“The media could contribute to the pursuit of happiness by emphasizing people’s inner wealth, extolling values such as creativity, cooperation and sharing…” So believes Guy Michel Franca (pictured), trainer and member of the French Psychological Society, interviewed by Articolo21 on the International Day of Happiness, adopted by the UN and held on 20 March. In recent years, Michel Franca has been involved in developing an integrated approach to Self awareness, the valuing of the person and the development of individual potential, through observation and research on human behaviour and the processes of consciousness. He has called this new methodology “The Ethics of Human Relationships.”
For over 20 years, you have been working on human emotions and behaviour, in particular to understand how happiness can become a possible way forward. But what is this happiness that we all aspire to? Is it really attainable or is it just a utopia, a dream?
Finally, the United Nations General Assembly, in 2012, decided to proclaim 20th March as the International Day of Happiness, having come to the realisation that even the pursuit of happiness is to be considered one of the fundamental aims of humanity and a primary right, like food, medical care, education, work and peace. It urged all member states and other international and regional bodies, as well as civil society, to celebrate it appropriately, also through educational activities for raising public awareness.
The day is of great value because it serves to confirm, at institutional and international level, that happiness is not a dream. And I am of the same opinion.
The fundamental problem is that we are victims of our incomplete mental frameworks. The perception of happiness is made possible by the stimulation of the nerve centres for perceiving pleasure. Variations in the perception of happiness depend on the significance that the individual encodes from the first moment of life outside the womb. Each of us establishes our own encoding: in this way, what makes one person happy leaves the other indifferent, because the meaning of a given situation does not enable the stimulation of the pleasure centres. We experience the state of happiness “in stops and starts”, at the mercy of events and people we meet, able or not to meet our needs. This attitude makes happiness pure utopia because, once achieved following the perception of a positive stimulus, the phenomenon of habit takes over. Thus, the first bunch of flowers our lover sends is an event that triggers happiness and all the positive emotions that go with it, but the thirtieth bouquet of flowers, even if bigger and more beautiful…starts to get boring… To summarise this simple observation, we can say that the individual’s happiness depends on the external stimuli received: whether they are happy or not depends on the external world!
Neuroscience and the study of the functions of the mind teach us that there is another road we can take, and the dream of happiness becomes liveable reality. It’s a question of completing what Mother Nature started by giving us pleasure centres, by offering us a way of also stimulating them from within, no longer desperately waiting for external stimulus. It’s now possible to achieve all this with simple techniques.
In your book “Oltre i confini del pensiero” (Beyond the Confines of Thought) (Ed. EUR 2014) you link ethics with happiness. Can you better explain to us the reason for this connection?
I have observed that the ability to activate the pleasure centres from within and enhance the capacity to manage emotions naturally leads individuals to adopt ethical behaviour in their relationships. Indeed, internal states that enable the state of happiness to be achieved also lead us to express ethical feelings and adopt ethical behaviour. This is because, in achieving emotional autonomy, we automatically reduce our demands on the outside and the need to “use” relationships, objects or the environment to compensate for our needs. While morality depends on cultural factors, ethics is a defining characteristic of the complete realisation of one’s humanity and is independent of the culture and traditions conveyed at social level.
What is the role of information in the perception of happiness? How can the media influence a society’s state of wellbeing?
Good question. All information communicated involves the factual description of an event, but often subjective elements are added that influence the listener. We can guide happiness through information or, alternatively, we can increase pessimism, disappointment and the sense of loss of meaning.
The media could facilitate this process by emphasizing, for example, people’s internal value, extolling values such as creativity, cooperation, sharing, exchange, integration, respect, help, welcoming, listening, the principle of mediation, assertiveness, active citizenship and altruism. In short, those values that can offer guidance towards an integrated view of reality, where partial analyses are not supported, but rather the consideration of each situation in all its complexity and with respect for diversity. It is the ability to perceive the wealth of diversity that facilitates a higher expression of humanity.
Can we speak today of freedom of expression? What is the relationship between freedom of information, ethics and happiness?
For me, freedom of information is essential, it allows internal processes to be channelled that would otherwise remain blocked and could lead to serious social conflict. As you know, I’m French. France, the home of human rights, has been condemned 33 times by the European Court of Human Rights, which puts it behind Russia. We can’t talk about freedom of expression in France; the artist Dieudonné was recently sentenced to pay fines and the Council of State has banned his shows. It makes us all think of “Charlie”. Looking at these two events, we can see that neither the state or the extremists have any desire for genuine freedom of expression. In my opinion, this is an indicator of the immaturity of the social system, where they want to gag and suppress the freedom of expression of someone who could create trouble for their ideas, for their own economic interests or political power. Limiting freedom of expression promotes communitism, detrimental to democracy. It encourages individuals to seek happiness within their community and, all too often, those outside the community are stigmatised. The problem is not the community itself, but the process of identification with the community that, to strengthen itself, tends to blame the outside for the difficulties, whatever they are.
