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Happiness in Practical Wisdom

'Happy New Year!' The use of this phrase at the start of a new year reflects a secret about human beings – we crave happiness. However divergent our aims, the pursuit of happiness is common to us all.

This year, our pursuit of that goal takes place during commemorations across the English-speaking world to mark the fourth centennial of the King James Bible. The impact of that translation on the culture, language and beliefs of the Anglophone world is of such magnitude that the celebrations extend far beyond the religious sphere. They are a reminder that the Bible is today, as over the past 400 years, the world's best-selling book.

So does the world's most popular book have anything to say about the world's most popular pursuit? Indeed it does, but the Bible's insights on happiness call for a revision of today's standard version, which is deeply hedonistic. One such insight is that true happiness comes not through material prosperity, power or pleasure but from the practice of wisdom. Words from the King James translation set the tone: 'Happy is the man that findeth wisdom…for the merchandise of it is better than silver, and the gain thereof than fine gold' (Proverbs 3.13-14).

A master of 'merchandise' who grasped some of this is John Spedan Lewis (1885-1963), the founder of the John Lewis Partnership who has been polled Britain's greatest business leader. Although not outwardly religious, his admiration for Quakers influenced his decision to relinquish his claim to an income greater than that of his entire workforce and to introduce a profit-sharing scheme allowing employees to become partners.

Without external shareholders, this 'experiment in industrial democracy', as Lewis called it, now has 70,000 partners owning almost 300 stores. They subscribe to a constitution embodying his vision that 'the Partnership's ultimate purpose is the happiness of all its members'. Such happiness, Lewis explained, is to be understood 'in the broadest sense of that word' and requires 'a sense of all-round fairness, a sense of all-pervading justice'.

Politicians from left and right are proposing the John Lewis Partnership as a model for public service provision. They are also emphasising the importance of happiness. Although unable to offer detailed policy prescriptions, the practical wisdom of scripture, not lost in translation, offers direction. The bible resembles a compass, rather than roadmap. But on a journey through uncharted territory, that is exactly what you need.

Peter Heslam

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the exercise of practical wisdom is a source of true happiness
John Spedan Lewis shunned lavish income and introduced a profit-sharing scheme turning employees into partners