things like Chaucer's, House of Fame, and there to be happy, didn't wasn't didn't refer to a feeling at all.

Happiness meant that you got lucky, you know, so the happiness of the person who won the lottery consists in their good fortune, that the fact that they've won the lottery and not in any feelings of joy or satisfaction, or whatever that they might experience as a result, which are rather consequences of their happiness.

And that's the sense of happy that you also find in biblical passages, you know, Happy is the man who finds wisdom or whatever. It's not like chipper is the person who finds knowledge. It's fortunate, you know, lucky.

And so that way of thinking about happiness was historically very prevalent, but as we now know, thanks to research by well, psychologists like Daniel Kahneman, getting what you want is absolutely no guarantee of liking what you get and often actually comes apart.

So what that so what we now know is that good feelings or not, don't necessarily accompany the satisfaction of desires. And that's a sense in which I think it's really important.

I mean, if there's one important, most important lesson that I've learned from reading all the empirical research on happiness, it's the importance of distinguishing between liking and wanting; between satisfying your desires and enjoyment or long term contentment or tranquillity.

You know, we really have to be careful. But the moral is, if you want to be happy, you want to maximise enjoyment, say and positive emotions, you have to be really careful what you wish for

Understood, a question actually came in earlier, Caroline and Tim, I thought maybe this might be linking to what you just talked about, but it was from Joanne and she was asking specifically, how does happiness differ from joy? Tim, give us your sense of what this thing?

Oh, well, it comes down to how you define happiness. In one sense, happiness is a form of positive emotion.

And joy is a slightly different form of positive emotion. So there's a whole a whole range of emotions from the so called positive ones, and to the so called negative ones.

So the historically the negative emotions are things like stress, depression, anxiety, etc. and the positive ones are things like happiness, joy, contentment, etc.

So in that, the answer in that context is, it's a slightly different form of positive emotion.

But if we think about the broader or bigger or deeper definition of happiness, like living a good life, then positive emotion differs from living a good life, and that it's only one sub part of it.

Positive emotions are important to living a good life, but they're not everything. There are some other significant components that I touched on earlier that are just as important, possibly more important.

For sure. Dan your thoughts?

I think that idea of a balanced life is really important. And and we've already talked a little bit about this distinction between, you know, sort of hedonic happiness, and that eudaimonic happiness as well.

I suppose that the difference between immediate pleasure and gratification, which is, you know, it's important that matters.

And that more sort of durable sense that you're kind of on the right track, and that you're doing something satisfying, and, and meaningful. Yeah, so

Can I jump in on that, sorry, to interrupt Dan, because I think that one of the most important things to say about happiness is because there are so many different types of it.

So Tim's you know, positive psychology sort of focuses on the positive emotions, but also thinks more broadly about, you know, the good life, and what else might what might be involved in thriving.

But a lot of the same, clearly that there are different types of happiness that can come apart from each other, I think it's really important because I mean, and really helps to, to avoid making too many decisions that you later regret, because some of the biggest life decisions actually sort of involve trade offs between different types of different types of happiness.

So I mean, there's lots of examples, I could talk through this, but let's just focus on one close to Dan's profession, you know, economics, so look at the effect of money on happiness.

And so a lot of the students I teach in, in my philosophy of happiness course, they're choosing between, you know, should I pursue a career where I'm going to make lots of money?

Or should I, you know, pursue my passion for art, you know, even though you know, I might not get get super wealthy from it. So just answering that question really involves distinguishing between different types of happiness, because earning more money, or being wealthier, has an effect on life satisfaction, at least in materialistic societies like ours.

So the more money you earn, the more satisfied; so when you're given a thing that says rate on a scale of zero to 10, how satisfied you are with your life, you'll give a higher rating, the richer you are, on average.

This is again, Daniel Kahneman's research; in over US$75,000 or equivalent, every extra dollar you earn makes next to no difference to how you feel moment to moment.

So if you're thinking about positive emotions, you really shouldn't care that much about money.

So long, once you've reached a threshold where you're not anxious about being able to pay the bills, that's really important. It's really important that people have enough money, so their lives are not contaminated by financial anxiety.

But above that, once you're, you know, have a baseline of material comfort, above that every extra dollar makes next to no difference to how you feel, and that must be a billionaire, or until you get on the Forbes Rich List.

