Book review: The Happy Hero, by Solitaire Townsend

I’ll be honest – I find the language of heroism and ‘saving the world’ really tedious. Does anyone feel heroic because they sorted their recycling? The title and front cover of The Happy Hero: How to change your life by changing the world made my heart sink.

On the other hand, it’s by Solitaire Townsend, founder of the Futerra environmental change agency, whose work I have written about a few times and whose philosophy I share. (Townsend also popularised swishing parties, and my wife owes a fair chunk of her wardrobe to those). The book is from Unbound, a crowdfunded publisher that I regularly support. And the message of the book is one that resonates with me. So I decided I ought to put aside my grumpy old man reaction to the title and give it a go.

In The Happy Hero, Solitaire Townsend argues that the best route to a fulfilling life is to dedicate ourselves to helping others. Our own happiness is best pursued by making a difference. Working to stop climate change might just transform our own lives too, giving us purpose, belonging and satisfaction. “By turning outside of yourself, and trying to make the world a better place, your own life will begin to improve in unimaginable ways.”

I agree. There’s plenty of ancient wisdom that’s pointed us in that direction. Jesus taught it. Modern neuroscience backs it up, and The Happy Hero takes that idea and applies it to climate change action. Get involved. Make a difference, and discover how rewarding it can be in the process.

To get us there, Townsend borrows the basic structure of myth from Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces. Our hero hears a call to adventure and sets out. They encounter obstacles, overcome a mighty foe, and bring home the victory. The book gives a chapter to each of these stages, looking at the ‘dragon’ of climate change, the ‘monsters’ of denial and doom, and so on. Along with monsters and dragons, you can also expect princesses, ninjas, magic, the king and queen of ‘negativity land’ and at one point the ‘climate fairy’.

Despite the fun Townsend is having, she’s clear that “nothing in this book should ever be used to suggest that climate change is anything other than the greatest threat we’ve ever faced on this planet”.  To the book’s credit, it’s honest about hopelessness and the potential for burnout. The author has a lifetime of campaigning to draw on, having started out as a 13 year old. She has good stories to share, from her own life and others. There’s plenty of practical advice. Big ideas are condensed and presented in an engaging way. I’d want to draw some distinctions between hope and optimism, which are used more or less interchangeably. And as Barbara Ehrenreich has pointed out, there’s nothing helpful in blind positivity. Nevertheless, it’s a book with a refreshing optimism and that’s a good thing to read from time to time.

For all its merits, the presentation is going to be divisive. Some people are going to find it encouragingly positive and motivating, others will find it chirpy and grating. One person’s playful metaphor is another person’s cheese sandwich. But Townsend works in primary colours, that’s just her style. If it doesn’t work for you, that’s fine and she knows it: “you can do everything in this book and make a real difference without wearing the happy hero t-shirt”. Just don’t mistake it for something trivial – “happy heroism isn’t a shallow thing”.

The Happy Hero reminded me of both How to Change the World by John Paul Flintoff and Rob Hopkins’ The Power of Just Doing Stuff. I could recommend any of those three to different people.

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