In this episode Bidisha asks: What are our emotions and how are they made? She then attempts to pin down the purpose and uses of hope.
Listen to historian Tiffany Watt Smith explain how our understanding of emotion has been shaped throughout time, from the ancient Greeks to our present-day obsession with wellbeing and productivity.
Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett speaks with anthropologist Kit Davies about how emotions are made by our brains and society.
Artist and performer Selina Thompson reads a specially commissioned text where she explores hope, interdependence, trust and time travel.
Presented by Bidisha
Produced by Debbie Kilbride
Sound design by Micky Curling
Music by Sola
Researched by Priya Jay
Executive producer Emily Wiles
Bidisha (00:00): Welcome to ‘Hello Happiness’, the podcast that’s all about positive emotions, brought to you by Wellcome Collection, the free museum and library in London. We like to challenge how we all think and feel about health. I am Bidisha – I’m a broadcaster and filmmaker. Over these five episodes, I’ll be dancing alongside you, all the way from hope and joy to resolve and ecstasy. We’ll meet fascinating people, hear their happy thoughts, find out what their happy place is, and I promise we’ll emerge with smiles on our faces. Wherever and whenever you’re listening, thank you for joining us. Here at Wellcome Collection, we like to connect up science, medicine, life and art. Let’s get started.
Bidisha (00:46): The theme of today’s episode of ‘Hello Happiness’ is hope. But before we let the hopeful feelings flourish, I first want to lay the groundwork and check in with a happiness historian, Tiffany Watt Smith, director of the Centre for the History of the Emotions based at Queen Mary University of London. We met on a gorgeous sunny day by the Thames river in London. I asked her what we mean by happiness.
Tiffany Watt Smith (01:13): The word happy originally comes from a Scandinavian route ‘hap’, which means a luck or circumstance. We still have that, like ‘happenstance’ or ‘happy coincidence’. Now we tend to think of happiness as something that we can pursue, something that we can make happen for ourselves, even that we have a sort of duty or an obligation to try and be happy. Whereas I think originally happiness is something that you’re lucky if it passes in your direction; it’s a sort of a matter of chance and good fortune as much as it is sort of engineering, which I think is how we see it today.
Bidisha (01:46): In your ‘Book of Human Emotions’, you talk about how nobody ever really felt emotions before about 1830. Now, obviously you’re not saying that before then everyone was unhappy and depressed, but what do you mean by that?
Tiffany Watt Smith (02:01): What I mean by that is that before the 19th century, people didn’t say the word ‘emotion’. People spoke about having passions, about having moral sentiments, about having affections of the soul. These are completely different ways of thinking about what happiness or fear or grief might be. The ancient Greeks thought that a malicious anger could be carried on an ill wind. The early Christians, who lived in the desert, thought that a certain kind of despair could be carried by demons who kind of whizzed around the monasteries and deposited this feeling in the monks. There’s very different kinds of explanations of these feelings.
Bidisha (02:37): Charles Darwin was very influential in our contemporary understanding of emotions and the development of emotions. How did he begin to explore this field?
Tiffany Watt Smith (02:49): Darwin’s book, ‘The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals’ – he published that in 1872 – he’s already got this instinct that there is some continuity between the emotions of humans and the emotions of animals. And that there’s some equivalence between the emotions that he recognises in England and the emotions of the people that he’s meeting all around the world on his journey. When he comes back to England, he starts corresponding with travellers, ethnographers. He’s really interested to know whether people all around the world have the same kind of emotional responses as he’s familiar with. He’s really pleased to discover, yes, they do. ‘The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals’ is a very radical book. In some senses it’s kind of more radical than ‘The Origin’ because it makes this very deliberate argument all the way through that the fact that human and animal emotions seem to exist on a continuum really gives very clear evidence that we are descended from animals.
Bidisha (03:49): As we’re talking, we’re surrounded by the world’s happiest dog that is so happy that it is literally running circles around us with his eyes sparkling, and it seems to be smiling directly at us. What’s the consensus now? Are there five or six hardwired, very common, very universal states of emotion that really translate across cultures?
