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Happiness Isn't Superficial, It's Vitally Important

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Happiness is increasingly being talked about and taken seriously at both national and international levels. A recent, and very encouraging, example was the United Nations International Day of Happiness, which was celebrated for the first time a couple of weeks ago.

Yet there are many commentators who are uncomfortable with all this talk of happiness. Since I introduced happiness classes at my school, Wellington College, seven years ago, we have been assailed on all sides from critics who think that what we are trying to do is shallow, impossible, or misguided. The fact that our academic standards have gone up very significantly year on year is difficult for the critics, but it has not stopped their withering hostility. I wish censorious commentators and academics would admit it: their hatred of happiness and those who try to promote it is a product of their own limited view of life rather than any kind of statement about the possibilities for and entitlement of all human beings.

So let me be clear that what I am trying to do as the head of my school is to maximise the chances for deepest happiness on the part of my students. Such happiness is achieved through fulfilment, through hard work and through leading a virtuous life. Politicians, administrators and educationalists who are shaping schools around the world are profoundly wrong in believing that exam success is the only metric of value. We are developing generations of dysfunctional and misguided products from our exam factory system.

The most risible criticism of all is that an education directed towards the discovery of happiness is superficial. Have the critics not read their Aristotle? One of our greatest priorities should be to help young people learn life skills and attitudes that are conducive to living a flourishing life and making a positive contribution to society; to help them discover that bringing happiness to others leads to a much deeper sense of fulfilment than any A grade or iphone ever could. Sadly, our current education system focuses too heavily on academic learning and attainment and not enough on education for life. And too often it fails to adequately support the many children who are struggling to cope with anxiety, stress and depression. As someone who experienced depression as a young person, it troubles me greatly to witness so much avoidable distress. That's why two years ago I helped set up Action for Happiness to promote positive routes to mental health and wellbeing for young and old alike.

At Wellington, our wellbeing classes include the teaching of resilience, based on the stoic idea that 'man is troubled not by things, but by his opinion of them' (following Epictetus). Students begin to understand that their thinking patterns have a profound impact upon their feelings and their behaviour. Resilience training helps people to tune in to their perception of situations and to learn to distinguish perception from fact. Over time, students become more aware of thinking patterns that are not helpful - which causes them excessive anxiety and procrastination, or animosity with others - and they learn to challenge those patterns of thought with evidence so that they can gain a more accurate and flexible perspective. They develop habits of mind that can help to avoid an unnecessary or unpleasant burden from emotion, or from thoughts and actions that, upon reflection, they might regret.

This isn't superficial. In fact it couldn't be more important, both for our young people and for society as a whole. Our education system should help children to develop the character traits that underpin a happy and meaningful life - including empathy, generosity, resilience and compassion. Because the values that our children learn today don't just shape their future lives, they determine the destiny of our society.