Sunday, April 23, 2006

Happiness (Part 1) - Teaching Happiness

Last week the UK Newspapers were full of a story about a new subject being taught to 14-16 year olds - happiness.

The headmaster of Wellington College, Berkshire who is also a respected author, will teach his students how to be happy. The articles don't say exactly what will be included in the lessons, but two things are clear. First - although the head, Anthony Seldon is a historian - the lessons won't be a boring catalogue of the history of happiness, or even of the ingredients of happiness. They will be more reflective - students will think about their own talents, their own goals, how to deal with their negative emotions. Second, the inspiration comes from Postive Psychology - the new science of well-being and developing strengths.

So far so good. When I reflect on my own education, I detect two imbalances. One was between facts on the one hand and reflection and practice on the other. I learnt plenty of French words, but not how to speak and understand French. I learnt the names of kings and queens and battles, but didnt really reflect on what all this history meant. If that imbalance was about how I was taught, the second one was about the subjects I was taught. History, Geography, Biology and the rest all have their place - but there was very little about life skills, about developing the emotions, about philosophy, or psychology. What little there was came under "Religious Education" or "General Studies". That was in the 1970s, and things may be better now. But I know that many of my learning since then has been making up for lost time. I'm sure it would have been very beneficial for me if I had been tought about happiness when I was at school.

However ... I am not sure that positive psychology on its own is sufficient to learn about happiness. Psychology takes a given concept- such as happiness - and can help us learn about what research shows to be effective at enhancing it. What it doesnt do is help us understand what that concept really means in the first place. That's what philosophy is good at - helping to understand what concepts really mean, using a technique called "conceptual analysis". Psychology is also limited by its research methods. As psychologist Abraham Maslow famously said "If you've only got a hammer, you'll tend to treat every problem as a nail." One might add that if hammers are the cheapest tool you have, you might be tempted to use them rather than other tools that might expand your repertoirre. With positive psychology, the main research tool is self-reports (see for instance Using self-reports, you base everything on what ordinary people say about how happy they are. Again, philosophy provides an alternative perspective - what wise people have thought about what constitutes a happy and meaningful life.

I hope that the happiness training in the UK takes on board philosophical as psychological insights about how to be happy. So, you might well ask, how would I teach happiness? That's a question I will be pursuing in this and subsequent articles. For now, I'll just make a few observatiosn. First, regarding happiness and any other value or virtue (others include love, meaning of life, freedom, wisdom, compassion and authenticity) there are also three great questions to ask
1. What is it? (and maybe there are different flavours)
2. What value is to? (and what are its limitations)
3. How can it be enhanced? (in an individual and society)

The first question belongs to philosophy and the method of choice is conceptual analysis. The second question is also largely philosophical, though psychology will also be relevant to the extent that research shows one value (e.g.happiness) leads to another (e.g. altruism). The "how to" question, number 3, is mainly psychological, though politics and education are also highly relevant -as are 2 thousand years of thoughts of philosophers and religious thinkers. I really recommend bearing these three questions in mind about any value or virtue you are interested in, as you need to consider all 3 to get the complete picture. For example, if Anthony Seldon is only considering question 3 - about how happiness can be enhanced - then he may be missing what happiness really is, or its limitations.

In my next article on happiness, I will look at the first question - What is Happiness?

Exernal Links

Lessons in Life - Why I am Teaching Happiness

Top boarding school to give lessons in happiness

True happiness is more than feeling good

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