“I would like to think of the intellectual life as a series of conversations involving different voices and idioms, including those of poetry and science, rather than as a project that might deliver us from the curse of Babel, imposing a ‘single character upon significant human speech’. Conversation is open ended. One might say it is aporetic, because difference is accepted as grist to the mill rather than argued away, and reason is ‘neither sovereign nor alone’.”

(“Excursions” by Jackson (2007:x) citing “Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays” by Oakenshott (1991:89) )

I like the idea of research as conversation; and indeed the process of social research is riddled with both literal and figurative conversational exchanges. I increasingly think of any impact that my research might have as new and informed contributions to a series of interconnected conversations about happiness – without any assumption of being able to provide a definitive answer.

Most formally, in order to successfully achieve my doctorate I need to demonstrate that my thesis contributes to an academic conversation about understandings of happiness across cultures – and I’m confident that it will – but right now, I feel a long way away from that goal.

In order to get there I will use the many conversations that make up my fieldwork; conversations that range from semi-structured interviews to long rambling chats to group discussions and activities to a few words in a chance encounter that make me think. These conversations have provided the stories that come together to form the data that I am currently organizing and reorganizing and reading and rereading. Through the process of analysis, I will coax these stories into meta-conversations with each other, inviting them to offer up themes and narratives which will enable me to ultimately transform them into a thesis.

(*panic sets in. better move on*)

But even before it becomes data, each conversation is an exchange, people talk to me and I talk to them; they make me think and maybe I make them think and maybe either one of us thinks about something that we have never thought about before or maybe one of us changes our views as a result of the interaction. If I were trying to do scientifically controlled research that might be a bad thing, but I’m not and I broadly think that this exchange is a good thing. I have repeatedly been thanked by interviewees and workshop participants who feel that they have had a new or rare opportunity to reflect upon their own happiness and upon the things that they think are important in their lives. I have always said that the work I’m interested in sits at the intersection between research and grassroots development work, and the acknowledgement that I hope that my research will have some small positive impact for the participants (and indeed for me) emphasizes this point. This is tricky – maybe researchers won’t like what I do because I’m not ‘detached’ enough and maybe community development workers won’t like what I do because it is often difficult to see the immediate benefits to people’s lives. I really ‘get’ both of those views – but I have come to accept that I relish intersections. They are fascinating and messy and require a high level of reflexivity, but they also offer wonderful opportunities for a creative exchange of ideas that might actually affect change.

I am also becoming increasingly aware that the very process of me being here in Vientiane, and having conversations about happiness, is having impacts that are not so directly related to a linear goal of completing my thesis. When I arrived in Vientiane I was amazed at the number of Non-Profit Associations (NPAs) that explicitly talked about happiness, and I have become interested in what they mean when they use the word and how they consider it in their work. But networking with NPAs and having conversations with development workers about happiness means that I’ve become one tiny cog in the complicated system(s) that I’m trying to understand. When I asked one Lao professional about whether the topic of happiness would be on the agendas for an important future meeting he said “we hope so, but that really depends on you” meaning that he wanted me to talk about my research and the importance of happiness at the meeting. I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing but, again, it’s fascinating and it’s messy and it requires a high level of reflexivity.

The Happy Lao Project came out of one of these (for me) messy conversations and has the potential to open up many more conversations. I’m sure that when (if…) we complete the film I will use it to illustrate the context of happiness in Laos when I talk about my PhD – and I have passed the project by my supervisors and the university ethics committee. But it is also quite separate from my PhD. This is a community project of which I am one small part and which is made up of people who think that happiness is important and think that hearing what people have to say about happiness is important. It is about providing an opportunity for people of all ages and backgrounds all across Laos to enter, however briefly, an international conversation about happiness. It is about opening up spaces for people to reflect upon and have conversations about happiness; both the people who have been interviewed for the film but also the people who will see it and hopefully think about their own answers to the questions and the broader questions about how happiness links to development.

Honestly I hate asking for money and I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think that this was a genuinely good cause – and I am asking again. If you have already donated, thank you so much. The amount that we need to make this happen is really not that big and if everyone who read this post clicked on the link and donated $10 it would really make a difference.

Thank you for being a part of this conversations about happiness.


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