Tiffany Watt Smith (04:11): I don’t think there are. This idea is very alluring that all emotions can be boiled down to these archetypes. I think the actual reality of our emotional lives is just so much more interesting than that. Our emotions bleed into one another. They have these kind of strange, amorphous moments where one can be both laughing and crying, and emotions can differ quite dramatically across the world, so that some people can seem to experience emotions that we don’t necessarily have a word for in English. I think all of these things point to the fact that what we need to do is to think in terms of a much more finely grained approach to our emotional life.
Bidisha (04:50): These days we’re encouraged to be happy and enjoy ourselves and be our best self, whatever that means. Was there ever a time, historically, where people were encouraged towards the opposite, towards developing their sadder, more reflective, more melancholy dispositions?
Tiffany Watt Smith (05:07): There’s that Samuel Johnson quote, isn’t there? “Life is everywhere to be endured and little to be enjoyed.” It’s a very stern and kind of uncompromising view of what life is. But he’s writing at the cusp of this big change, where suddenly people are interested in contentment and satisfaction and happiness. But I think before then there is this real interest in sorrow as a virtue. It’s part of the Christian way of thinking about what our experience in the world is versus what our experience in the afterlife might be. And our experience on earth is to live in a veil of tears. It’s to suffer because Christ suffered, because our experience of life is suffering.
Bidisha (05:52): These days governments prize happiness so much that they even have an index or measure for the happiness of their citizens. The EU has been doing this since around 2003. When did happiness become something that could be legislated for?
Tiffany Watt Smith (06:07): In the 18th century it became a very different idea, which was to do with seeking happiness. It was making sure that your experience in the world in the present was going to be enjoyable and that you were going to be able to – in the words of like today’s self-help authors – “feel self-actualised”. By 1776, when you’ve got the US Declaration of Independence, you’ve got Thomas Jefferson talking about the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I think this word ‘pursuit’ is really interesting. It suggests that happiness can be something that can be kind of hunted down and caught. This is something that we have a right to try and get in our own lives now. I mean, we don’t all have the same ability to have a right to happiness now. Clearly, with the social injustice that we have in this world, we don’t share that. But the sense that this is part of what we’re entitled to, I think is really interesting.
Bidisha (07:00): We are encouraged to aspire to be happy these days. Happiness is supposed to be a goal for us. When you reach happiness, that’s it, you’ve done the right thing. Can happiness really be controlled and generated and planned for like that? It’s not like climbing up a series of steps, is it?
Tiffany Watt Smith (07:18): I really don’t think so. I think this is one of the big issues with what we think happiness is today, because we tend to treat it like a condition. Whereas if we treated it like an emotion, we would, I think be better off, because we would think of happiness as being something that’s fleeting, that exists alongside all kinds of other emotions, rather than a goal and an overarching sort of mood. Sometimes it can be hard to use the word ‘happiness’ because it is such a large word, but there are all these tiny kind of moments within our lives, loads of them, which create these positive feelings that create a feeling of warmth, a feeling of belonging, a feeling of trust. All these things that are just so crucial for us to feel part of our relationships with other people and you learn to identify these particular moments. Maybe that’s more useful to us, actually, than talking about this big word, ‘happiness’, that I think for me, anyway, it makes me freeze. But I can absolutely talk about that moment of pure joy when I know that someone has thought about me and someone’s left the light on for me, when I’m coming home in the dark. The more precise we can be about these moments, I think the easier it is to talk about happiness overall.
Bidisha (08:24): We’re talking about happiness as a kind of internal, emotional state. I’m interested in the idea of social happiness. Are there external factors such as economics, politics, maybe even fashion and design, which all conspire to make us feel happy? If we were having this conversation in a scrapyard, it wouldn’t feel as happy as what we’re doing now?
Tiffany Watt Smith (08:47): I don’t know – maybe. I was just thinking about this and that a great German word Ruinenlust, which is the pleasure that you might get around crumbling old buildings. There may be someone for whom a scrapyard is their happy place. But anyway, this question about how much the environments that we live in dictate our happiness, certainly the environments we live in and the amount of pollution that we’re surrounded with, the kind of housing that we’re able to live in, these things significantly affect our mental health. We’ve actually have become even more aware of that, I think, during this last year of the pandemic, where we’ve not really been able to leave our living spaces, and the inequalities of that become very, very apparent.
