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The Search for Happiness: Tolstoy, Bhutan and the United Nations

20/03/2013 09:24 GMT | Updated 18/05/2013 10:12 BST

In Tolstoy's fable of The King and the Shirt, the king's physicians gather round their ailing ruler in an attempt to find a cure for his mystery illness. After much discussion, one of them suggests that they set out to find the shirt of a happy man. "If we can find a happy man on this earth, and offer his shirt to the king to wear," the physician says, "our king will be cured."

This time last year, the United Nations declared that 20 March 2013 would be the first International Day of Happiness, and would "promote happiness as a universal goal and aspiration in the lives of human beings around the world". The tiny nation of Bhutan played the role of the physician, suggesting that the search for genuine happiness might be the cure the international community so desperately needs.

In other versions of the philosophical tale, it is the king's son who needs to be cured, as he spends his days gazing aimlessly out of the window. Recently, I was facilitating a workshop that was designed to explore happiness, empathy and compassion with a class of 13-year-olds. We imagined we were the king's messengers searching the land for a happy person. Would such a person exist? What would he or she look like?

After a thorough search, the teenagers imagined that they had found not one but three happy people: one with lots of friends and family, who was the most popular choice; another who was smiling for no obvious reason--she won a couple of supporters; and a clown, who was chosen by one member of the group. It was interesting that no one came up with a happy person who was rich, famous or powerful, like the king himself.

The pupils did not bother looking for a shirt, but instead decided to take their three happy people back to the king's palace so they could share their secrets for happiness with him. This was their advice: "Why not relax?" "Look on the bright side." "Make friends, have a family." "Be open and attentive to everyone's needs."

The UN's Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, would no doubt be encouraged by the last of these statements, as his message on this first International Day of Happiness calls on us to make a commitment to inclusive and sustainable human development and helping others. So, too, would Mark Williamson and his colleagues at Action for Happiness, who are leading the celebrations and inviting everyone to pledge to create more happiness in the world.

As an educator, I have sometimes wondered whether we need the happiness agenda. Don't we already have plenty of great visionary principles to learn about, and work towards? Human rights, the alleviation of poverty, sustainable development?

From an education perspective, however, the subject of happiness is interesting because it begins at home. It invites everyone to take care of themselves, both physically and mentally. And from my experience of giving space to teenagers so they can reflect on what happiness means for them, I have found that if they have a chance to ponder long enough about their own needs, they naturally move on to thinking about the needs of others.

The focus on our common humanity is not new in education. The theme of happiness is just one way to explore our relationship with others, pointing out that everyone has a unique way of experiencing suffering and well-being, and it is this very commonality that unites us.

But it does not stop there. A key dimension of the search of happiness is its economic and political implications, as we investigate whether policies can be based on comprehensive well-being indicators, rather than focusing solely on growing the economy. Findings such as the fact that mental health is the biggest single factor affecting happiness in any country bring a fresh perspective on our usual way of thinking.

So actually, happiness is a great way to explore the whole array of human dilemmas with young people. Five-year-olds can understand it; 13-year-olds can talk about it.

Let's hope we adults can also do something about it.

In Tolstoy's tale, the king's messengers eventually found a man who considered himself happy. He had a roof over his head, food on his plate and had accomplished a good day's work. The only thing was, he was so poor he did not have a shirt to give to the king.

Find out more about the first World Happiness Report to the United Nations by John Helliwel, Richard Layard and Jeffrey Sachs. And make a pledge for the well-being of human beings around the world, including yourself.