No Shortcut

This is good bracing stuff.

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…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.

And one thing neither the world nor education needs more of is self-help with a veneer of academic respectability. It’s had lashings of that, via for instance the totem of ‘self-esteem’, and look how well that turned out – producing throngs of people with all too much self-esteem and all too little awareness of their own limitations. Positive psychology sounds unnervingly like more of the same.

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?

The tough questions and also the most interesting ones. For instance: if there were a happiness pill, would you take it? The answer is far from obviously yes, for the same sort of reason the answer is not obviously yes to questions like ‘if there were a pill that could make you write great poetry or play the cello like Rostropovich, would you take it?’ The idea may appeal for about a quarter of a second, but then when we think about it we realize we want our happiness and our accompishments or talents to mean something, which entails that they have to be the product of something, of something connected to our own efforts or experience or thought or all those. No, actually, we don’t want to just magically turn into another Keats or Mozart; what would be the point? We want to cover the ground that lies in between being our poor bare selves and whatever magical being we have it in us to become – we want to cover all the ground, ourselves, wide awake and bending every nerve. If we don’t do that, whatever we get at the end doesn’t belong to us, and it doesn’t mean anything; it’s just some sort of parlour trick. Away with it. Same with positive psychology.

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…And thus he insisted that happiness was an activity – because it requires skill and focus.

It’s the opposite of a magic pill; it’s the negation of a magic pill. A magic pill would block and prevent the need for activity, skill and focus, so the happiness it created would be just some sort of weird delusion (a trick of the Evil Demon, perhaps) rather than the real thing. It would be like taking a pill that would cause you to have won a marathon, without having actually run the 26 miles and with no memory of having done so. Not very rewarding.

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