Bidisha (09:23): I’m so glad you mentioned the pandemic, because it’s the unignorable reality we’ve all been living under for nearly two years now. We know from research that people are indeed experiencing increased anxiety, increased depression and mental ill health. How’s the pandemic affected our understanding of what it means to be happy?
Tiffany Watt Smith (09:43): I suppose all of us have thought about the things that make us happy this year, haven’t we? Because we’ve been trying to look after our mental health, we’ve been trying to think about what sort of life we want to carve for ourselves. Certainly, I’ve been thinking about what are the kind of bare minimum requirements for me. I noticed the things that I missed: the first thing, and the first thing I did when the first lockdown was getting to open up was to get a ticket for the Tate. I was absolutely desperate to get back into a gallery. And I hadn’t realised how important it had become until that moment when the lockdown lifted. That was... you know, some people went to see their friends. Some people went to the pub. I was straight into that gallery.
Bidisha (10:19): Is that your happy place then, galleries?
Tiffany Watt Smith (10:22): Yeah, galleries are my happy place. There’s a particular set of paintings in here which I really love, which I’ll always make a beeline to. That is huge canvases. They’re just bright red swirls and swirls and swirls of paint. So energetic. They are euphoric. They have this extraordinary, ecstatic kind of feeling. I would just go in there and just be absorbed in that bright red fiery, thrilling colour. Yeah, that’s my happy place, definitely.
Bidisha (10:49): Tiffany Watt Smith basking in the art and the sunshine. And now to hope, just thinking about it gives you a lift, but what is it and why is it important for our happiness? Is it something we feel in our hearts, something we do out in the world or something that doctors can measure? I spoke to anthropologist Kit Davies and neuroscientist and psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett. A quick heads up: you may hear the chirping of Kit’s lovebirds and her dog Izzy barking some helpful suggestions in the background.
Kit Davies (11:25): I think it is the case that hope is always social; it’s entangled or untrammelled with certain circumstances. It’s interesting because I’ve just been reading a lot about the civil rights movement, where freedom was partly defined as a goal, but also mainly definable as a practice, as a kind of choice that would open things up. I think medically as well, we find it as something that underpins the efforts that we make to be well when we’re not well. All of these things are socially defined because we’re social creatures. In fact, much of our interior self-awareness or categories we use derive from the social world around us.
Bidisha (12:10): Let me take that idea and look at it from a neuroscientific point of view. Lisa Feldman Barrett, is there such a thing as being able to cultivate hope to go from a position of not feeling it to genuinely existing in a state of hopefulness?
Lisa Feldman Barrett (12:27): Oh, I think so. If you understand the way the brain works, when we’re born, for example, an infant brain is not a miniature adult brain. It’s a brain that’s waiting for wiring instructions from the world, and not just the physical world, but the social world. The categories and concepts and knowledge that we use are really bootstrapped or wired into our brains by virtue of your experiences as we develop and even as we traverse cultures. So if you invest energy and cultivate new experiences for yourself, it’s a little bit like exercise: it actually changes the wiring of your brain. But the more you practise it, the faster and more automatic you will get at experiencing hope or whatever emotion you practise, just like driving a car or building any other skill.
Bidisha (13:18): In a sense, if you keep reminding yourself, telling yourself to hope, it’s not New Age thinking, it’s not delusional, you’re actually what – you’re carving new neural pathways?
Lisa Feldman Barrett (13:29): Is not really that you just tell yourself, “Oh, be hopeful.” It’s that you’re taking actions to cultivate certain experiences for yourself. For example, you might experience hopefulness and awe by walking along the street and seeing a weed, like a dandelion, poke itself out through the crack of the sidewalk, because it represents the awesome power of nature to be unconstrained by humans’ attempts to control it. That may sound like a Jedi mind trick, but it actually is a really powerful thing to do if you practise it. It’s like any skill. It’s not just talking to yourself; it’s not just labelling; it’s actually paying attention and engaging in actions that will give you experiences that you can become really expert at constructing.
Bidisha (14:22): It’s unavoidable that we mentioned that we are speaking now sort of 18 months into a global pandemic. Kit Davies, I want to bring you in here, because it influences my next question. How do we maintain hope in difficult times or even in negative situations that have a poor prognosis?