Yeah, so whether you earn 75,000 or 200,000, or 500,000, a year or a million or 5 million. I mean, this is really incredible, don't you think, doesn't make much difference how you feel moment to moment as you go about your life until you get filthy rich, and then you're much happier, but to worry about

It's actually not entirely true. So it is true to say that money will buy more happiness up until a point, which is what Caroline's saying.

So once you get to that point, and I guess the question is how much is enough? It's been a debate about that, but certainly once you get beyond the stage of worrying about paying bills, paying for rent, paying for food, then increasing money doesn't necessarily lead to comparable increases in happiness it tails off.

But more money still does lead to more happiness. That research has been misrepresented a bit just not nearly as much as people think. And other factors become far more important, like our physical health and well being; like our relationships. But even on the Forbes Rich List, there's actually a study about a decade or so ago that did look at the, I think was the 100 wealthiest people in America.

And they had just the same almost exactly the same proportionally rates of unhappiness, rates of depression as the general population. So even at the mega levels, it's definitely not a guarantee.

But I think what we need to be careful of here, and it's going back to Caroline's first point is, I think a lot of the time there were these false dichotomies created like it man is good or bad, pursuing your passions is good or bad.

It's actually far more complex than that. So you know, whether your students pursue something that pays more money or pushes the passion, we can actually do both, we can earn good money and still live a good life.

So again, I think it is important that we can have this dichotimist approach

To clarify what I was saying. I was saying it crucially depends on what kind of happiness you're focusing on.

So it's too simplistic to say, will I be happier if I earn more money? Yeah, you have to ask more fine grained questions. What kind of happiness do I care about

As a comedian, you definitely...the more money you're earning, the happier you are, as any artist, I think, is the way it is.

Because we don't have regular incomes. And we aren't in a routine where we know that safety net is there for us all the time, we're walking on a tightrope without one, for the majority.

And that's why there is so much angst, anxiety depression, in within the arts itself. Equity, the MEAA did a survey of its members of which I participated in a couple of years ago.

And the results were frightening about the the level of depression amongst artists and the feeling of insecurity, the constant anxiety. And I think the lack of financial security has a lot to do with that.

And there are no coaching methods that we get given or handed, because we're working with different employers every day, different people all the time.

So there's no structure in place to look after us to make sure that that's the situation. So that's left up to the individual artists to take care of their own mental health, which is on top of paying the bills, the mortgage, the buying groceries, surviving, and looking after families for those that do have them.

That is that is a lot to take on. And the relief that money provides when you get a good gig or any gig at all, is I know, personally, alters my happiness level. Exponentially.

So it's all kind of linked. Dan, I'd love you to weigh in here because this is something that is from the future of work, which is your main kind of research.

The way that our lives have dramatically shifted for many of us that are working from home because of the pandemic, the lockdown, the homeschooling, all of these types of things are feeding into this, this level of what makes us happier, big question.

So how has the pandemic in your perspective changed things in terms of our happiness, if I could be simple about it, or our well being?

I think the first thing to mention about what all of the panellists have just said right now is that it kind of tells you what the implications of government policy need to be doesn't it, there's a sweet spot for happiness.

And if you can get people to a certain level, you know, it's you know, what, what economists call, you know, sort of optimal, you know. So if you distribute wealth in such a way, you can generate the most happiness with a certain amount of money.

If you assume that what we're measuring here is in fact, happiness. But let's say for a moment that it is and think about the the government's responses initially to COVID-19.

And just the, the huge fiscal injections in terms of doubling job seeker overnight, and job keeper, and just the the level of financial security that put in place. Not just in the face of the pandemic, but for people who don't have financial security in a lot of cases under normal circumstances.

And that's not just people who are unemployed, but it's also people who have insecure or precarious work in a lot of cases. I accept that job keeper certainly didn't cover all of them. But my general point is that, that that was an obvious example of policymaking talking to well being in I think, a very direct way.

Now as to your question Fenella. I think, well, there are different groups of people. But I think that the pandemic has affected sections of the workforce different very differently.

There are certainly people who are still exposed to the virus in their workplaces, that can't work from home because of the nature of their work. And obviously, that would bring with it a certain degree of anxiety.

And I think it's obviously the case that in many instances, these are the same people who are working in quite precarious jobs where they they really can't afford to take time away from work otherwise, I think they would in a lot of instances.

We're talking about people who don't get sick leave, for example. As for the people who work from home, different set of challenges altogether, I mean, obviously, that blurring of family and work life has been challenging in some instances.

