Head’s blog: The pursuit of happiness

I would like to climb high in a tree
I could be happy, I could be happy
Or go to Skye on my holiday
I could be happy, I could be happy

I Could Be Happy, Altered Images (1982)

The United Nations recently published its latest World Happiness Report, in which the UK rose from 19th (out of 195) to a blissful 15th. Not bad given our current national trauma. The news also came with a little twinge of schadenfreude, knowing that we swapped places with Germany.

The report ranks countries according to six criteria that contribute to well-being: income, freedom, trust, healthy life expectancy, social support and generosity. All fine things to aspire to but a little statistically opportune for my liking; can happiness really be measured in such a conveniently mechanistic way?

As it happens, I’ve been reading a lot of books about happiness recently. It may well be something to do with a bit of a mid-life crisis and if so, I’ve probably got off lightly. A few cheeky Kindle purchases has got to be better than buying a Porsche or getting a skin fade.

As an educationalist, ‘what makes you happy?’ is surely one of the most important questions to ask, not least as it’s the number one thing most schools, and certainly most parents, want for their children. And yet it’s a question that’s been oddly neglected over the years, eclipsed by seemingly more important and relevant questions along the lines of ‘what gets you the best exam results/job/income?’

If you ask school pupils what they think will make them happy, most of them would probably identify future wealth as the key factor. In their minds, future wealth is strongly linked to a suitable career which is linked to a good university degree which is linked to decent exam results at school. Whilst there may well be some truth in this well-worn perception of linear causation, most of us with a little more life experience would probably disagree and I believe there are two main reasons for this.

Firstly, the relationship between happiness and income is a spurious and complex one. There’s been quite a lot of research done in this area and the general conclusion is that happiness does increase with income up to a subsistence level at which points one’s basic needs are met, after which the correlation breaks down as other factors become more relevant. Economics Professor Richard Layard of LSE takes this a step further, postulating that the positive correlation returns at higher levels of wealth when people are able to give money to others; something that makes them feel better about themselves. Layard concludes that the key to maximising national happiness is the redistribution of wealth from those who have a lot to those who don’t have enough.

Secondly, one must distinguish between what one thinks will make you happy and what actually makes you happy. Young people may think money will make them happy (probably induced by a lack of the resource when young) but when it comes to it, that ain’t necessarily so. When asked what genuinely makes them happy, most adults refer to less material things such as friendship, personal health, spending time with family and feelings of being loved and secure.

This is one of the key points made in Happiness by Design, an insightful and intelligent book written by Paul Dolan (another LSE professor). I would recommend it to anyone interested in this area and particularly to those who want to be happier in life.

The book starts by discounting ‘happiness’ per se as a fleeting and highly variable emotion which is almost impossible to measure, suggesting that terms such as life satisfaction or general contentment are more appropriate. Dolan then suggests that such things are achieved through a balance of pleasure and purpose. I think most people would agree with that and yet many still tend to focus overly one or the other, albeit inadvertently. The second half of the book concerns the importance of maximising our mental attention towards positive things that make us feel good and minimising the opposite.

So how does all this information and research relate to the school context and promoting sustainable happiness in our students?

Firstly, I’ve always been a fan of the mantra ‘work hard, play hard’ and though I now often add ‘rest hard’ too, I believe that a balance of purpose – gained largely from academic work and achievement – and pleasure – gained from other activities both in and out of school – is essential for the happiness and well-being of students. It’s a simplistic distinction when one considers the entirety of what a busy King’s student gets up to but an important one to get right nevertheless.

Secondly, I have often told students in assemblies and otherwise that one of the great benefits of showing generosity, kindness and compassion to others is that it makes you feel better about yourself. Whilst this could be interpreted as an inherently selfish motive (à la Feinberg’s psychological egoism thesis), there is no doubt that being part of a strong, mutually-respectful community where people actively support each other definitely raises levels of happiness. Certainly the most contented people I have known are those who spend significant amounts of their time in service to others.

Thirdly, there is little doubt that how we control our own emotions and thought processes is critical to contentment and I believe that encouraging students to practice ‘self-regulation’ and ‘mindfulness’ is an essential aspect of the education we provide. I would probably go one step further and suggest that ensuring individual students are emotionally intelligent, happy in their own skin and not prone to worrying unduly about things they can’t control, are some of the most important things we can do to set them up for their future adult lives.