Can Happiness be Taught?

Should happiness and fulfillment be subjects on the school curriculum? Is this a holistic way forward, or a case of “experts colonising our internal life”?

In this opener to a public debate on whether happiness can be taught, Anthony Seldon presents arguments in favour of bringing happiness and fulfilment explicitly into the school curriculum and Frank Furedi rails against “experts who seek to colonise our internal life”.

This debate seems to be in the air at the moment, wherever you turn. Do we have a right to happiness? How do we get it? Is there any sense at all in making this side effect of living an engaged life a purpose in itself?

I found myself agreeing with both sides at once. Seldon emphasises that education is run by the government, universities and employers, all demanding quantifiable “improvements”, better results, a better product, and asks where is consideration of children as whole people?

If, as he states, “depression, self-harming and anxiety among students are reaching epidemic proportions”, and “So are drinking and drug-taking”, then it would indeed seem that young people are being neglected on some non-academic, maybe emotional or spiritual levels. They have not developed better coping strategies, and whole areas of themselves may have gone unnoticed.

Certainly as a counsellor I would say that these other areas of life, to do with relationships, communication, emotions, creativity, and spirit, or meaning, can be found, investigated, accepted, and other coping strategies can be created which lead to a much fuller and more satisfying engagement with life. But this is not the same thing as “teaching schoolchildren how to live autonomous lives” in order to “increase the chances of avoiding depression, mental illness and dependency when they are older”, as Seldon advocates.

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Is being taught to be autonomous not a contradiction in terms? While the positive psychology movement pioneered by Martin Seligman and developments in neuroscience have discovered and researched many techniques and resources to improve peoples’ “wellbeing”, whether these can be “taught” to pupils in the hierarchical environment of school is highly debatable. What does seem worthwhile (and backed up by research) are breathing techniques and the positive effects of exercise on the brain. These can surely form a part of normal physical education lessons.

Remembering back to my own school days I am pretty certain that a lesson on a subject such as “how to organise their rooms and possessions to give them a sense of order” would come across as a patronising and laughable waste of time. Learning how to foster friendships likewise just seems embarrassing.

What matters is the actual facilitative attitude of staff, and what can heal relationships is actual engagement with them, not learning “about” them in an instrumental way. There are already periods in which classes and their form teacher, who knows them well, meet together. If the teachers are experienced in conflict resolution and are aware, engaged individuals, then the students will be able to try out healthy relationships in a naturally arising way. If teachers are too demoralised and exhausted to do any such thing, or be any such way, then we see where the resources should be spent — not on new courses on emotions but on looking after staff and removing the pressure of constant inspection, testing and paperwork which have nothing to do with the spirit of teaching.

Moving into my own personal utopia, unstructured groups in which students and teachers related to each other on equal terms, attended by people who were motivated to do so and free to choose, might have far more genuine and far reaching effects than a compulsory lesson. What they throw up, of course, may not be endless vistas of well being.

Which brings me on to Furedi, who argues that:

…in our vapid emotional era, it is worth recalling that a good life is not always a happy one. People are often justified in being unhappy about their circumstances and surroundings. Discontent and ambition have driven humanity to confront and overcome the challenges they face.

Furedi advocates an outward looking attitude, engaging with the world rather than making the self an object for examination, going as far as to suggest that “children are highly suggestible, and the more they are required to participate in wellbeing classes, the more they will feel the need for professional support”. When engaged with learning and life, he argues, when interacting with challenges, with the things we learn, with others, we may well feel good. This is a natural response to experience and not a skill that can be measured and applied.

There seems little room in Ferudi’s argument for a degree of internally generated “alrightness” or emotional resilience, the kind that typically comes about through knowing and accepting as much of our experience as possible. He refers to the way that a superficial focus on “feeling good” may obscure existential and moral issues, which if ignored, I would argue, are bound to impede a real deep sense of being alright as you are.

Our experience suggests that the way to self acceptance is a rocky and individual road, and the feeling of happiness is far from a formula or a predictable response. Often the most carefully planned “good times” feel a little fake, whereas a spontaneous, unplanned party with all a total mismatch of people can suddenly bring joy — the sort of joy that arises in your average child’s heart when they get out of school at the end of another long day. You don’t need to teach them that.

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