I want to put on a one-day tech conference on how to be happy.
Working in software has to rank pretty highly on the "good jobs" chart. It’s not hard manual labour; it’s not dangerous; the barrier to entry is pretty low; it pays better than most jobs; and it’s probably going to be one of the last industries where we’ll get replaced by robots (although that raises the question of who will be paying us to do it, and how).
And yet as I idly scroll through Twitter, or my Feedly feed, or Hacker News, or various programming-related message boards and chat rooms, it seems to me that my fellow hackers are not, on the whole, very happy. I see a lot of anger; a lot of complaining; a lot of arguing; in summary, an abundance of negativity that can only come from some deep-rooted unhappiness.
I’m as guilty of this as the next person. I blurt mean things about other people’s projects because I’m struggling with them; I get into pointless debates about the merits of one thing over another; and even when I manage not to engage in a public forum, I’ll often carry some perceived slight with me for days. I can hold grudges for far longer.
I’m getting better, though. It’s a process. Bear with me.
A few years ago, for one reason and another, I found myself in therapy. Not the "talking about the past in the hope of improving the future" kind, but various groups with a focus on pro-active therapies like CBT. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is based on training yourself to think differently, to react differently, and to be more in control of your feelings. At the time, I remember thinking it sounded like whistling a happy tune and hoping to fool oneself into feeling better, but I applied some of the techniques I learned and they helped with the immediate symptoms.
Since then, I’ve researched more into this area. In particular, I’ve learned about meditation, which I had always previously associated with Buddhism, and words like "transcendental", "mantra" or "mandala". But modern "mindfulness" meditation is not tied up with these religious or superstitious concepts (and indeed, Buddhism itself is not innately religious). You just sit still and quiet and observe your thoughts, and learn to recognise them as thoughts.
So I’ve been doing this, and reading and learning more about the idea that happiness (or, more accurately, contentment) is something you can learn to do in and of itself, rather than something you just hope to achieve by various other means. There is no need for religion, with its promises of eternal happiness in some afterlife. There is no need to believe anything beyond what is scientifically evident; in fact, many scientific studies have been done on the effects of mediation and other techniques, with fMRI scanners and such.
It’s been helping me, to the point where people who have known me for a long time have commented lately on a noticeable change. I’m not "all better now", by any means. It’s an iterative process, and it will never be done; just like software development.
That’s the reason I’m writing this post, on my technical blog: to make these concepts easier for myself to understand and accept, I’ve been putting them into programming, engineering or technical terms, thinking of the process as "debugging my mind", calling the reflective practice a "retrospective", and so on. And as I’ve been doing that, I’ve wanted to find a way to share it with people who speak that language. Which is to say, with all of you.
I spend a fair amount of time speaking at or attending conferences where hundreds or thousands of developers get together to talk about platforms, frameworks, processes, techniques or other ways to make ourselves better at making software.
And I got to thinking, maybe we can use the same idea to talk about platforms, frameworks, processes, techniques or other ways to make ourselves better at being happy. I’m proposing putting on a little conference, just one day, and getting some speakers to talk, in terms that logical, technical people can understand, about ways of taking control of your thinking and reducing your unhappiness. It won’t just be about meditation; there are all sorts of things to talk about. I’ve already got a couple of ideas for speakers I’d like to invite. And ideally I’d like it to be free, or as near as possible, paid for with sponsorship from tech industry companies.
I mentioned this on Twitter, and a couple of people have already reached out saying they want to organise something with me.
To gauge interest from the community, I’ve put up a landing page where you can sign up to a mailing list. If we get enough interest, we’ll push forward and make something happen in London next year.