True happiness is more than feeling good

by Richard Schoch, The Telegraph, April 21, 2006

Pupils need to learn about morality - not positive psychology, says Richard Schoch

London, UK -- Lessons in positive thinking, wellbeing seminars and workshops in emotional intelligence - can an A-level in happiness really be far behind?

<< Real happiness surpasses the boundaries of subjective wellbeing

At Wellington College, one of Britain's top public schools, headmaster Anthony Seldon is piloting an initiative that may eventually see lessons in happiness added to the curriculum in both the state and independent sectors. What an unhappy prospect.

Dr Seldon's endeavour is well-intentioned. He is right that young people should learn that happiness does not lie in celebrity, wealth or conspicuous consumption, not least because popular culture - from makeover television programmes to the cult of cool - tells them that it does.

The problem is that Wellington is opting to teach happiness through positive psychology which, in my view, can amount to little more than self-help with a veneer of academic respectability.

Most psychologists define happiness as a positive emotional state: a good mood or cheery disposition. But happiness cannot be defined so narrowly. Positive emotions rarely survive the events that prompted them; nor do we want to feel good all the time.

A life of unremitting cheerfulness is one of delusion, for it refuses to acknowledge normal ups and downs. By emphasising pleasure, the psychologists turn happiness into something self-regarding: mere accumulation of pleasure and avoidance of pain.

More, they leave unanswered all the tough questions: Do you have a right to be happy? Can you be happy if others are unhappy? Does it matter whether or not you're happy?

It is students who will pay the price for the shortcomings of the positive psychology curriculum. Already they have lost much of their childhood through the burden of having to excel in music, art, sport, and community service. To these pressures we may now add a new one: the pressure to be happy. Who wants to be known as the chap who failed happiness?

But there will be a more profound loss. The students will come to learn that happiness is a basically selfish, egotistical proposition: ensuring that you're always in a good mood, eternally optimistic, forever blowing bubbles.

Let me offer an alternative. To begin, we must find a better definition of happiness, one that surpasses the restricted boundaries of subjective wellbeing.

Lasting and profound happiness is the active orientation of your life towards meaning, purpose and value. It's a reflection upon the character of your life as a whole. This kind of happiness is strong enough to withstand misfortune and does not depend upon good fortune. It isn't about feeling good, it's about being good.

That's what Aristotle meant when he called happiness (eudaemonia) a state of flourishing in the art of living. But just as ''one swallow does not make a springtime'', Aristotle reasoned, one pleasant day does not make a whole life happy. And thus he insisted that happiness was an activity - because it requires skill and focus.

To strive for happiness means that we regard our life as a journey in which we move purposefully toward that ultimate goal. Granted, the psychologists hint that a truly happy life must contain a purpose beyond itself. But positive psychology won't set you on the path to a meaningful life. It will put you in touch with your feelings - and encourage you to share them with anyone who'll listen -but it won't enable you to transcend them, which is precisely what's required to infuse your life with purpose and meaning.

The ideal happiness curriculum already exists. Sometimes it's called philosophy, sometimes religion, but the label scarcely matters.

What matters is that there is a body of enduring wisdom on how to live the good life, and we have neglected it to our cost. These ancient teachings tell us that happiness has little to do with ''emotional IQ'' and everything to do with overcoming the ego, conquering selfishness, and having regard for the welfare of others.

In short, there is a morality of happiness, and you'd be hard pressed to find it in the fuzzy platitudes that masquerade as the science of wellbeing. You're much more likely to encounter a powerful truth in the writing of Greek philosophers, Roman Stoics, Christian mystics, Buddhist monks, and Hindu sages.

To reflect seriously upon the venerable traditions of happiness, where better to start than a public school? For if tradition cannot survive there, it can survive nowhere.

Richard Schoch is professor of the history of culture at Queen Mary, University of London, and author of 'The Secrets Of Happiness: Three Thousand Years Of Searching For The Good Life'