Kit Davies (14:41): Well, a very good example of that, of how there are always choices in terms of how we’re going to approach things, was the experience of the psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl. He spent time in both in work camps and in concentration camps during World War II. He wrote a lovely little book called ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. The first half of it is his description of his experiences in the concentration camps.
Kit Davies (15:11):
They had a cigarette economy that went on there. Inmates would do maybe extra little things and the guards would give them a few cigarettes, but rather than smoke them, the inmates would save those cigarettes and then trade them to the cooks or the people serving food for something a little extra, maybe like a little extra piece of gristle or something to eat.
Kit Davies (15:35): He had noticed that when a man’ as he put it’ started smoking his own cigarettes, that that was a really bad sign. That you had to go to the person and encourage them to think about a project they wanted to finish when they got out of the camp, or the people who were waiting to see them, or things they had to do, in order to inspire them to survive. His point was that people didn’t die because they ran into electric fences or incited people to shoot them. They just sort of died. And he said, “It couldn’t exactly be put down to illness, because we were all sick all the time.” And it had to do with people, having lost sight of a meaningful thing they meant to accomplish. People, he said, suffer more when their lives are without meaning.
Kit Davies (16:24): So the important thing is to help a person find out what they think their life purpose is, to find meaning in their lives. That once you have a sense of the meaning in your life, you spare your suffering much more lightly. We can look, for example, at chronic illnesses or terminal illnesses of long duration, where in fact there’s a balance to be struck between the palliative care or the prolongation of life versus living in the moment, at the present moment and finding happiness in what’s there. Then just hoping for more. I think one of the problems with the pandemic, certainly in Britain, it’s been very destabilising for people. They haven’t been able to really plan things or to understand what a future might be. In some interesting way, people, I think, have smaller hopes and highly individuated hopes. They hope to be able to go to Devon next week if they don’t test positive in the meantime.
Bidisha (17:26): I have one question left for each of you, and then a joint question, which we’ll come to. Lisa Feldman Barrett, I want to talk a little bit briefly about the wellness industry or even the happiness industry. Do you think that we’re being pressured to be hopeful, happy, positive in a banal sense, and that we’re actually being sold false hope in certain circumstances?
Lisa Feldman Barrett (17:49): What I would say is that if you focus a lot on happiness and feeling happy, the evidence suggests that it’s really counterproductive. Often the people who were the most unhappy are the ones who are striving for happiness. Research tends to suggest that living a good life means living a meaningful life, which doesn’t mean that you’re always feeling pleasant and happy in the moment.
Lisa Feldman Barrett (18:15): Sometimes when you feel unpleasant, it doesn’t mean that something is wrong. It means that you’re working hard towards something important. Self-care doesn’t mean buying yourself fancy outfits, expensive skincare products, all of these doodads; it means really meeting the needs of your body and, to some extent, having a bit of equanimity about your circumstances. So tranquillity and acceptance is underrated, I think, in our culture.
Bidisha (18:49): If you’re listening to ‘Hello Happiness’, stick with us for all of our episodes because we do in fact have a special episode all about tranquillity. But I want to take some of Lisa Feldman Barrett’s points and put them to Kit Davies, because we’re thinking about hope as a social dynamic. I wanted to ask Kit about the relevance of hope to this era we’re living in right now, which is about activism and social change. How important is hope within the vision of transformative change for entire societies?
Kit Davies (19:22): It’s critical, especially now, when it seems clear that one of the things we have to do as human beings is begin to imagine a way in which we can continue to self-organise on a species-wide basis. I’m old enough to have been a young person during the civil rights movement. I can remember when there were open occupancy demonstrations in Chicago in the Sixties and King came to Chicago; the sense of jubilation that one could feel in situations that would have been dangerous or that looked politically disruptive was enormous, because somehow it was like finally, at last, rather than being held down by the threat of violence, it was possible to begin to challenge parameters and to feel elated that at last something different was going to happen. We are really back in the same kind of set of circumstances now. I just remember thinking then that it might happen again and that I’d be old. I wanted to stay open to the fact that it would take a different form and to not be a person who was closed to the possibilities for hope.
Bidisha (20:37): My last question; give us your immediate answer without overthinking. The question is, what makes you happy? Lisa Feldman Barrett, what makes you happy?
