Happy Humanists

I’ve been mentioning my ‘Happy Humanists’ project for about six months, but I’m not sure whether I’ve ever properly explained it. It’s coming to a conclusion this weekend, so I figure a proper writeup can’t hurt.

It started as an idea for my uni documentary module. The idea was to take portraits of as many humanists as I could, and ask them all the same question: ‘What are you happy about?’. Nothing deep or profound – just a feel-good little book; something to maybe help counter the idea of humanists / atheists as grumpy and reactionary. My teachers hated it from the outset, but I wanted to do something I’d enjoy, that would push me, and that might possibly be useful for causes I think are important. I hoped to win my teachers around, and though this didn’t happen in the slightest, it was totally worth it.

I emailed as many humanist groups as I could, cheerily inviting myself to their meetings. I also contacted the British Humanist Association, who were incredibly helpful, and kind enough to help with contacting their Distinguished Supporters. So I spent a few months heading around the country1, meeting people in offices, parks, pubs and cafes. The BHA asked if I’d photograph some of their events, which was great fun and gave me the chance to meet otherwise busy and hard-to-contact humanists, and a few big names.

As a general rule, I found anyone actively involved in humanism/atheism was happy to be included. The group leaders, the writers, the philosophers2, the people who attended the EHF/IHEU conferences last month – all very willing. But not so much the general members, which I suppose makes sense. A few were happy to take part in a university project but didn’t want their photo being used beyond that, which was fine, and a couple went out of their way to say how much they didn’t like the idea. I’ll contact them next year for Grumpy Humanists.

It’s been quite the experience. I’ve met many lovely people, including various of my intellectual heroes, visited many new places, had photos published in humanist newsletters/magazines, spoken in front of large groups for the first time since school, and worn a suit3. I’ve also made countless mistakes, some small and some not-so-small, but improved my portrait skills as a result. I’m still far from smooth, but I’m much better than six months ago.

Final printed books arrived early. Yay!I’ve also really enjoyed reading the answers to ‘What are you happy about?’. Some went with profound statements about the world and our place in it, others were happy about birds in their garden, making curry, or their boss being on holiday. It’s a nice mix, I think.

The project is responsible for my blogging tailing off for a while, both because I was busy and I suddenly got nervous: I was meeting lots of interesting people, and what if they looked me up, found this blog, and decided I was an idiot? This was obviously a muppetry (let’s face it – if they’re going to think I’m an idiot, it’ll probably be in person). I’m over it now.

By May I had nearly 40 people+quotes, which I printed up and and handed in to uni. I used that as a first draft, and since then I’ve added a proper foreword by Brendan Larvor, a lovely cover design by Graham Nunn, and almost thirty more humanists. The final printed books turned up yesterday, and I’m pretty happy with them. It’s a much better size, and feels more professional. But I’m obviously a touch biased.

Tomorrow I’ll be displaying the book at the BHA’s AGM. I’ve no idea how people will react – hopefully they’ll like it. I’m not sure what, if anything, happens next, but I’ll see how it goes down.

  1. well, Wales and the south of England – I tried and failed to get in touch with the Edinburgh humanist group, and sadly couldn’t afford to get over to Ireland, despite an offer []
  2. incidentally, all the philosophers I’ve met rank amongst the nicest people I know – it’s a remarkable correlation. []
  3. without a tie, obviously []