And I think it's kind of hard to distinguish the boundaries between home life and work life the way that it was, before the pandemic. And I can certainly imagine that that's had a significant impact on people's well being.

Certainly, in fact, we've had some questions that have come through and Tim I might throw some of these to you,

Ryan said that his happiness has been hampered by personal responsibilities leading on from what Dan has just been talking about, like family, and he can't necessarily separate from this,

are there other ways that he can increase happiness or we can increase our happiness?

I guess I'll preface this by saying it's hard to respond directly to Ryan because I don't know his circumstances.

And so I'll try to answer that in a general sense. But I guess going back to the point Caroline made earlier, which I wholeheartedly agree with it.

But there's one of the things we can take from the fact that as we've agreed, there are different definitions, different perspectives and happiness, what I would, one of the ways I would interpret that from a psychological perspective is what it also means is, we can choose which definition we want to pursue, or we can choose which type of happiness we want to create.

And so that means we can choose whether to pursue a hedonic type of happiness, such as about short term pleasure, etc, or a more meaningful life.

Or as I said, these aren't mutually exclusive, or some combination of that, along with all the other factors in short spoken about. So coming back to Ryan, I suppose I guess the first thing I'd say is, given his circumstances, which obviously, I don't know that well, given the circumstances, what does he consider would be the best possible life he can live, facing all of his responsibilities?

And then what can he put into place to make better reality? Or to bring that about as best he can, remembering that we don't live in an ideal world? The world's not perfect. So how can we live with those imperfections as best as possible?

Caroline, what do you think?

Well, again, I think I think there's these different types of happiness.

I think that the current circumstances so this is not directed specifically to Ryan's question just more generally. I mean, when objective circumstances are difficult and challenging, it may be that there's certain types of happiness that are less readily available than others.

And so I mean, just picking up on Tim's point, it seems right that you, it's important to sort of think about what type of happiness matters most to you, and how you might go about achieving that, it seems to me living through the pandemic, just watching.

I mean, I'm relatively fortunate, I still have a job. for now, we'll see how that goes, but and you know, I can work from home. And so I feel thinking about the misfortune of others, I feel incredibly fortunate.

And that, in itself is one technique that positive psychologists as Tim can tell us about, recommend for improving happiness. Thinking, being grateful for what you have, and appreciating your good fortune. S

o I do feel that but on the other hand, I sort of think that some people really are doing it much tougher. And for them, I'm not sure that it's a helpful recommendation to try and find chipperness among all the, you know, it's like it's not really a realistic response.

And it's better to look for more adaptive kind of responses to that situation, perhaps

This idea that you can be happy in the face of other people's unhappiness is something that we've talked about a little bit before.

Can I get you to talk a little bit about that too? I mean, how important is it? How important is it to consider the happiness of others? Can we be happy when somebody else isn't?

Yeah, well, there's a lot of research, so the the the ancients, if you go all the way back to Aristotle, they thought that virtue was not just a cause of happiness understood as some sort of subjective feeling, but actually constitutive of it.

I mean, literally, you couldn't be happy, unless you're a certain sort of person, including, you know, including a kind of a client and compassionate thoughtful kind of person.

So virtue was sort of built into what it was to be happy. But even if you just think of happiness, as we moderns tend to do, as a sort of subjective psychological state kind of positive emotions or, or subjective feelings of satisfaction, then there's an awful lot of evidence to suggest that the best way to achieve those feelings is by not thinking about your own happiness.

And by by trying to, you know, act generously and promote the happiness of others. There's lots of research that shows that people who are given money and spend it on themselves are less happy than people who are given money and spend it on other people.

So that's just one of many kinds of examples. So yeah, I think, you know, and then. So that's, that's how virtue is a cause of happiness.

But in addition to that, there's also a very long kind of tradition in philosophy that thinks that positive emotions have to be connected to what's really going on in the world, for them to be appropriate and desirable  responses.

So if if you're surrounded by people who are suffering, then righteous anger, righteous indignation, kind of things like that, if they can, they can be a constructive. I mean, in some sense, they're negative emotions, right?

Because they're unpleasant to feel. But they might be entirely justified and positive and instrumentally, very valuable response to what's going on.

So I sort of feel like in the conditions of the pandemic, it's right, maybe we're right to have righteous anger and certain kinds of things that are that are going on and not be just cheerful...

And chipper, to use your term.

I think Caroline's absolutely right. I mean, the question that I think I'd ask of Ryan, were we to meet is, you know, what's the social supports that are missing?

