Alan has been leading groups on natural happiness and resilience at Hazel Hill Wood, near Salisbury for years. He writes about ‘The Story Behind Natural Happiness’…
For four years the focus of my learning and teaching was resilience. I believe it’s a crucial skill set for all of us in these uncertain times, but I’ve now decided to put another focus beside it: natural happiness. Since 2011, I’ve learned lots about the benefits of resilience, but also the limitations of the concept. Some people find it too cold or ‘technical’ to engage them. And I’ve realised that resilience is a means, not an end.
Few of us would say that resilience was our highest aim in life, whereas many would name happiness. Like all good concepts, it’s over-used and misused: I’m using happiness to mean wellbeing, life satisfaction, lasting joy. I’ve been exploring natural systems as a learning model for over twenty years: my recent work has shown me that this approach is useful for many people, and is highly relevant for happiness and resilience.
I’ve coined the term Natural Happiness to sum up this approach, and I’m exploring it on my website, www.naturalhappiness.net, and through my newsletters and blogs. It’s also the focus of my fourth book, which I hope will be published in 2019.
So what’s the big idea here? It’s the analogies between human nature, and cultivated nature around us, such as gardens and organic farms. We sometime imagine people are like a complex piece of equipment, a car or a computer, but these are predictable mechanisms. People are organisms – we function on subtle natural principles, not mechanical ones.
If you ask me how I picture natural happiness, I’d say like a tree – hence the new logo below. Roots are essential to any tree, and I see natural happiness as growing upwards from a strong root system. When individuals or groups are resilient, this gives them roots that provide stability and nourishment. Just as a tree produces its outputs (nuts, berries, blossoms) through network of branches, so people go through cycles of growth to create their outputs.
With a tree, you have to keep a balance between the roots and fruits, the resources and outputs. This is vital for people too: when I’m leading a group on this theme, I try to get people outdoors to learn on a real tree, and try the tree test for themselves. Most people realise they’re out of balance, and need to nourish their roots or prune back their outputs. For a video of the process, click here.
People are subtle, complex natural organisms, hence cultivated natural ecosystems have real parallels: in my book I’m using organic gardens and farms as my model, and am enjoying fresh insights as I write each chapter. I look forward to sharing the fruits with you.
How can we stay happy when there’s too much change and uncertainty? Are there ways to bounce back and thrive if everyday life and work is getting us down? The answer is to cultivate yourself like a garden, and grow your own wellbeing by learning from nature. The times we’re in are tough: it’s clear that we need new approaches to thrive in all this. Natural Happiness is a simple, practical guide which can help in your personal life, your work, and living with the wider issues. It will show you how to cultivate your own human nature, and tend yourself like a garden: deepen your roots, and grow happily through all kinds of weather.
Life these days is so complex that we need models and parallels to learn from. You might think there are useful comparisons with systems like computers or cars, but human nature is far subtler. People are organisms: constantly changing, and with this interactions between physical, emotional, mental and other aspects. A much better parallel is cultivated natural eco-systems: farms, gardens or forests where rules of nature apply, but people are trying to shape nature to achieve the outcomes they want. For over 20 years, Alan Heeks has been exploring what people can learn from these parallels for their life and work
I never set out to become a pioneer in the parallels between natural ecosystems and people’s wellbeing and resilience, but it has turned out that way. Nature has been a huge comfort and refuge for me ever since my unhappy teenage years, but the real catalyst for Natural Happiness came in 1989, when I felt a calling to create a major learning-based centre, using some of the capital I’d made from a successful business venture. Fuelled by excitement, determination and naive ignorance of what I was getting into, within a year I had set up an education charity, and we had bought a run down 130-acre farm in West Dorset. Ten years turning this into a flourishing mixed organic farm and innovative education centre is what taught me about organic cultivation from the roots up.
After seven years of this, in 1997, I realised that people and work teams could learn a huge amount about human sustainability from the parallels with a cultivated ecosystem like this organic farm. Since then, I have refined the model further by creating a 1-acre garden with my wife at our home in Bridport, and through many years’ involvement with conservation forestry at Hazel Hill Wood.
My first major exploration of the natural systems analogy was my first published book, back in 2000 The Natural Advantage: Renewing Yourself. Whilst this is more focussed on work and resilience, you’ll find much of the book is also relevant for personal happiness.
In recent years, I’ve led several groups on natural happiness at Hazel Hill Wood, the 70-acre conservation woodland retreat centre I’ve created near Salisbury. The analogy works with a wood just as well as with a garden or farm.