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Stammering and happiness

Norbert Lieckfeldt | 11.05.2015

Tonight, Professor Paul Dolan talked about stammering and happiness. Paul is something of an expert in happiness, having written last year's bestselling "Happiness by Design".

So, I was interested. Paul is an economist and as an economist he asked himself the question ‘why does money make us happy’? You have an input (money) and an output (happiness) but what happens in between, what turns one into the other?

His answer was “attention”. Important to us is only that which we pay attention to. So more money makes us happy while we pay attention to it - but unfortunately, we soon stop doing so.

Why? Our brain doesn't like paying attention - it's much happier running on autopilot because that's much less effort. It’s not for nothing that we use the phrase ‘pay attention’ – there’s a cost to it. But whatever our brain does choose to pay attention to seems really important to us - probably far more important than it actually is. So, the 'trick' of being happy is to focus attention on things that make you happy: spending time with friends, walking in the countryside, listening to music, etc. We are happy through paying attention to things that make us happy; we’re unhappy because we pay attention to things that make us unhappy [terrible simplification on my part, but you get the drift].

So, what is the link to stammering, I hear you ask? Well, stammering is unpredictable. If, as Paul says, we'd be guaranteed to stammer on every sixth word, we'd soon get used to it, and our attention would wander because the brain doesn't like to waste effort paying attention to utterly predictable things. But predictable is what stammering is most definitely not. Unpredictable is dangerous. So we watch out for it, anticipate it – we pay attention.

If the old dictum of "stammering is what we do when we try not to stammer" holds true, well, you couldn't focus more attention on trying not to do something if you tried. "Don’t think of the white teddy bear", said Paul. What are you thinking of right now? See?

It would also explain why secondary behaviours work - for a while. They distract our attention from stammering. Until they become so automated that our brain can stop wasting effort on them.

But I was most struck by the importance of happiness, when I was asked to say a few words at the end about what BSA does. And what I said was that we can't give people fluency. No one can. We can offer knowledge, insight and choice. We can fight to ensure every person who stammers gets the understanding and respect they are entitled to. And we can hold and nurture the stammering community which is a rich source of mutual support and wellbeing.

Not every person who stammers can become fluent. But I believe that every person who stammers has the potential and the right to be happy. And to help that along is, in essence, what the BSA is here for.

The event tonight was a fundraiser in aid of the British Stammering Association and Action for Stammering Children, the charity supporting the Michael Palin Centre. Huge thanks to Paul Dolan, to Chloe Foy for organising it so beautifully, for the LSE for hosting us in such splendid surroundings and to Elaine Kelman of the Michael Palin Centre for her most illuminating questions! Most of all, thanks to everyone who bought a ticket and helped to make the evening a success.