THE BLOG

The Pressure of Happiness

26/06/2013 11:02 BST | Updated 25/08/2013 10:12 BST

On the face of it, Louise Thompson, structured-reality television personality and underwear model, and Dr Anthony Seldon, noted academic and Headmaster of Wellington College, probably don't have an awful lot in common.

But they do share one thing: a fixation with 'happiness'.

Seldon, a man I admire professionally for his uncanny ability to push his school to the very top of the news agenda, introduced what he has called 'happiness classes' to the timetable at Wellington in 2006. The move struck a chord with a public and media disenchanted by an education system based on grade inflation, league tables and bureaucracy. The principle was that a school should not only educate children to attain academic grades, but to achieve fulfilment in all aspects of their lives. I wholeheartedly agree.

But 'happiness classes' are not the answer.

To make my point, I turn to Louise Thompson. Fans of Made in Chelsea will be well aware that her time on television has been spent mostly in the desperate pursuit of happiness in her 'personal' life. (I hesitate to use the word 'personal', since millions of viewers have shared the experience with her, but hopefully you know what I mean...)

This desperation, as far as I am aware, has taken her through four men in two series, two of whom she claims to have loved, and one of whom (Spencer Matthews, the rogue) seemingly managed to make her cry every episode for a hundred years. Since falling in love with her most recent beau, poor little Louise has alternated from angry and tearful, to professing her supreme 'happiness'. Sometimes this profession of happiness has actually come while still angry and tearful. The word, in other words, doesn't seem to reflect the reality.

In fact, I think it may be part of the problem.

Louise isn't alone in her pursuit. Day after day the media tell us all we should be happy. The perfect job, partner, family and bank balance are all attainable, we are told. With just a few tweaks, we too can be 'happy'. We SHOULD be happy.

And it is this pressure which leads those who don't feel 'happy' to question why. If everyone else can achieve this zenith with such ease, why do I have doubts? Why do I struggle to pay my bills each month? Why do I feel remorse when I buy those shoes I don't need? Why is my relationship based on hard work and compromise and not romance and passion? Why is my job a chore and not a delight? Why does my belly increasingly resemble Jabba the Hut? (Maybe that's just me...)

Life is full of pressures, people make mistakes, and the defining characteristic of any person who Dr Seldon or Louise Thompson would describe as 'happy', would be that they experience very few of these pressures, and ask very few of these questions. Least of all, I would think, do they feel a pressure to be 'happy'. Instead, I imagine, they simply feel quite content.

Dr Seldon is, of course, intelligent enough to have recognised this. Which is why the lessons he describes to the media as 'happiness classes' are actually called 'well-being lessons' at Wellington. The focus is not on the pressure to achieve Louise's happiness, but on methods for dealing with this pressure, and for putting life into perspective. The course, from what I have read, addresses many of the concerns I have highlighted in this piece, and no doubt forms an important aspect of the all-round education that this country's great independent schools all seek to deliver.

Which brings me to my final question: why would Dr Seldon introduce a course intended to combat the pressure to achieve artificial happiness, and yet supply sound bites and quotes to the media which, if anything, add to it? Perhaps it is the simple enjoyment of seeing his name (and that of his school) promoted and discussed in the public eye. Perhaps he derives happiness from that.

Perhaps he and Louise Thompson have more in common than I thought.