It has been suggested that there should be compulsory happiness lessons in all schools. I’ve seen a few negative reactions to this on Twitter, such as those from @tstarkey, and @SimonMagus (who called the idea “dangerous rubbish”), and so far I’ve not seen any positive ones. I can immediately see many reasons to reject the idea, but at the same time, I’m not convinced it’s wholly a bad suggestion.

To start with, here are the reasons why it could indeed be a “rubbish” plan. Firstly, and I think most importantly, my hunch would be that happiness lessons wouldn’t actually work. By this I mean that I strongly doubt whether they would (in their suggested form) result in happier students. This is because it seems to be the case that when we have an aim of inculcating attitudes or skills that should span all areas of life (such as critical thinking skills, attitudes towards sex, bodies, and relationships, or high standards of literacy) then teaching about these things in segregated blocks of time simply doesn’t result in that desired end being achieved to a very high degree. It seems, from what I’ve read, that lessons in critical thinking do not actually achieve the desired end of students becoming real critical thinkers – or even if they do work to an extent, then a greater improvement could’ve been achieved through normal subject-based lessons, which incorporate subject-appropriate skills. (I apologise that I can’t reference anything here; to be honest, I’m writing based on the impressions I’ve gathered from general reading of blogs, the TES, articles posted on Twitter, personal experience, and so on.) Similarly, despite the fact that students receive more sex and relationships education now than in previous decades, it doesn’t seem like the (presumably) desired end of fewer teenage pregnancies, healthier attitudes towards relationships, and more respect for people and their bodies has in fact been achieved. The NSPCC recently noted that over 40% of teenage girls have felt pressurized into engaging in sexual activities, for example. (Perhaps I’m being unfair on sex ed. lessons, and I’m prepared to be convinced otherwise, but that’s a debate for another day.) Finally, as far as I can tell, if only English teachers require students to write properly, then students understandably start to compartmentalise; I’ve certainly (and frustratingly) heard students say things like, “But punctuation doesn’t matter. We’re not in an English lesson!” If, therefore, students were ‘taught’ how to be happy and to talk about their emotions in a one-hour session once a week, I have more than a sneaking suspicion that they wouldn’t actually become happier; or if they did become slightly happier, it wouldn’t be the most efficient way of achieving this aim.

The second, and related, reason why I think they could be a very bad idea is that if they’re not effective, then they’re a huge and immoral waste of extremely valuable teaching-time. I don’t think this needs any further explanation, other than to note that it’s a double whammy: not only could an hour a week be wasted on such lessons, but it’s an hour that another subject has lost, because the time has to come from somewhere.

The third argument against happiness lessons, as I see it, is that they’re potentially (not definitely!) going to teach students things that make them actively less happy. Some suggestions that are supposed to make people happier are (from what I’ve seen) quite self-centred and sometimes even vain or narcissistic. (“Unhappy with your body? Buy this new product and you’ll be happier!”) I know this isn’t a terribly strong argument (hence it coming third), but it’s a possibility. Given that humans have had many different ideas about how to achieve happiness over the last few thousand years and that we haven’t all come to a solid conclusion about it yet, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to be wary of the Government saying, “This is how to be happy! We have The Answer, and now you must teach it!” They’ve already told us specifically what values we have to teach, and that we must label them ‘British,’ so this scenario doesn’t seem too far-fetched to me at the moment.

Do I think, therefore, that if all schools had to set aside one hour a week for all students to be taught how to be happy that it would be a good and effective use of time? No, probably not.

The thing is…[confession time]…I already teach ‘happiness lessons.’ As in (I imagine) most if not all classes, there’s unhappiness, insecurity, low self-esteem, broken relationships, and apathy about life in my form, and I do in fact use some of my time with my them each week to teach them, basically, how to be happy. This is a relatively recent undertaking, and I’m not sure yet whether it will bear any fruit, but there is a need for it, and I can’t just ignore it and do nothing. Like I say, it’s not just my form that needs it, either; it does seem that a whole range of schools could do with somehow instilling greater levels of happiness in their students. Whether it’s private ‘exam factory’ style schools that leave students with unbearable feelings of pressure and isolation, schools where there’s a lack of community cohesion, schools where there’s bullying, schools where many students have unstable family lives and difficult backgrounds, or schools where students are under the impression that the sole point of education is to get a job and earn money; surely all of them, in their own ways, could do with taking action to improve the students’ happiness? And, given that I do believe that the purpose of education is to enable the true flourishing of each individual, I do believe that it’s part of the purpose of school to nurture true happiness.

In the few minutes I have each week, therefore, for what has inadvertently become ‘happiness lessons,’ I’m working through a course that I put together myself, but which is based very heavily on Aristotle’s virtue ethics, the ethical theory of natural moral law, and various Christian writers including C.S. Lewis. I do stress to my students that this is only one way of looking at things, and that there’s certainly no proof for these ideas (as most of them can’t be proven, or disproven for that matter, in a scientific sense), and I make it clear that they can take or leave whatever they like from it. The course itself basically follows this line of thinking:

