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Is happiness overrated?

John Field and Kathryn Ecclestone disagree.


You can have your say below and any comments we receive will be passed on to John and Kathryn.

Dear Kathryn,

Happiness is one of the great human virtues, and we should promote it. Conversely, misery is – well, miserable, and it should be avoided.

So far, so banal, but it is astonishingly hard to translate this basic idea into practice. Tell people that government should promote happiness, and you face a torrent of ridicule. But tell people that your policies will put more money in our pockets, and the world will cheer.

The assumption that money is real world stuff, while happiness is fluffy bunny, is lazy and damaging. Happiness is not only desirable, but we now know that it can be measured in ways that are meaningful, and promoted in ways that are realistic. And we can go further: happiness offers us a more rational and sustainable goal for our shared lives than seeking ever more individual wealth.

So how do we promote happiness? Nel Noddings reports that people were puzzled when she told them that she was working on a book about education and happiness. Clearly, many people think that school or college must involve a little suffering. Perhaps so: being challenged can hurt. But education can and should promote happiness in the long term. Why bother with it otherwise?

Dear John,

It’s impossible to disagree that happiness is important, that governments should be concerned with it, or that educational settings should care about their participants’ happiness. Nevertheless, the idea that happiness offers a ‘more rational and sustainable goal for our shared lives than seeking ever more individual wealth’ is politically, philosophically and educationally troubling.

Of course, rapacious materialism is problematic. Yet it’s too easy for us with the crucial foundations of basic or comfortable levels of material well-being and good education to say these goals are less important than happiness.

There isn’t space here to engage with centuries of philosophical thought about what happiness is, how we get it, whether you can teach it, whether it transfers between cultures and life experiences, or whether you can measure it in any meaningful way. Yet these crucial questions don’t seem to trouble the growing numbers of economists, psychologists and promoters of programmes and interventions for well-being who claim all these things.

In the face of them, we need to ask a philosophical question: whether happiness is the most important goal or outcome of education, and an empirical one: what are the outcomes of the current deluge of measures and interventions in people’s happiness and well-being in schools, colleges and universities?

Dear Kathryn,

Of course we can measure happiness. Survey findings on happiness, or related outcomes like well-being and life satisfaction, are largely consistent over time and populations. They seem to correlate well with physical markers or behavioural indicators.

So Danes, sociable people and those in secure relationships tend to thrive, while the lonely, those in precarious occupations, and the highly stressed tend to be unhappy.

Anyone who questions our society’s obsession with measuring economic growth is accused of living in a comfortable dream world. But these findings are potentially valuable, and they can point us to other sources of misery than sheer poverty.

Philosophically, it seems to me entirely desirable that education should, on balance, promote happiness. Yet while schools and colleges have put a great deal of effort into tackling some big causes of unhappiness, such as bullying or substance abuse, there has not been the same energy in devising ways of promoting positive well-being. And I would add that happiness might also benefit from improved teacher well-being.

Sadly, I simply don’t agree that there is a ‘deluge’ of interventions in happiness and well-being across education. In England, the school inspection service has even dropped the word ‘well-being’ from its framework.

Dear John,

Yes, economists and psychologists have developed measures of people’s beliefs about their state of happiness. But I question whether these are valid and reliable, and whether they offer useful and effective ways forward in terms of interventions.

Being sociable and in stable relationships or good jobs are structural conditions rather than states that can be changed by teaching ‘postive well-being’, and even the results you cite are not as they seem. For example, married men tend to be happier than single men, married women are less happy than single ones! I remain unconvinced about the usefulness of surveys.

Your advocacy of positive well-being strategies has a lot of support. You assert that schools are not doing much, but there are many programmes and projects aiming to ’diagnose’ and then teach ‘skills’ or ‘capabilities’ such as resilience, stoicism, empathy, emotional literacy, optimism, altruism ( these are some of a very long list). Yet there is no convincing evidence of short-term (let alone long-term) good effect, questions about whether these things are skills at all, and ethical questions about some of the interventions.

Bigger questions remain about whether it is schools’ and government’s responsibility to promote happiness. Finally, promoting it and teaching it are not the same things.

Dear Kathryn,

Education can be crucial in securing many of the circumstances that help create a good life.

A good job is not automatically produced by taking an examination or a class, but both of those things can – and demonstrably do – help people get good jobs. And we have increasingly good, robust evidence to show that taking courses and qualifications makes people more sociable and resilient, and even helps them develop tolerance, which then affects their capacity for relationships.

So the evidence that education influences our well-being is far from unconvincing. I share some of your scepticism about happiness training, which I think often comes close to hokum, but that is quite another matter. As for your comment about the misery of married women and chirpiness of married men, I’d be very reluctant to claim that we can tell cause and effect!

As for the moral grounds of educating for well-being, what sorts of characteristics would we like education to promote? John Dewey thought education should be ‘the process of forming fundamental disposition, intellectual and emotional, toward nature and fellow-men’. He clearly thought this stance perfectly defensible on ethical grounds, and I think we should continue to go down this worthwhile road.

Dear John,

We started with the desirability of measuring happiness and developing positive well-being. You now say that much happiness training, which is rooted in these claims, is largely ‘hokum’! We agree there.

We’re now on different ground. No one could disagree that taking courses and taking part in education, makes people more resilient, emotionally literate etc. But are these direct goals and outcomes, or by products? The word ‘education’ masks this crucial distinction.

In the 19th century, philosopher John Stuart Mill spotted its importance after a major mental breakdown in his 30s when he changed his lifelong mission to make happiness a key goal of government:

‘Those only are happy … who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end.

‘Aiming in this way at something else, they find happiness by the way.... [ the things that create happiness] will not bear a scrutinizing examination. Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life.’

Kathryn Ecclestone
Kathryn Ecclestone is Professor of Education at the University of Sheffield
John Field
John Field is Professor of Lifelong Learning at the University of Stirling
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