What are the systemic things that aren't going right, in terms of the way we organise our society and the way we we organise resources and power, that would give you a break? You know?

And I guess especially well, you know, I talked about the government's positive response to the pandemic before, you know, those measures have been unbound now, or wound back.

So, you know, essentially, there's a policy choice right now, or, you know, numerous policy choices working in parallel to make people suffer unnecessarily.

And I personally am a pretty happy person in my personal life. But there's a lot that I'm mad about, at that level of power and structures. That's one of the reasons that I do this work.

So you can be happy and unhappy at the same time. So it's fair enough for me to wake up in the morning, feeling deeply optimistic and go for a run, which I know makes me feel happy.

But at the same time, I get to the television at 11 o'clock, and I shout at the TV. Does anybody else do this?

Yeah, I mean, and that, that's what a comedian basically does.

That's, their job is to live their life and go through all of the emotions of what's going on in the world around them, or their personal relationships, things that may have gone wrong, or the lack of finances, but at the end of the day, when the when you get on stage, and the spotlight hits you, your job is to make people laugh.

And sometimes it's the last thing that you yourself want to do. And that can be really difficult. But we describe it as Dr. Footlights or Doctor Theatre that as soon as you hit a stage, there's something about that, that can allow you to forget your day. And I've often walked off stage having had the worst day, in months, and I come off stage and the energy and the sharing of ideas and the response of laughter is enough to make me forget about them.

And I can sleep, I can go to bed happier knowing I made other people laugh, but also that what I'm doing is my job is helping me and coping with a lot of those things that we have to deal with on a daily basis.

And that's where we get our material from. I mean, we are reflecting back to an audience a lot of the time, what they're thinking and feeling as well.

But we just happened to have the ability to say it and so there's a collective. There's a group feeling of forgetting our troubles, what goes on outside that door now is irrelevant.

What's on stage now, for the next hour, hour and a half is what's most important.

There's something quite magical about that too. And I think that's what people are realising with the lockdowns that we're suffering and since COVID, has hit us and just how much we rely on that be it through music, film, books, whatever it is that that allows you to escape and to forget, and to reboot your emotions in a way is something everyone is turning to.

Yet those who are the ones that create it all are having a hard time doing it at the moment. So it's an interesting shift, but I think the audience dynamic is something that I really love because you can have one person in that audience that's having a terrible day and is sitting there like this.

That's my job. To make that one person laugh. If at the end of the show, they've smiled, or they unfolded their arms, I feel like there's been some level of connection there that I've had with a complete stranger. And I hope they're happier than they were when they walked in.

I love that. Tim, you wanted to talk?

Yeah. So I just want to pick up on a few points. Because I think one thing we know from the psychological research, which is often overlooked, and so it doesn't get a lot of attention, although it's very important, and particularly in the context of this discussion is that we can and do feel multiple emotions at the same time.

It's very possible. In fact, we often do feel sad or happy at the same time, anxious and confident the same time.

And I think sometimes we forget about that, which means at the moment, it's perfectly appropriate and Caroline touched on this earlier, Dan did, everyone has in different ways.

Is that, given what we're going through at the moment, it's perfectly okay not to be okay. In fact, it's appropriate not to be okay.

Certainly, or, you know, some of the time. However, going back to the question a few minutes ago, what we do know is that if we can foster and develop genuine positive emotion, so I'm not talking about slapping on a fake smile, but if we can find a reason to feel good, well, what we do know is that happy people are more generous and more altruistic and more kind and compassionate.

So the more for example, if I can make myself feel better, then I'm more likely to do good for others.

And I think particularly at the moment, that's a really important thing, if I get bogged down in misery, I can't help anyone. But if I can at least pick myself up a little bit, I'm more likely to be not just a good husband and father, but a good psychologist and a good community member,

For sure. This idea, in fact, Caroline, you talk about it in your talk, if you write a letter to a teacher, that you that you loved at school, even if you didn't have to send it but if you just write a letter to say how much you appreciated their education and their teaching, it makes you exponentially happier, which I quite like. So I think it's really lovely.

Big conversation, ladies and gentlemen, thank you, everybody here for these.

Rebecca, I was I was going to put you on the spot and make you do an improv thing. But we've already discussed it, so you know that you're doing it.

And just briefly before, we've only got like a minute or so. But you've been listening to the conversation, and you're going to do something for us. So what is it?

That's right. I've been listening, as I said, My job as an improviser, is to be a sponge and absorb everything that's been said, and then somehow manage to put it into some kind of artistic endeavour and present it.

