“It’s almost like you could feel the love in the room”
On Sunday 4 February, the Museum of Happiness wrapped up its 2018 Winter Happiness Festival with a celebratory Gong Bath. Approximately 2,000 visitors attended during the two-week festival, which started on Saturday 20 January. The festival’s highlight was a ball pit filled with over 30,000 white balls and loads of soft blue pillows. The rest of the Museum space was filled with installations and activities intended to inspire happiness and happiness workshops and talks were held throughout the festival.
“We wanted to create an event that brought people from different backgrounds, where people can come together and channel their inner child,” said Vicky Johnson, a Co-founder and Director of the Museum.
The timing of the festival was meant to lift the mood and inspire happiness at a time when people are feeling the most down.
“Blue Monday [generally the third Monday of January] is supposed to be the most depressing time of year,” Vicky said. “And winter can be quite a depressing, lonely, isolating time of year in general.”
Sasha Mattock, a London resident, first came to the museum for an Awakin Circle meditation event and she was so charmed by the experience that she came back again on the final day of the festival.
“It’s been really lovely and welcoming,” she said. “Everyone just invites you into the space. I like it because everyone is really open and honest with the way they interact. I realised that’s what’s been making me uncomfortable in London and how different a space is when you can really say how you are and aren’t being shut out.”
The Museum of Happiness operates thanks to the help of many dedicated volunteers. Extra hands were brought on deck during the festival to meet the needs of the increased volume of visitors. The volunteers interacted with the guests, welcomed them into the space, sat down to chat, made tea, and worked side-by-side with them on activities.
One Arlington House resident, best known at the Museum as James the Poet, was a regular fixture at the museum throughout the Winter Happiness Festival. In addition to making tea and chatting with guests, James wrote and shared his poetry. He often asked visitors what they’d like to read a poem about and then wrote it there, on the spot. By the end of the festival, he estimated that he’d written about 150 poems in the span of two weeks.
“I come down and write my poetry and let other people see them,” James explained. “If they’re feeling down, hopefully, it makes them feel better. It’s helped change my life.”
James’ inspiring story touched many of the attendees. On the opening day of the event, James shared the hardships he’s been through and read some of his poems for a group of attentive guests, seated on the cushy astroturf floor.
“If it wasn’t for Rosa and Vicky, I probably wouldn’t be alive right now,” James said.
Prior to moving into the hostel, James had been homeless and caught up in gang activity. He was stabbed and nearly lost his life last year. Life has never been easy for James and he said he considered giving up many times. But he met the staff and volunteers at the Museum of Happiness who engaged with him and welcomed him into the space.
“When I first moved into the hostel about three months ago, I was still agitated about my stabbing, and I used meditation to help get over it and get out of the gangs,” James said. “It really helps… I’ve found my family here.”
Another festival attendee and featured guest was Baba Jay, a formerly homeless musician, who came in on several occasions during the two-week festival. He first found the Museum of Happiness by accident, a few days before the festival began. Baba was on his way to find a nearby music studio when he stumbled into the museum thinking he was at the right place. He saw Vicky and assumed she was the music tutor. She ended up inviting him to come play his music during the Winter Happiness Festival.
On the opening day, Baba Jay performed a few songs he’d written, along with some covers. He said he felt instantly at home in the museum.
“When I came here, it was really like meeting long lost friends even though they’re all strangers,” Baba said. “There’s a nice warmth and you feel safe. The main thing was I felt like I wasn’t weird. I’ve gone through my whole life feeling different.”
Baba Jay has also faced many challenges in his life. He’d lived on the streets as a young man and struggled with alcohol addiction. He says music helped get him out of trouble. Baba shared his own story to inspire museum guests, before performing his songs.
“Before I came here, I used to go around smiling at people, and people [were] thinking I was weird… But when I came here, they actually understand,” Baba Jay said.
The Museum of Happiness is always filled with like-minded people who are working towards positive change and pursuit of happiness.
Another volunteer, Katie Bell, of Kingston, said she found the Museum of Happiness at a networking event focused on mindfulness, fitness and social enterprise. She had recently quit her job, because she wanted to be a part of the bigger picture, working alongside a community, toward a shared goal. She found what she was looking for at the museum and knew right away that she wanted to be involved.
“You could instantly tell that everyone here was doing something to work on themselves or with other people,” Katie said.
The Winter Happiness Festival may now be over, but most of the activities and installations set up for the celebration remain in place for visitors to enjoy. The events calendar is filled with classes, talks and workshops that will continue to spread joy among all those who pass through the Museum’s bright yellow doors.
“It lives up to its name — the Museum of Happiness,” Baba Jay said. “I feel blessed and I feel grateful that I found this place just by chance.”