For me, therefore, the freedom of expression of the individual and the media in general is crucial, as otherwise there is the risk of suppressing feelings that do not find a space in the social environment to express themselves and continue to be fuelled surreptitiously.
Returning to the question, freedom of information provides the material that enables the activation of the evaluation process and integration of thought processes. If I had access to just a single source of information, I’d have no way of making an objective evaluation; I’d essentially be forced to employ linear thinking, where the choice is between agreeing or not agreeing with the information presented to me. This process recalls rigid thinking, organising the mind based on two opposite polarities: all good or all bad. Such organisation is not compatible, in my opinion, with an ethical process that requires complex thinking based on integrating multiple points of view. To be happy we need to know how to think in a complex way, which is incompatible with limiting the freedom of expression.
Is politics making a contribution?
In your opinion? I really don’t think so. I mentioned the case of France to you. In Italy, it takes other forms, with the media concentrated into a single system: if I change channel, it doesn’t change the partiality of the information. The media can provide certain information as long as it’s in line with the views of the shareholders and the advertising customers. What we observe is that this is not condemned by “politics” because it’s a system that suits them all. We mustn’t delude ourselves: information is consistently driven by political power. I don’t in any way consider myself a conspiracy theorist, but certain events and certain circumstances make you think and offer ample space for reflection. I would add that things could be different if the political system was oriented toward a collective goal and not, as often happens, an electoral goal. The political class could absolutely make a full contribution to citizens’ wellbeing: in this case, it would be in its interest to give space to everyone’s views and to promote the freedom and multiplicity of expression, which are the fullest reflection of the human community.
In your opinion, why are the audiences of crime news programmes always rising? And why, on the other hand, are “good news” stories attracting so few viewers?
I think this phenomenon is explained by mirroring and projective identification. I watch programmes that show a reality that, for me, is symbolically virtual. The programmes, although they deal with real events, come via the television or computer: this inevitably creates distance between me and the event. At the same time, what we observe in the tragic event awakens the inner demons that we all have deep inside us, linked to repressed violence, anxiety, anger, jealousy, suffering, death. At that point there’s a transitive effect: seeing the suffering on the screen, it’s as if I were freed of my own suffering: “this happened, yes, but to someone else…not to me…” And paradoxically that reassures me, because it somehow makes the chance of it happening to me more remote.
In parallel, another phenomenon takes place: the identification of nameless anxieties. Faced with the tragic event, it is as if I thought: “I knew it, I knew it could happen…” In this way, by giving a name to the danger, or sometimes a face, sometimes identified, indeed, with a community, I can direct the focus of my anxiety on specific events and free my mind from anxiety over other areas of life. There is a sort of containment of negative emotions.
At a psychological level, good news is categorised differently. Good news is unconsciously attributed to luck, to circumstances unlikely to happen to me. So it is not easy to project in that situation. The positive information is not very credible and not very attainable for the individual, and the screen doesn’t help to reduce the distance.
The Internet has revolutionised the way we generate information. In particular, social media have created a new way of communicating news using simple and immediate language. What is your assessment of this immediacy and simplification?
As I said, simplification reduces the value of information and impoverishes the very structure of thought. However, it should be emphasized that the Internet has developed access to information exponentially, and of course we can find all kinds of news on the web. If we want it to be concise, then it will have the features you describe. But there is also high-quality information available, which would be harder to find without the Internet.
In my opinion, precisely because there is greater freedom on the web, each of us can direct our research based on our preferred level of complexity for any given context.
With smartphones, we are always reachable, always connected and bombarded with news. The risk is to be exposed to the invasiveness of news. Do you think we should put a limit on this phenomenon or is this the direction of progress?
It is undoubtedly the direction of progress, provided it doesn’t alter individuals’ relationships. In restaurants, it’s easy to observe families at lunch or dinner, where everyone is busy with their phones or tablets, and you realise that no one is communicating. Everyone closes themselves off in their information bubble and doesn’t share. So I’d say it is absolutely the direction of progress, but we should be more aware of the importance of defining certain times when information doesn’t encroach on our spaces for communicating. For example, I think that mobile phones must remain switched off during lessons at school. This would make access to information even more valued when it is allowed.