So I've had a few keywords buzzing around in my head from from our chat today. So I'm just going to do a final poem to happiness

Do we give you a clap?

Yes, please. Yes, I haven't had one in a while

And take it away.

Hi, there. There's something I'd like to confess. I've got some feelings about happiness.

It's been great to sit here to chat, and to laugh. And to know that we're talking straight from our hearts.

And you see, I was reading those words, the mind map, and I saw lots of things that stood out with a clap.

But the one thing for me, it makes me prancing, is I love nothing more than to feel happy when dancing.

And we've also discussed something eudemonic? Is that the word? I don't know if I've pronounced it correctly, but eudaimonic eudaimonic.

I have to say, I'm going to name my dog something like it.

It seems these words keep buzzing through my head. I'm going to be thinking about them when I go to bed.

But there's also pursuit of happiness. There's money and music and sunshine. And bless.

The use of religion to make someone happy is something I hadn't thought of. But now I am clappy because it's these things, these ideas we can share which make us understand and to make us care.

And if I could do one thing, and to all of you, I bless. I wish you nothing more than a few bad days and plenty of happiness.

Thank you so much, Rebecca. That's fantastic. Always a delight to to hear some poems. I don't even how do you say the word eudemonic is that the word?

Eudaimonic. That's the one. I wrote it down phonetically. And I'm sure it's wrong.

So much to learn. And thank you again for joining us for the Sydney Ideas event on happiness.

It's been an absolute delight, sounds like a topic that we need to continue for sure.

And do go along and listen to Caroline West's raising the bar talk. We'll make sure that link is provided to you after the show and of course on our Sydney Ideas website, and all the other resources including Tim's website, etc, is all there.

So on that note, I would now like to say thank you very much once again. And to thank our speakers, Caroline West, Dan Nahum, of course, Dr. Tim Sharp and Rebecca DeUnamuno. I thank you for joining us here at Sydney Ideas. We really appreciate it.

Thanks for listening to the Sydney Ideas podcast. For more links resources or the transcript head to the Sydney Ideas website or subscribe to Sydney Ideas using your favourite podcast app.

The speakers

Rebecca De Unamuno is an award-winning improviser, stand-up comedian, radio host, and voice-over artist. She has appeared on popular TV shows including Just For Laughs, Comedy Inc, Talkin’ ‘Bout Your Generation, and Kath and Kim.

Rebecca is a regular on ABC Radio’s Thank God It’s Friday and a presenter on ABC Radio Sydney. Her extensive voice-over work includes Happy Feet 2, working alongside Robin Williams, Hank Azaria and Elijah Wood.

Rebecca has toured multiple times with Seinfeld's Jason Alexander.

Dan Nahum is Economist with the Centre for Future Work. His research interests include industrial transformation, labour markets in low-carbon economies, government finances, and inequity and inequality.

Previous to joining the Centre for Future Work, he held roles in the Australian government in various social and economic policy fields, including Indigenous Affairs and the Office for Women, and was also a union delegate with the Community and Public Sector Union.

He holds a Masters of Political Economy from the University of Sydney, where he focused on the moral dimensions of climate change, and an Honours degree from Macquarie University. Dan is also an active musician.

An internationally renowned leader in the field of Positive Psychology, Dr Tim Sharp (aka Dr Happy) is a sought after Speaker and Facilitator, Consultant and Coach, Writer and Podcaster, Spokesperson and Brand Ambassador.

Dr Caroline West is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy. She specializes in ethics, free speech, philosophy of well-being and happiness. She is currently working on a book on Philosophy of Happiness. 

Fenella has recently joined the University of Sydney as Head of Programming.

Prior to this appointment she was Head of Curation for TEDxSydney where she led the programming for one of the largest TEDx events in the world. An in-demand MC, presenter, interviewer, keynote speaker and moderator: and a noted television and radio presenter and producer, Fenella has hosted numerous radio and television shows. These have included Art Nation & Sunday Arts on ABC TV; The Movie Show on SBS TV; By Design on Radio National; and her long running cult electronic music show, The Sound Lab on Triple J. 2020 saw her work collaboratively across many virtual events and with many organisations including hosting the 40 minutes online program to launch the Chau Chak Wing Museum within the University of Sydney.

Event image: Photo by Hybrid on Unsplash

Sign up for our newsletter

Each month we'll send you details about upcoming events, and a selection of podcasts.