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The secret of happiness sometimes seems as elusive as the secret of eternal youth or a rare bird that flits in and out of our life, gone almost before we can train our eyes on it.  When we are asked whether we are happy, it is tempting to turn the question back on the questioner and ask him to define his terms – what IS “happiness”?

There are as many answers to that question as there are birds in the sky but, for now, let us stick with a nice Greek word which is probably just a synonym but which includes an idea of movement, of growing, of becoming rather than a fixed state.  Eudaimonia.   And translate it as “flourishing”.  We are happy when we are flourishing.  We are unlikely to be happy when we are not flourishing.  We are equally unlikely to flourishing when we are not happy.

It seems a reasonable proposition that people want to flourish since the alternative is not flourishing.  Surely no mentally healthy person would set out NOT to flourish?

So, if we set out to flourish, how do we know what is likely to lead to our flourishing?

Is it something we find out for ourselves from trial and error?

Is it something that we can be taught, or learn from the experience of others?

These questions are the challenge facing two opponents who will debate whether or not it is possible to teach happiness.  “Yes” says the headmaster, Anthony Seldon.  “No” says the sociologist, Frank Furedi.

Lola B thinks Anthony Seldon is right.  I agree with her, but, of course, it all depends on how you define your terms. 

Anthony Seldon has begun a programme of lessons at the public (private) school, Wellington College, where he is headmaster.  The programme emphasises the importance of relationships and aims to help school children learn how they can have good relationships in four areas of their lives.  The most important relationship is the relationship the children have with themselves:

“Students learn how to manage their minds, their emotions and their bodies.  Bit by bit, they learn what makes them distinctive.  They learn to recognise and manage their negative and positive emotions.  They learn the value of accepting themselves as they are and appreciating others.  They are taught to calm themselves by deep breathing and other techniques and discover that three 20-minute bouts of exercise a week have the same effect on raising the spirit and avoiding depression as a standard dose of Prozac.”

Children are also taught how to have good friendships and other relationships and to avoid bad relationships.  They are taught about their relationship with the natural world around them, and with the technology they depend on in their daily lives.  A summary of the 10-point programme is available here.

Frank Furedi thinks this is all as waste of time because “how to feel well is not a suitable subject for teaching”.  He says that there is no evidence that teaching well-being works:

“In schools, decades of silly programmes designed to raise children’s self-esteem have not improved well being, and the new iniatives designed to make pupils happy will also fail.  Worse still, emotional education encourages an inward looking orientation that distracts children from engaging with the world. […] Children are highly suggestible and the more they are required to participate in wellbeing classes, the more they will feel the need for professional support.”

This professional miseryguts continues in the same vein, decrying “self-help” and “psychobabble”, but has completely missed the point as becomes clear when he tells us why happiness is not a suitable subject for teaching:

“Because genuine happiness is experienced through the interaction of the individual with the challenges thrown up by life.  One reason why well-meaning educators cannot teach their pupils to be happy is because feelings are contingent on encounters and relationships.”

Feelings are contingent on encounters or relationships or memories.  That is true.  The parent or the teacher cannot make the child feel happy.  But as parents or teachers, I hope that they can give children opportunities to feel happy, and suggestions about how they might flourish, and that by providing them with the building blocks and the tools to use, they might BE happy.  There is a question more important that whether or not it is possible to teach happiness, and that is whether we should be teaching happiness presuming that it is possible.  I think Anthony Seldon is only proposing that teachers do what parents do, or should be doing and what any educator desires to do, which is to help their pupils to flourish.  I doubt Mr Seldon believes that he can teach “happiness” any more than Frank Furedi, but, unlike the sad sociologist, he believes that he can help children to see how they might make the most of their lives and so have a chance to find that they are happy.

Frank Furedi does not even believe that happiness is a suitable goal for a life, describing it as “insipid” and reminding us that a good life is not always a happy one. 

“People are often justified in being unhappy about their circumstances and surroundings.  Discontent and ambition have driven humanity to confront and overcome the challenges they face.”

I hope that when writing this, Professor Furedi stopped to contemplate the very large hole in his foot, for he must surely have been able to see that the “discontent” was felt because the subject was not happy and the “ambition” was felt because he wanted to be happy.  People may have unhappy lives.  We all have unhappy periods and horrible things happen to most of us.  But most of us do not enjoy feeling sad, miserable, neglected, abused, or any of the other negative emotions and most of us want to feel better.  One is left with the inescapable impression that Professor Furedi is unhappy and that it may be a blessing that he is not going to be teaching happiness any time soon.

Still, in the meantime, to fill the vacuum, I will suggest an approach, called the “Human Givens” which I think makes a great deal of sense.   It has much in common with Mr Seldon’s 10-point programme.  A UK school of psychology, Mindfields College, teaches the ideas of the Human Givens Institute which grew out of earlier research conducted by Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrell into why some methods of therapy worked and others did not.  They identified a list of Human Givens or physical and emotional needs which all humans share, and a further list of the tools or resources that humans have been given with which to ensure they obtain those needs.

The Human Givens

Emotional needs include:

  • Security — safe territory and an environment which allows us to develop fully
  • Attention (to give and receive it) — a form of nutrition
  • Sense of autonomy and control — having volition to make responsible choices
  • Being emotionally connected to others
  • Feeling part of a wider community
  • Friendship, intimacy — to know that at least one other person accepts us totally for who we are, “warts ‘n’ all”
  • Privacy — opportunity to reflect and consolidate experience
  • Sense of status within social groupings
  • Sense of competence and achievement
  • Meaning and purpose — which come from being stretched in what we do and think.

The Resources

  • The ability to develop complex long term memory, which enables us to add to our innate knowledge and learn
  • The ability to build rapport, empathise and connect with others
  • Imagination, which enables us to focus our attention away from our emotions, use language and problem solve more creatively and objectively
  • A conscious, rational mind that can check out emotions, question, analyse and plan
  • The ability to ‘know’ — that is, understand the world unconsciously through metaphorical pattern matching
  • An observing self — that part of us that can step back, be more objective and be aware of itself as a unique centre of awareness, apart from intellect, emotion and conditioning
  • A dreaming brain

I think Thoreau is saying much the same thing.  Happiness is a by-product of living a good life, rather than an end-in-itself, and we can learn what a good life is from emulating those from whom happiness radiates if they are gracious enough to impart some of their wisdom to us.


The Well-being Institute, University of Cambridge

The Human Givens Institute

Martin Seligmann, Authentic Happiness

Aristotle and Happiness, Stanford University