You cannot teach people to be happy

Forget force-feeding kids ‘positive psychology’: teachers have more chance of producing happy pupils if they inspire them with knowledge.

Tim Black

Tim Black
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Topics Politics

On Monday evening at the packed-out Guardian auditorium in London, the culture and education think tank Agora staged a debate called Can We Teach People to be Happy? A different title loomed behind the discussants: In our high pressure, materialistic world would we need to teach people to be happy? Both mislead unfortunately, but only insofar as the object of both sentences should really have been ‘children’ and not ‘people’. This, you see, was primarily a discussion about education, its meaning and purpose.

Discussing the issue were Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent and a name that will be familiar to spiked’s regular readers, and Dr Anthony Seldon, the author of innumerable books on recent British political history, including an impressive four, all officially authorised, on Tony Blair. Perhaps of more pertinence to the discussion, he is also the master of Wellington School, where in 2006, following their development in America, he introduced happiness classes, or as he prefers to call it: ‘positive psychology’. And finally, chairing the debate was the director of Agora, Anna Fazackerly, a wispy-waspy type, whose manicured intonation gave the numerous put-downs to audience and panellists alike a curiously arch quality, both amusing and a little condescending. Still, at least this kept everyone sharp.

This was not the case during Seldon’s opening address. Seeking to demonstrate what he meant by happiness, or rather wellbeing, he asked everybody to close their eyes, relax and ‘let go of the day’, thoughts of which were to be ‘exhaled in the out breath’. Tranquillity descended – or, at least, that was the aim. Unfortunately, for me at least, after about 20 seconds, meditation quickly turns into an invitation to snooze. Seldon, effervescence personified, quickly tried to shock his audience back to life: ‘What we’re trying to do’, he said, ‘is help pupils live in a world that’s calmer, where they’re much more in touch with their own skin, and others too’. A stray apostrophe there would have spelt havoc for Wellington.

Seldon’s bubbly persona is not without importance here. He is undoubtedly a happy man, a characteristic most evident in his generosity of spirit. At one point he announced that he ‘drools’ over ‘Frank Furedi’s wonderful books.’ ‘I wish I had a hundredth of Frank’s talent’, he confessed to his combatant, ‘but I don’t’. Such ingenuous flattery is affecting, and one can well imagine he is able to inspire his pupils at Wellington similarly. This attitude to others, he would argue, is at the heart of positive psychology. By making kids feel good about themselves, they’ll also learn to feel good about others. And this he knows because he himself feels pretty good about himself and obviously feels pretty good about others, too.

‘I love the countryside,’ he continued. ‘I love towns, I love reading – I’m reading David Copperfield at the moment…’ On and on he happily waxed. But what was striking was that, as near-beatific as Seldon’s condition might be, it was not something he himself was taught at school. Rather, I would wager, his awareness of happiness, the development of the beguiling and undoubtedly pedagogically inspiring presence we saw before us, was born of his own intense emotional, indeed educational experiences. And these experiences, as Furedi, argued, ‘creep up on you… you can’t replicate them educationally’. As effective as Seldon might find his own teaching style, having less to do with positive psychology than his own ebullience, it can’t simply be replicated.

The problem, as one audience member pointed out, is that happiness, as an object, is indeterminate, without content. You can no more teach happiness than you can teach love. Such emotional states are born in the maelstrom of human interaction. As such, they’re unintentional by-products of activity and engagment – never its end. But in some ways, a discussion of the meaning of happiness is a dead-end. When asked to define it, Seldon described it as ‘the present moment, harmony’, while Furedi said it varied from moment to moment.

What’s rather more important than the meaning of the term is the role ‘happiness’ plays in discussions around education. And in this way, the notion’s very indeterminacy is indicative of the problem it is solicited to answer. For the anxiety underpinning the discussion around ‘teaching happiness’ is born of a pedagogical crisis – that is, a search for the meaning and purpose of education, the teacher’s raison d’être. Indeed, as confidence in the meaning and purpose of the curriculum wanes, and teachers lose confidence in the authority of their subjects, so teaching happiness – the latest therapeutic nostrum – arrives to fill the breach. You’re not teaching kids to read, you’re teaching them emotional literacy. Failing at the basics, like maths and English, Furedi argued, ‘pedagogues turn elsewhere for ways to manage the curriculum – they search for new tricks to keep the children’s attention’.

More worryingly, happiness classes manifest the technocratic dynamic of current policymaking. They make ‘happiness’ quantifiable, indexable, something that can be managed and reckoned up. In doing so, they connive at a soft-focus authoritarianism. At no point was this more apparent than when Seldon was talking about ‘parents not always knowing what’s best for their children’. Consequently, it made perfect sense for him to identify schools as potential ‘substitutes for those cases where children are not getting [wellbeing] from their communities’. As Furedi pointed out, we now have a situation where parents are acting like quasi-teachers, and teachers like quasi-parents.

Education has, of course, always involved forms of socialisation, be it the values inscribed in the literary canon or equipping kids with practical, vocational knowledge. But by attending to their wellbeing, children’s interior life becomes subject to a more ravenous form of socialisation. They are being taught, in effect, the correct way to feel. As Furedi made clear, filling kids with the popular lexicon of positive psychology, far from making them happy, merely gives them a facility for garrulous navel-gazing. ‘When my 12-year-old comes home from school, he sounds like Freud. “Oh dad”, he says, “I feel stressed” or “dad, I feel depressed”.’ There’s no doubt kids are learning one thing at school: psychobabble.

The irony to all this is that if teachers were simply allowed to get on with the job of teaching the content of their subjects, then happiness, the seamless by-product of accomplishment, activity and interaction, might well follow.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi explained why he was infuriated by the politics of happiness. Michael Savage asked why happiness is now part of public policy. Lee Rowland looked at the failure to find a ‘happiness index’. Daniel Ben-Ami questioned efforts to determine which was the happiest country. Or read more at spiked issue Happiness.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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