Chris Johnstone has pioneered an holistic approach to wellbeing for over 40 years – as a junior doctor, an addiction specialist and latterly a trainer and co-author, with Joanna Macy, of Active Hope. NOW’s Director, Roger Higman hears from him about the importance of ‘context’, the ‘happiness trap’ and ‘Su Ha’ – his latest contribution to wellbeing.
Chris Johnstone has done it all. He trained as a medical practitioner and learned personally of the dangers of stress and burnout. He actually took his health authority employers to court and won a ground-breaking precedent that they cannot demand working hours that cause their employees ill-health. He’s witnessed desperate poverty in the developing world and worked for 17 years on the front-line of addiction services. He has an acute sense of the injustices of our global economic systems.
What many of us now see, he saw early on. The individual is not just a collection of organs but a system as a whole that also plays a role in larger systems of communities and society. Causality in health and wellbeing comes not just from the bottom upwards but also from the top down. Context therefore becomes key. Societies don’t just suffer unhappiness and ill-health, they can cause it. As part of training people to be more resilient to life’s challenges, he empowers them to recognise and challenge the expectations that are put on them. No one should be expected to endure the unendurable.
Chris has drawn on his experience of addiction to develop a wider critique of modern consumer society. Wellbeing, as presented by advertisers and the media, becomes a ‘happiness trap’ akin to addiction. The things that are supposed to make us happy make us miserable in the long term – and are undermining the ecosystems on which we all ultimately depend.
For the last 18 years, Chris has used an holistic approach to teach positive psychology. He wants to pass on the lessons he has learnt. What can we do, he asks, to ensure that, at the end of each day, we’re happy with what we’ve done (including the pauses in between)? What can we do that will benefit people in 100 years’ time? How can we improve our personal wellbeing when ecosystems and planetary processes are under such stress?
That is where SuHa comes in. Short for SUstanable HAppiness, it’s the latest additon to a roster of online courses that he has developed. It brings together things that make life more satisfying while addressing “unSuHA” – the things that make life more unsustainable and unjust. He’s keen to develop the approach and to help other trainers to bring it into their practices. Here, he explains it in his own words:
“Su Ha” is, of course, totally on our wavelength at the Network of Wellbeing. It’s a concept that we’ve struggled toward ourselves. What amazes me, when speaking with Chris, is the depth of his understanding and his ability to turn the idea into accessible practices that anyone can apply. He’s currently piloting the course to his first tranche of learners, but will repeat it in February and is already offering elements free online.