Government Announces Happiness Survey - Permaculture Has Key Role

Tony Rollinson
Wednesday, 25th July 2012

In our exclusive interview Dr Chris Johnstone, co-author of Active Hope along with Joanna Macy, tells us why happiness research is important, why permaculture has a role to play in urban happiness and he offers our readers his top tip!

Back in July 2011 Permaculture ( reported that the UK Government had conducted research which looked at the idea of a ‘happiness index’. The idea was to measure how the country is doing in ways other than just GDP. This is an approach which permaculture has valued for many years. This year the survey has made further steps forward, Chris guides us through the importance of some of the findings and looks at why permaculture is a force for positive change.


1) Permaculture: Chris, the Government have announced the results of their new annual happiness survey. What are your reactions?

I think these results are deeply significant as they question a core assumption of modern industrialized societies. Governments focus on economic measures of success because they assume the path to progress is through economic development. Yet this recent survey shows some of the least economically developed parts of the UK, such as the Orkneys, Cornwall and Anglesey, to be among the happiest. People living in urban areas like London and the West Midlands reported lower levels of life satisfaction and greater anxiety. Other studies have shown something similar – that our access to biologically rich natural environments has a protective effect on mood. If we want to increase our 'gross national happiness' we need to shift our national priority from economic development to ecological recovery. Permaculture clearly has a role to play here, and greening our urban environments can make cities happier places to live.


2) Permaculture: How do people with depression find a way to become happier without the use of pharmaceutical interventions?

The key here is to recognize that choices we make and actions we take can have a powerful anti-depressant effect. In my book Find Your Power, I call this 'the self-help SSRI', where rather than linking these letters to a type of medication, I use them to stand for Strategies, Strengths, Resources and Insights that help the recovery of wellbeing. Each of us has our own toolkit of strategies we've developed, strengths we can call on, resources we can turn to and insights we can apply. My work for many years within a specialist NHS mental health team involved teaching people how to develop each of these areas. Research shows that problem solving strategies, exercise and mindfulness, for example, can be as effective as medication in the treatment of depression. Recovery from depression involves an emotional migration based on repeated steady steps in a number of different areas. Medication sometimes has a role; when I used to prescribe I'd recommend that the way to make a tablet more effective was to make sure it didn't have to do all the work. And if the self-help bit was done first, the medication might not even be needed.


3) Permaculture: How does 'finding your power' relate to a persons overall happiness?

One of the leading psychological models for understanding depression is the 'learned helplessness model' developed by Martin Seligman. If someone tries to change a difficult situation but repeatedly fails, they may eventually give up, feel hopeless and experience a collapse of enthusiasm that feels much like depression. From this defeated place, the pessimistic voice that says 'what's the point, it won't make any difference' seems a lot more convincing. This sets off a self-reinforcing spiral of withdrawal, disappointment and giving up that feeds depression. Much of my work over the last twenty-five years has been about helping people turn this feeling of defeat around, finding their power to make a difference in their lives and our world. When we believe our actions are worth the effort, we engage more in life in a way that makes it more satisfying. The more we do things we feel good about, the more we develop the warm contented feeling I call 'afterglow' that is one of the keys to happier living.


4) Permaculture: How do we find ways to be happy and content on a day to day basis and not just when something inspires us?

We can train ourselves to get better at noticing the small things that bring a smile to our face, but which often get discounted or rushed on from. For example, at the end of each day, try asking yourself, 'What were my favourite moments today?' and 'What happened that I'm glad about or thankful for?' Keep a diary of these things. We can get better at looking out for these moments and savouring them when they happen. For example, I was walking down a street the other day and I saw a flower with the most amazing shade of purple. Normally I'd say 'that's nice' and walk on. But I chose instead to linger, to give myself more time to dwell on the positive, the shape, the tones, the exquisite beauty. It was a simple thing to do, it didn't cost any money, and it lifted my mood. This is only the start though. There is a whole science developing around the question 'how can we bring out the best side of human experience?' Not just positive mood, but also positive qualities and relationships and organizations. In this time of planetary unraveling the question I'm most interested in is 'what helps bring out our best response?' When we get interested in that question and explore where it leads, it point us to a way of living that is good for both our planet and our mood.


5) Permaculture: How did you get involved in Permaculture and how has this impacted on your teachings?

About twenty years ago, I did an introductory course with David Watkins, author of Urban Permaculture. Afterwards he helped me do a design on my garden, which at the time was covered over with concrete slabs. I organized three wonderful 'dig-up-my garden' parties where friends helped me take up the slabs and plant a host of fruit, nuts and herbs. Within a few years it was an amazing rich productive ecosystem. The process of that transformation from grey, flat, barren concrete to vibrant and nourishing aliveness has stayed with me – it is one of my inspirations. I experienced something similar in my own life, in my recovery from depression in my twenties. I've also seen it again and again with my clients. I love the idea that a similar remarkable recovery process can happen at the level of our society and world.


6) Permaculture: Could you give the readers of Permaculture your top tips for tools to help them in their daily lives?

I have just one top tip – it is to practice Active Hope. This is different from being hopeful or optimistic; it involves three essential steps. First we take in a clear view of reality, including both the parts we're grateful for and those that disturb us. Then we identify what we hope will happen from here. The third step is about taking active steps to move in that direction. We can apply this to our personal lives, relationships, families and work. In the new book I've co-written with Joanna Macy, we look at what helps us apply this powerful approach to our world. Active Hope, like Tai Chi or gardening, is not something we have, it is something we do. It involves our active participation in the story of creating the kind of future we hope for. When we do this, our lives tend to become more satisfying too.

Permaculture: Thank you Chris!

Chris Johnstone is an author, trainer and coach specializing in resilience, happiness and positive change. His books include Find Your Power – a toolkit for resilience and positive change, The Happiness Training Plan (audiobook with Miriam Akhtar) and (with Joanna Macy) Active Hope – how to face the mess we're in without going crazy. His website is at

Chris also runs courses designed to help you feel inspired and empowered, rather than overwhelmed, when facing global issues. Based on The Work That Reconnects, the empowerment approach developed by Joanna Macy, he has weekend workshops on 21-23 Sept and 19-21 Oct, as well as a year long facilitator training beginning 12– 14 Oct. For details see

Finally, view this video link for Chris on our website:

Debbi Lyons |
Fri, 27/07/2012 - 23:02

chris had a beautiful wild garden in Bristol with lots of berries... it was a lovely place to hang out in and listen to the tinkling sounds of his hammer dulcimer....