  • Who you are:
    • All humans share a common human nature. There’s something that makes them human, and something that makes them the same as each other in some significant but ultimately indefinable way. This human nature is fundamentally good – not perfect, because everyone makes mistakes, but more good than bad.
    • Each human, at the same time, is utterly unique.
    • Each person has a ‘nature’ to fulfill. Some things are the same as for everyone else, because they share in human nature, and some things are unique to them, because they’re unique.
    • Each person has a longing to be truly and fully known, and truly and fully loved (by at least one other person). This is part of being human, sharing in human nature.
    • We all recognise that the feeling of ‘not really being yourself’ is indefinable, but unpleasant.
    • You can only be known and loved (and therefore fulfill that longing) if you’re real with people. If you’re not yourself, then there’s always a mask or façade, and you’ll never feel known, and therefore you’ll never feel happy. You’ll always have that feeling of ‘not really being yourself.’
    • You can only be yourself, and be known and loved as yourself, if you’re in relationships with people, e.g. friendships, family relationships, relationships in community, romantic relationships.
    • So, being yourself means being fully you, and fulfilling your unique but also shared human nature, in relationships with others.
    • All unkind things that people do are a result of them not being fully, truly themselves. They’re trying to meet the need for love in some way that doesn’t actually work; for example, they might show off about their material possessions, put others down to make themselves seem better in some way, or leave people out of social activities so that they feel more secure in their own circle of friends.
    • In other words, if everyone were truly, fully themselves all the time, there would be no unhappiness other than that caused by nature (e.g. diseases, accidents). This isn’t possible, because no one’s perfect – but in theory, it’s the case.
  • How to be yourself:
    • Firstly, note that to be truly yourself is scary, because you know deep down that if you’re rejected, you’re really rejected. It’s not just your ‘mask’ that’s rejected. It means making yourself vulnerable, and allowing for the possibility that you could be really hurt.
    • To be truly yourself, you need certain characteristics, because they’ll help you fulfill your own nature. These characteristics are called virtues.
    • Virtues such as patience, courage, integrity, curiosity, diligence, and justice will help anyone to be themselves.
    • Empathy is an important virtue that should be actively cultivated too, because it will help you to remember that just as it’s good but scary for you to be yourself, it’s also true of everyone else in the world too.
    • Humility is also important, because it involves recognising that you’re valuable, unique, and fundamentally good, while also imperfect, and that you’re worth neither more nor less than any other human being.
  • Overall:
    • Everyone has a true self, and therefore also a way in which they will fulfil their nature. If you’re fully yourself, you will be fulfilled. This means you’ll be happy.
    • The way to achieve happiness is to cultivate virtues, and to become in practice the kind of person that you truly are ‘inside.’

There are undeniably lots of philosophical difficulties with the course I’ve outlined, but that’s true of anything (I was going to say ‘anything to do with happiness’ and then thought ‘anything non-scientific,’ and then settled on just ‘anything!’), and I do outline the difficulties to the class as we go; they’ve really enjoyed the discussions. For example, we’ve discussed whether there is a way of defining a human being; whether there is really a ‘self;’ whether human nature (if it exists) is mostly good, bad, or neutral; and as we work through the course, we’ll discuss whether or not pleasure and happiness are the same thing; how you could decide what virtues were necessary or good; and so on.

The point is, I believe that these sessions – which could well be termed ‘happiness lessons’ – are really worthwhile. It’s got the students thinking about who they are, and who they want to be, and I do personally believe that the ideas above would indeed lead to happiness in all people, if everyone put them into practice. You could, therefore, be forgiven for assuming that I think the DfE’s idea of lessons in happiness is a good thing.

Ultimately though, I don’t, partly because as I said at the beginning, if you want a particular attitude or approach to be applied widely, students need to encounter these ideas from all different angles, and not in one little separated block of time. I happen to have a little block of time each week where I can cover whatever I like with my form, and so I use it for this. It’s not the ideal situation, though. That would be for all students to be taught philosophy and ethics (whether ultimately examined or not) from Y7 onwards, and these lessons would incorporate the ideas outlined above; indeed, if I were a Head, I would aim for my whole school to run in line with these ideas! The entire school would revolve around flourishing, being yourself, being happy through virtue, relationships, self-discipline, community, and real service. (I know that some schools are already like this, which is wonderful!) But lessons in how to be happy in and of themselves? No. They would not be on the timetable.

Fundamentally, the reason is actually this: as is now clear, as far as I’m concerned, the way to become happy is to become virtuous, good, and yourself. Being knowledgeable, curious, empathetic, generous, and so on, will make you happy. Therefore, the best way to facilitate happiness in students is to spend time allowing them to develop these virtues. What kind of activities might do this, I wonder? Well, perhaps rigorous academic lessons, for one thing, or sessions in drama, music, charity, or sport!

Two final thoughts: firstly, which of the following things help improve young people’s confidence and body image more? Regular seminars on body confidence, and watching Dove adverts, and Gok Wan, and discussions about which parts of your body you should love the most? Or alternatively, gaining confidence overall, through being a fulfilled, strong, principled person of integrity, who has skills, hobbies, knowledge, and good relationships with others? Don’t get me wrong; I think Dove and Gok have done very good things! But I don’t think they’re the best solution to the problem of low self-esteem, body dysmorphic disorder, and so on.

Secondly, C.S. Lewis used the analogy of seeking good health in relation to the building of society; I think his words could equally be applied to the search for happiness:

 “Health is a great blessing, but the moment you make health one of your main, direct objects you start becoming a crank and imagining there is something wrong with you. You are only likely to get health provided you want other things more – food, games, work, fun, open air.”

(Mere Christianity, Chap.10)