Lisa Feldman Barrett (20:48): I think any place where I’m experiencing wonder at something much bigger and greater than me, so that can be walking at night with a symphony of crickets around me, watching a toddler kind of pull themselves up and toddle and fall over for the first time. Those are moments I think, for me, of peace and acceptance. Those, I think of as my best moments.
Bidisha (21:11): Kit, what makes you happy?
Kit Davies (21:13): Oh my goodness. Almost everything but the newspapers. But I do read the newspapers. I thought you were asking about my happy place. I was going to say, “Well, I’m sitting in it now.” You know what I mean? There was a certain point in my life when I realised that there was no segue between sorrow or depression or annoyance or anger and happiness. That you just had to start looking for the fun in everything. Over time it becomes part of your character and part of your nature. Also, if you lower your expectations of other human beings, that helps out a lot. I’m pretty happy in general.
Bidisha (21:56): When you say, “My happy place – I’m sitting in it right now,” could you just quickly give us a little mental picture of where that is? I hope you’re not actually occupying Izzy’s dog basket, literally?
Kit Davies (22:06): No, but her dog basket is right behind me. I’m sitting in the hallway on the floor with a little Chinese writing table, on which I’ve put the microphone and the laptop, and Izzy is on my lap, clamped down. So I’m happy, but I’m often happy.
Bidisha (22:24): That was Kit Davies and Lisa Feldman Barrett. You’re listening to ‘Hello Happiness’, a podcast from Wellcome Collection that’s all about the positive emotions. Now for this episodes’ happy thoughts. In each instalment of our series, we’ve asked one of our favourite artists and thinkers to explore the particular dimension of happiness worth celebrating. Today it’s performer and writer Selina Thompson on hope.
Selina Thompson (22:53): I want to talk about interdependence, trust and time travel. That is, I want to talk about hope. In poet and novelist Ocean Vuong’s collection ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’, the beating of a heart is described as the body saying, “Yes”. And affirmation of life and continued existence. Confident, gutsy, vital. I want to move across, spreading out, filtering into the lungs to think about the nature of hope. If the heart is saying, “Yes,” and I believe that it is the lungs that say, “Please,” that reveal the interdependence of the body on the world outside of itself.
Selina Thompson (23:54): Delicate, desperate, hopeful, dependent. Google tells you in capital bold highlighted letters that it is archaic to understand hope as a feeling of trust and instead trusses it up in the synonyms of capital: desire, aspiration ambition. It moves away from the present. Hope is for the event yet to come. Luckily, its accompanying image search counteracts the cynicism: a series of images of a single flower growing from concrete. A middle-class wild flower/working-class weed.
Selina Thompson (24:43): Through a crack in tarmac, a living creature stretches up to light, to air, to wind and other creatures that might aid its pollination. Some might say that it blooms to spread love and joy, faith and hope, to people forlorn. But also it blooms to continue itself. It has its moment, but even in having that, it anticipates the next and in its own existence it shares this push forward, this going on. In a similar vein, each breath we draw is a subtle act of hope. That around us is what we need to survive. That we will be able to bring oxygen (but not too much! Cheers, nitrogen!) into the body and continue to live. Indeed, that living within the biosphere is something we want to continue to do, something worth doing.
Selina Thompson (25:41): Author Adrienne Maree Brown’s books ‘Emergent Strategy’ and ‘Pleasure Activism’ were big influences on me for a time. I think they hold hope. Hope as a trust at their core. Adrienne Maree Brown advocates pleasure, advocates for finding ways to do activism that are joyful and sustainable. This strikes me as inherently hopeful, deeply trusting and absolutely bound up in the passage of time and depending on those before you, and after you. When we choose to make our activisms things that not only aspire for a better world, but also says that we can live in the rich, joyful and erotic ways that embody that better world now, we trust (hope) that that gauntlet will be picked up. We hope (trust) that each of us will do enough that our lives can not only be meaningful and lived with integrity, but also wellsprings of happiness.
Selina Thompson (27:02): When marginalised folks remember that they were never meant to survive, but that the seeds were planted so that they might, we step outside of time and see the hope/trust that brought us into being and continues to sustain us. We see how living authentic lives ourselves might plant further seeds. Trusting hope, hoping to trust. If happiness is the desire and capacity to live whole, then I think hope is a whisper that reminds us that wholeness needs others and that needing others inherently requires trust to truly bloom.