More and more studies show how new generations born in the age of the Internet, smartphones and video games are too often at the mercy of these devices and suffer from addictions to them. What is the role of educational institutions, schools and families in the communication age 2.0? Are there effective means of helping children and parents to manage the distress caused by new technologies and, more generally, by the impoverishment of values that we are witnessing?
Certainly there are effective means. One effective means is undoubtedly to increase interpersonal space. Living together in the same house does not mean to communicate. It is through their relationship with the family environment that children are created, that their minds are created, and their way of thinking about and perceiving the world. If the family environment delegates this relationship to video games and smartphones, the child will be created from elements that are no substitute for the quality of human relationships and, as a result, structural weaknesses will begin to show. Studies on children under 6 have shown that poor academic performance is proportional to the time spent in front of the TV or video games. At the age of 14, more than 2 hours of TV a day increases the risk of leaving school early by 50%. These are disturbing figures.
I’d say that parents must put relationships, communication, cooperation and listening at the centre of the family again. Human values must come from the family, not from the screen, because certain values can only be integrated into genuine relationships.
In countries such as Bhutan and Uruguay, happiness has become the key parameter for assessing growth and wellbeing. Do you think that Europe is ready for such a step?
Those two countries are setting an example, Jose Mujica and His Majesty Jime Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck embody that dimension of humanity and citizenship that I was talking about, and so enable and promote the culture of happiness. Europe, in my opinion, is too firmly in the grip of lobbyists and technocratic and political power games to go in such a direction.
We must in any case have faith in a profound change in society. As Gandhi said, we must be the change we want to see in the world. One day, maybe a party will have the courage to ask that the level of happiness perceived by citizens be considered seriously, and the political games will be oriented towards such indicators. All this could happen within a single generation, provided that happiness is taught in school just as maths or history are taught. I mean: to teach the internal processes that lead to happiness, in a theoretical and practical way. That’s exactly what we are aiming for with the Ethics of Human Relationships Method, a training model focused on the development of individual and interpersonal potential that I have developed over the last few years of observation. Now, with the Fondazione Internazionale Verso l’Etica (the International Foundation Towards Ethics) – the Five Foundation, we are seeking to take it into every social environment, particularly in schools and education. Right now, we are launching an information campaign on potential happiness L’Arte di Essere Felici (the Art of Being Happy) http://www.fiveonlus.eu/arte-di-essere-felici. The aim is to promote a new educational approach where teachers and parents can acquire new tools to assist children and young people in their growth path to become the happy and aware adults of tomorrow.
How do you see the future? Will there be an age of happiness 2.0? What contribution can the media make in this direction?
The age of happiness 2.0 is the age of interpersonal communication, of the individual’s acquisition of consciousness and awareness of their uniqueness. It’s the age of developing the capacity to access complex thought, which enables the synthesis of multiple points of view, able to welcome different thought, or rather to see the different as an asset. Happiness perceived in this way is no longer stimulated externally, but generated from within by the individual, and the relationship becomes the place for sharing it. To reach such levels we must break down, through ethics and consciousness, the barriers of communitism, both territorial and religious. People will have to feel deep within themselves that their existence does not depend on whether they possess certain values rather than others, but that before all else they exist as human beings, and as human beings they can choose their own values. This is an essential point. The Declaration of Human Rights says that every person is born free. This is not yet a reality: every person is born and is immediately conditioned by the values of their community. This conditioning becomes their prison and impedes access to their happiness.
The media have the potential, and we could even say the responsibility, to inform about the possibilities of accessing our uniqueness within, of revealing the limits of collective identification, of common and uniform thought. Humans are not human because they adopt one religion over another. The problem is not religion or territoriality, the problem is identification, which makes us think that we don’t exist without those values; we’re in a prison and forced to live by those values, and only those values. The media can foster the communication of different values, encourage integration, a broader vision of the human mind; they can increase the spaces that help to spread a culture of mediation, of integration of thought, and of understanding conflict. Affirming the importance of human relationships. If you think about it, what makes us human? It is relationships, welcoming, sharing, altruism, cooperation. These values belong to humanity as a whole, not to a country, a religion, a community; and these values, precisely because they are universal, allow us to orient ourselves and achieve happiness. The Art of Being Happy: http://www.fiveonlus.eu/arte-di-essere-felici/
The video in which Guy describes the Ethics of Human Relationships method, and talks about “Happiness”.