Happiness lessons are dictatorial, a leading philosopher claims

15th January 2010 at 00:00
Academic says it is not for teachers or politicians to decide what makes us content

Happiness lessons are oppressive and dictatorial, failing to take into account the complexity of individual experience, according to a leading education philosopher.

Judith Suissa, of London's Institute of Education, also argues that happiness lessons have little to do with the realities of pupils' lives.

Wellington College, in Berkshire, was the first school in Britain to put happiness lessons on its timetable. And Schools Secretary Ed Balls has said he wants all schools to offer such lessons, which are based on the techniques of positive psychology.

The problem, Dr Suissa says, is that happiness can be very difficult to measure. For example, Wellington's 10-point happiness programme advises: "Productive relationships with other people are utterly central to maintaining well-being ... Relationships that cause conflict should be resolved or avoided."

But while some people are desperate to avoid conflict, others thrive on it. So, Dr Suissa argues, the insight that conflict is usually damaging to relationships cannot help individuals assess the significance of a particular type of conflict to their own lives or relationships.

Lessons at Wellington also teach that welfare - the satisfaction of needs - is integral to happiness. But, Dr Suissa points out, an ascetic hermit living a life of malnourishment and spiritual rapture in a mountain cave is capable of happiness without welfare.

There is, she argues, no one-size-fits-all formula. Experiences mean different things to different people. Education must therefore address the role and meaning of these events within individuals' lives, she says.

"What we bring to an educational encounter ... is our evolving picture of the good and complete human life," she says. "Education should enable this picture to evolve and offer children a range of possibilities with which to develop and inform it, not present them with a prepackaged picture."

Without an appreciation of the complexity and messiness of human lives, pupils cannot understand the complexity and messiness of their own emotions.

In fact, Dr Suissa concludes, the search for an overarching principle of happiness, delivered through homilies ("conflictual relationships should be avoided"), is the stuff of oppressive dictatorships.

"In a liberal democracy, it is not for economists, ministers or education or teachers to decide what our routes to happiness are, but to allow schools to be the kinds of places that open up the questions and give children tools to answer them for themselves."


When Anna Karenina stands on the railway platform, about to hurl herself under the approaching train, what she really could do with is a happiness lesson or two.

Judith Suissa, lecturer in the philosophy of education at London's Institute of Education, points out that such lessons would have advised the heroine of Tolstoy's novel to avoid relationships that cause conflict.

So Anna would not have embarked on her ill-fated affair with Count Vronsky, even though it offered short-term happiness and escape from an oppressive marriage.

But happiness lessons would have condoned some of Anna's other decisions. For example, pupils are advised: "Don't live accidentally ... Take charge of the direction of your life."

Dr Suissa questions whether Anna's eventual suicide might not be described as an attempt to take charge of the direction of her life.

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