Bidisha (27:40): I love that idea of trusting in hope. That was writer and performer Selina Thompson. Selina mentioned Adrienne Maree Brown’s ‘Pleasure Activism’. Brown’s idea was that changing the world isn’t just about the fight and the struggle and hard work. It’s also about healing and happiness, positively envisioning a better way of living. You can’t have activism without hope. To teach me what that means in practice, I got together with two inspiring young activists. Daze Aghaji who campaigns to raise awareness of climate change and Dee Ndlovu, a UK-based Black Lives Matter organiser.
Ndumiso Peter Ndlovu (“Dee”) (28:21): Fundamentally, what I try to do in my work of activism is I try to dream the brave new world and find ways to make that make sense, make it happen. Without hope there is no dream. We dream about things we want to see and therefore we hope about them. So when I’m organising a protest, specifically like with Black Lives Matter, I’m always hopeful for a future that is far more brilliant, far more beautiful than the present reality.
Bidisha (28:50): For you is hope something about anticipating things which haven’t happened yet, but you want them to happen?
Ndumiso Peter Ndlovu (“Dee”) (28:58): Yeah. I think, well, I would phrase it as it’s about the possibility of the thing being able to become. It’s about possibilities. Outside of my activism work, I make theatre. When I make theatre, all I’m trying to make, essentially, is to make the impossible possible. The same thing is happening in activism, where we get told we have structural elements that impede on certain things taking place. I have to believe in the magic. And in believing in the magic, the magic becomes reality.
Bidisha (29:28): I love of that, particularly that you bring magical thinking into this. Daze, I want to bring you in here. In terms of your work, what is hope to you?
Daze Aghaji (29:36): Personally, I find the word ‘hope’ kind of problematic sometimes, because I feel like hope has this kind of, “I hope something will happen,” and it’s very much a leave it to chance rather than actually enabling people to have actions that will create the world that they want to see. Normally when I talk about something that is similar to hope, I would say the idea of gritty optimism. It’s the idea that even though, like especially with climate activism, right now, it looks pretty bleak. We’re experiencing flooding, we’re seeing wildfires, we’re seeing quite scary stuff, but at the same time, there is this optimism that actually we know that we have to have action to create the hopeful future that we have.
Bidisha (30:18): Let me bring you up on the point that you made, because it’s very easy to look at these issues and think, “Well, there’s no hope in here: this is terrible, and to give in to a kind of fatalism.” How do you find positivity, perhaps even happiness, within the work that you do as an activist?
Daze Aghaji (30:33): Bearing in mind, I’m only 21 and I’ve lived through a world where I’ve not seen a stable climate. I’ve always lived in climate change. But yeah, I’ve seen all the wonders of this world and the beauty that it holds. That’s what I hope for. As a young person, I have to have a hopeful view on the world because if not, that’s my future.
Bidisha (30:55): Dee, I want to bring you in here. Your activism has been extremely heightened over the last 18 months, two years. It must feel at times like a struggle, like a fight. Are there elements of positivity, hope and happiness, even when you’re fighting the good fight?
Ndumiso Peter Ndlovu (“Dee”) (31:10): Yes.
Bidisha (31:11): I like the definiteness of your answer. I love that. Tell me more.
Ndumiso Peter Ndlovu (“Dee”) (31:15): When we were organising and creating the work for Black Lives Matter, the one thing that kept me going was the universal nature of the struggle: one. Two, the fact that different people from different walks of life all gathered together to say, “We will not bear witness to gross injustice and carry on with the mundane, with the ordinary.” For me, that gave me so much hope to see Black, brown, white, what have you, all gathered together saying, “You know what, we will not consume systemic racism. We will not reproduce it, replicate it. We will not let it carry on as the norm.” That’s potent right there. That’s magic.
Bidisha (32:03): I want to bring you up on this really elegant, fine distinction between hope and other positive, energising emotions. Is there a difference for you between hope and optimism? Is hope not enough on its own?
