True happiness is a lesson well taught

28th April 2006 at 01:00
Can you teach happiness? The ambiguity in the question is deliberate: I'm not just asking whether happiness can be taught but whether you teachers are equipped to do it.

The prospect of happiness lessons invites a new twist on an old slur: those who can't be, teach. The term "contented teacher" certainly sounds like an oxymoron, though it does seem easier to be satisfied if you're in the independent sector, which is perhaps why the fee-paying Wellington College is soon to be the first school in the country to offer happiness classes.

Teaching happiness in the state sector seems more incongruous. How many teachers will only be able to convey the information that money does not buy happiness through gritted teeth? How credible can teachers make the claim that meaningful activity which helps others can make you happy? And if you tell the students that a strong family and friendship network contributes most to happiness, will half the kids, lacking either, run in despair from the building, looking for the nearest precipice? And will half the staff follow them? But although it may seem as though asking teachers to teach happiness is like asking Graham Norton to speak on the virtues of subtlety, it may just be a good idea after all.

Of course, before we ask who is to teach happiness, we need to ask whether it can be taught at all. It does at least seem that unhappiness can be untaught. Cognitive behavioural therapy gets people to unlearn destructive negative habits of thought which cause them to be depressed. The bad news, however, is that it can't be given to whole classes.

But surely, group therapy is not what happiness lessons should be about anyway. Rather, they should inform in general terms about the factors which influence happiness that children can have some control over. This has the potential to be a really subversive syllabus. For example, I know of many people whose lack of contentment in adult life is traceable back to bad advice at school. Instead of being allowed to choose the subjects they loved, they were coerced into taking more "useful" or "respected" subjects they loathed. As a result, they struggled, lost confidence, and forgot how good they could be when they threw themselves into something that suited their aptitudes.

If children (and careers advisors) were taught that conforming to others'

wishes is not a route to happiness and that spending time doing something you value for its own sake is, many such catastrophic mistakes would be avoided. However, the whole enterprise could backfire if children were given the impression that happiness is a kind of right and that people who are less than fully happy are defective in some way. They need to learn about the philosophy of happiness, not just the psychology, so that they can question the whole idea that happiness is all that matters. Should they believe their parents, for example, when they say they don't mind what their kids do as long as they are happy? If ever there was a sincerely stated lie, this is it. We don't want happiness at all costs. Most of us wouldn't take a pill that made us happy forever, for example, tempting though it may be at 7.30am on a Monday. We want real, meaningful lives, even if this doesn't always leave us cheerful.

And that's why teachers might well be the best people to get this across after all. To choose to be a teacher is to choose a life which is harder than it might otherwise be and which often exacts a price in terms of personal happiness. But the satisfaction you do get when things turn out well can be more profoundly satisfying and longer lasting than the fun high-rolling peers have when they sip champagne at the races.

But more fundamentally, you can't say why it is good to be a teacher if you see meaning solely in terms of happiness. Satisfaction, fulfilment and the sense of living a worthwhile life are all related to happiness, but they cannot be reduced to it. Putting a smile on someone's face is certainly a good thing, but it is not all that life is about. Teachers know that better than many others.

Libby Purves 32

Julian Baggini is editor of The Philosophers' Magazine

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