The greatest gift of all

It is as ridiculous to think you can teach happiness as it is to think you can teach fear or courage, or gloom or amazement, says Hilary Wilce

t was predictable, of course, that as soon as someone raised the idea that happiness could be taught in schools, along would come the usual army of Eeyores to tut-tut and bang the drum for a return to studying Greek grammar or the Punic Wars or whatever else they think will turn today's wishy-washy kids into fine, upstanding adults just like themselves.

But for once these dreary nay-sayers were right. It is as ridiculous to think you can teach happiness as it is to think you can teach fear or courage, or gloominess or amazement. Feelings are feelings, and don't readily lend themselves to being stuck on anyone's school syllabus.

However, something does need to be done to help our poor, deluded youngsters consider what happiness is all about, since so many now seem to believe that the only route towards it lies in becoming a footballer, pop star, or Big Brother celebrity - and also since, career advisers tell us, so many of them fervently seem to believe that that is what they will become.

There is plenty you can teach children about happiness. You can, for example, teach them what great minds have had to say about the subject.

Gandhi thought it was about serving others, while Freud thought it was all to do with love and work. You can teach them to consider what true happiness actually consists of - is it pleasure, contentment, or a sense of fulfilment?

And to think about how those things that they think will make them happy - another computer game; those new jeans; that week of excess in Ibiza - probably won't. Or not for very long.

Above all, you can get them to see how their minds are the most powerful tool they have in shaping their own happiness, and how we all create our own reality, every minute of every day, by the assumptions we start from, the thoughts we feed ourselves, and the conclusions we reach.

The starting point, as the Buddha discovered more than 2,500 years ago, is to try to stand back and observe what your mind gets up to, and the unproductive traps it likes to lead you into, until you decide that you are going to try to master it, rather than carry on letting it master you.

This, of course, is the work of a lifetime, not something you can teach in a timetabled lesson. But what a helpful germ of an idea to have in your head as you embark on adult life. So more useful than all the Punic Wars put together.

In fact, many schools are already discovering that teaching self-awareness reaps happier children, better behaviour and higher achievements. Some approach it by teaching children to know more about the ways their minds learn, using programmes such as Guy Claxton's Building Learning Power.

Others are using PSE lessons to teach the importance of understanding emotions and how they work. Still others use practical, hands-on approaches to calmness and connection.

It might sound bizarre to teach massage in schools, but primaries which have taught their pupils how to give each other neck and shoulder massages report a stack of associated benefits.

Children seem to enjoy getting to know themselves, and to sense instinctively its importance. One teacher at a small Kent primary school recently asked her class if they would like to try meditating. It would help them to settle their thoughts, she told them, and learn how to feel more peaceful inside.

All they would have to do was sit quietly for five minutes, either with their eyes closed, or else looking at the flame of a candle she would light for them. OK, they said, doubtfully. We don't mind giving it a go. Later in the term, however, she was forced to give up these daily sessions as the pressure of the national curriculum began to breathe more hotly down her neck.

But her pupils were distraught. They had come to love this small oasis of calm in their busy day, and the way it allowed them to tune out the world, and tune into themselves.

Their teacher had to promise them they would start again the following term, but then she somehow never got round to it. When she thinks about that broken promise now, she says, it makes her very unhappy.

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