Ndumiso Peter Ndlovu (“Dee”) (32:15): The way I think of it in my world is that you begin from a place of rage. Rage puts you into action. But joy and hope give you longevity. After that initial anger, you have to find ways to sustain yourself in that movement. Particularly, for example, in race-conscious activism. I can’t stay angry for ever, but I can work from a position of hope and joy for ever.
Bidisha (32:40): Let me ask you, Dee, how did you get involved in activism?
Ndumiso Peter Ndlovu (“Dee”) (32:44): Prior to Black Lives Matter, of course, I had been organising at a very local level. Then we saw the brutal murder of George Floyd. I was scrolling on Facebook. I saw the video; I had a guttural reaction. I needed to do something. The first thing I did was tweeted. I was like, “What’s happening in the UK? Are we doing anything? What’s going on?” By me putting that tweet out, people suddenly started to say, “Well, okay, so where are we meeting for our process?” I was like, “Well, where do you want to meet?”
Ndumiso Peter Ndlovu (“Dee”) (33:12): They said, “Well, you organise it.” In a sense, I became sort of a de facto organiser by virtue of being the first to speak up, in a sense. I went from posting a tweet on a Friday night, I think by the Sunday, we were already organising for protest in multiple cities. And the Black Lives Matter initiative and it kind of blew up from there. I wouldn’t change anything because the best way to put it, it’s kind of like a cat: you don’t choose a cat, it chooses you. This kind of work chooses you.
Bidisha (33:40): Daze, I want to bring you in here because you are a climate activist. You are very focused on ecology and the environment. How did you get involved in this kind of activity?
Daze Aghaji (33:50): There was something in me that always felt really connected to nature. I remember there’s a story about this tree that grows outside of my mum’s house and she wanted to cut it down. I was so disgusted by the idea. I literally sat in front of the tree and I cried and refused to allow to cut it down. The tree surgeons came and they said, “We’re not dealing with this.” And left. I think that was one of the first times; like once I started to really deeply think about where did this all start for me, that I felt this intrinsic need to protect. But I would say the real activism started when I came to uni. I went through a few years of actually just being really angry at the state of the world, finding out about climate change through some health complications that I’d faced when I moved back to London.
Daze Aghaji (34:36): Then I think it was really meeting my community. I went into an XR meeting one January Wednesday evening, expecting them to not really get the enormity of the issue we face, but I did not find that. I found a community with people who love and care with radically open hearts and basically a place to hold the grief that I’d felt and the anger that I felt about the world and the state that we’re in. But also a place to bring forth action.
Bidisha (35:04): Daze, I love the way you described the genesis of your climate activism as actually being a protective instinct. The local council wants to get rid of this tree in front of your house and instead of seeing it as a fight between you and them, you saw it as an act of solidarity and love between you and the tree. I wanted to know if there are elements of celebration, joy, connection and pleasure in your relationship with nature. It’s not an embattled position. Is it quite the opposite?
Daze Aghaji (35:34): No, I think exactly. It’s very much it. It’s where I find time to rest, time to recuperate, time to regenerate, time to connect.
Bidisha (35:45): Dee, I want to bring you in here. Have you found that activism in one area has actually given you strength and confidence in other areas of your life?
Ndumiso Peter Ndlovu (“Dee”) (35:54): Prior to three years ago, I was apolitical. I wasn’t a person who was interested in race or recent discourse, but now, the person I am now, I am Black with a capital B and you better deal with that and that’s on you. The confidence I have now is an awakening. Yes, it’s fuelled by anger and by tragedy and by fear. But fundamentally it’s driven by a becoming. It’s a full blooming. I am working in an awareness of myself and I’m helping other people become aware of who they are and the power that they have and the beauty that is found within the crowns of their hair. Joy: that’s what I’m talking about.
Bidisha (36:35): You are listening to ‘Hello Happiness’. We’re linking all the positive emotions with the idea of mental and physical health. But I wanted to put to you, Dee, first of all, if there are positive aspects in the process of activism, simply because you are around other like-minded people, working, fighting, even struggling, hurting together, the social element that’s positive within itself. Am I on to something here or is this misguided?
Ndumiso Peter Ndlovu (“Dee”) (37:04): Yeah, you’re on to something. It’s like creating a show. Is like making a piece of theatre. There is no budget. We’ve got each other and we’ve got resources. We’ve got to make it work. That right there, that’s what keeps us all together. That idea of like, “We’re in this together; your say is as valid as my say, is valid as her say, it’s as valid as his say. Why? Because all our stories matter. Why? Because we’re in this to understand each other.
