Interest in promoting happiness has grown to the point where there are calls for it to be taught in schools. But there is no formula for happiness, and attempts to teach it may conflict with other things schools want to instil in childrenby Adam Phillips / March 28, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
There is a famous sentence in Thomas Jefferson’s declaration of independence that formulates something essential about what most modern liberals believe about both government and education: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Some of us might not believe in the creator part, and all of us would assume now that by men Jefferson means men and women, but probably none of us would quibble with the idea that people are born, if not created, equal, and that they have a right to life and liberty. But what does it mean to have an unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness? At first sight, it seems to be a pretty good idea; no one, presumably, wants to promote the pursuit of unhappiness. If we are convinced of anything now, it is that we are pleasure-seeking creatures who want to minimise the pain and frustration of our lives. We are creatures who, perhaps unlike any other animal, pursue happiness.
But fortunately, and unfortunately, the other thing we know is that pleasure, like happiness, is not as simple as we would like it to be; that people can be frightened of pleasure, or can hide their real pleasures from themselves; that they can use pleasure as a way of avoiding necessary pain (drinking alcohol or taking drugs, for example, to avoid intimacy or the useful and necessary awkwardness of social life); that they can get pleasure from their own pain and that of others; and that they can have competing pleasures (a child’s pleasure in pleasing parents and teachers can outstrip the desire to avoid schoolwork, so he sacrifices his genuine—if short-term—interests for the love and approval of the grown-ups).
“A people who conceive life to be the pursuit of happiness must be chronically unhappy,” the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins wrote in Utilitarianism. Whether or not this is true—and I think in many ways it is—it raises the question of why happiness should matter to us at all. It has certainly become the focus of much debate. Anthony Seldon has introduced “wellbeing lessons” to the curriculum of Wellington College, where he is headmaster, and some would like to see the innovation rolled out across the country. Discussions of what makes a good life, and whether virtue can be taught, are as old as literate human enquiry. But happiness is now the thing, and so we need to have some idea of what the pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of; whether education can make people anything (that is, how open to influence children are, and in what ways); and what the much-cherished phrase “making someone happy” might mean.