Why happiness is such a painful experience

28th January 2005 at 00:00
Teachers want their pupils to be happy. But, realistically, how successful can they be in helping their charges to become fulfilled adults?

Psychologists say that just one thing going wrong in our lives is enough to bring about gnawing dissatisfaction, whereas complete contentment requires things to be going well in practically every area. So, statistically, the dice are loaded in favour of the former.

Freud believed the good life arrives when we use reason to overcome emotion; indeed, he advocated a "combative" approach to our quest for betterment. If reason and emotion are in constant battle, it's no wonder happiness is difficult to achieve. Education can help by cultivating reason; we can learn to use it to guide our lives.

Whatever you think about psychologists' views on happiness - which include the argument that the very reductionism of science confounds its ability to unlock the secret of human happiness - there is a fundamental predicament at the heart of teaching. Trying to educate without a clear sense of how to achieve well-being or the good life is a bit like giving directions to a lost traveller, but only by telling him where not to go.

Education embodies a set of implicit values about what self-improvement is all about: such as, for example, that reading books is better for you than watching television. We are trying to help our pupils avoid the negative consequences of an uneducated life, but we need to be clearer about the link between schooling and a happy life.

There is a more strategic view: that I do one thing now and another thing later in order eventually to arrive at a place that resembles happiness.

This view needs foresight and planning, something economists are much more used to in their theorising than most other professions.

But aren't teachers supposed to encourage their pupils to be strategic in order to become content adults? Some psychiatrists have devised a technique for "measuring thought" which grades the quality of one's thoughts along a continuum from baser, more unhappy-oriented thinking, characterised by lack of trust and lack of flexibility, to higher levels, denoted by coherence, patience and compassion. Because this technique can be applied to a person's writing and speeches, it can chart a personal journey to fulfilment.

But the conundrum at the core of the way teachers approach fulfilment in children is their aversion to the paradox of well-being. On the long journey towards the achievement of any worthwhile ambition there is usually an enormous amount of suffering; it is the ability to tolerate and not be afraid of pain that underpins true bliss. Yet modern society's obsession with pleasure is an indicator of intolerance for, and rejection of, distress.

It's a tough bargain: in order to be happy you have to experience anguish; you have to embrace the one thing you are trying desperately to avoid.

Distinguished scholars who write about happiness are perhaps persuaded by publishers to sugar the pill by obscuring this central truth, hence the upbeat titles of a whole slew of recent academic books on happiness. It is as if our corporate culture is unable to engage with and promulgate key truths about the human predicament.

Professor Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist at the Bethlem Royal and Maudsley hospitals in London. His latest book is The Motivated Mind (Bantam Press, pound;12.99). Email: rajpersaud@tes.co.uk

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