Bidisha (37:29): Daze, do you agree with that? Is there a positivity towards us all being in this together?
Daze Aghaji (37:35): Most definitely there is. What we’re fighting for is the world that we want to live in. But what we’re experiencing on the streets during a protest is the vision of that world. We learn how to love each other. We learn how to take care of each other. We learn how to feed each other. There is this feeling of, like, mass amount of hopes even in the protest. There is such amazingness in the community when those different people from so many different backgrounds can come together in commonality for something that they love. One of my best friends from my activism is actually a 70-year-old rabbi. And in what world would I meet a 70-year-old rabbi as a 21-year-old Black woman in London? I think that’s one of the best parts about activism; it’s that openness.
Bidisha (38:21): Now we have just three questions left and we’re getting more and more positive as we go along. Looking into the future, Dee, what are you hopeful about?
Ndumiso Peter Ndlovu (“Dee”) (38:29): I’m hopeful about the fact that we won’t have to keep having these conversations. Conversations we’re having about race – they’re difficult conversations. But if we build that brave new world that I keep talking about, we won’t have to take to the street to let you know that Black lives matter, because it will already be a subconscious awareness that Black lives matter and, by result, all lives matter. Toni Morrison said that the real work of racism is that it keeps us re-explaining, having the same conversation over and over again. The changes that I see now with people being more read, more articulate, more conscious, I don’t have to define what Blackness is to people, because people have a working understanding, or they’re working to an understanding.
Bidisha (39:15): Daze, looking into the future of the planet and of us as humans, what are you hopeful about?
Daze Aghaji (39:20): I’m hopeful that people still have the hearts to dream and to vision, especially after the last year that we’ve all been through. The fact that we are seeing an uprising and people demanding for more. I think that is something that’s particularly quite beautiful.
Bidisha (39:35): Now my last question: I have to prep you a little bit. Don’t overthink this. I’m just going to ask you what makes you happy.
Daze Aghaji (39:42): I’m so corny! My family. I love my family. I stand for my family. They’ve supported me through all of this, even though they think I’m particularly wacky and a little bit weird.
Bidisha (39:53): And what scene are you imagining right now? When you say your family, what are you thinking of?
Daze Aghaji (39:57): I’m thinking of my family on the beach in Skegness. It was a town that I grew up in, of where I first started to really love the world. That’s kind of where I always picture, my happy place.
Bidisha (40:08): Dee, what makes you happy?
Ndumiso Peter Ndlovu (“Dee”) (40:10): Sleep. Sleep is my happy place. My bed is home. They don’t understand. I’m very passionate about my sleep, because that’s where I do a lot of my decision-making. Honestly, there’s no greater feeling than just putting your head back and going, “You know what? We’re done with today; we’ll try again tomorrow.” Like that, that’s the one right there.
Bidisha (40:42): Dee Ndlovu and Daze Aghaji dreaming up visions of a better, happier world. Listening to them fills me with hope. And that’s it for this episode. Let’s all go out into the world with our heads held high. Next time on ‘Hello Happiness’, we focus on resolve. That’s the emotion that kicks in when you hit rock bottom and you say, “No more suffering – I’m going to stand up for myself. I’m going to fight. I won’t just survive; I will thrive.” From trauma survivors to an Olympic coach, we’ll look at this most hard-won form of happiness. If you want even more inspiration, you have until January 2022 to experience Wellcome Collection’s season ‘On Happiness’, and its free exhibitions, stories and events.
Bidisha (41:38): I’m Bidisha. This has been ‘Hello Happiness’. Thank you for joining us. I hope you enjoyed it. Please subscribe. Spread the word. Tell your friends and family. Share the positivity. ‘Hello Happiness’ from Wellcome Collection is produced by Debbie Kilbride; technical support and sound designed by Micky Curling; original music by Sola, and the executive producer is Emily Wiles. We’re in our happy place right now in the studio in the city, listening, talking, recording, communicating, connecting. I hope you get to visit your happy place in the coming days or do one thing that puts a smile on your face.