Sunday, April 23, 2006

Happiness (Part 1) - Teaching Happiness

Last week the UK Newspapers were full of a story about a new subject being taught to 14-16 year olds - happiness.

The headmaster of Wellington College, Berkshire who is also a respected author, will teach his students how to be happy. The articles don't say exactly what will be included in the lessons, but two things are clear. First - although the head, Anthony Seldon is a historian - the lessons won't be a boring catalogue of the history of happiness, or even of the ingredients of happiness. They will be more reflective - students will think about their own talents, their own goals, how to deal with their negative emotions. Second, the inspiration comes from Postive Psychology - the new science of well-being and developing strengths.

So far so good. When I reflect on my own education, I detect two imbalances. One was between facts on the one hand and reflection and practice on the other. I learnt plenty of French words, but not how to speak and understand French. I learnt the names of kings and queens and battles, but didnt really reflect on what all this history meant. If that imbalance was about how I was taught, the second one was about the subjects I was taught. History, Geography, Biology and the rest all have their place - but there was very little about life skills, about developing the emotions, about philosophy, or psychology. What little there was came under "Religious Education" or "General Studies". That was in the 1970s, and things may be better now. But I know that many of my learning since then has been making up for lost time. I'm sure it would have been very beneficial for me if I had been tought about happiness when I was at school.

However ... I am not sure that positive psychology on its own is sufficient to learn about happiness. Psychology takes a given concept- such as happiness - and can help us learn about what research shows to be effective at enhancing it. What it doesnt do is help us understand what that concept really means in the first place. That's what philosophy is good at - helping to understand what concepts really mean, using a technique called "conceptual analysis". Psychology is also limited by its research methods. As psychologist Abraham Maslow famously said "If you've only got a hammer, you'll tend to treat every problem as a nail." One might add that if hammers are the cheapest tool you have, you might be tempted to use them rather than other tools that might expand your repertoirre. With positive psychology, the main research tool is self-reports (see for instance Using self-reports, you base everything on what ordinary people say about how happy they are. Again, philosophy provides an alternative perspective - what wise people have thought about what constitutes a happy and meaningful life.

I hope that the happiness training in the UK takes on board philosophical as psychological insights about how to be happy. So, you might well ask, how would I teach happiness? That's a question I will be pursuing in this and subsequent articles. For now, I'll just make a few observatiosn. First, regarding happiness and any other value or virtue (others include love, meaning of life, freedom, wisdom, compassion and authenticity) there are also three great questions to ask
1. What is it? (and maybe there are different flavours)
2. What value is to? (and what are its limitations)
3. How can it be enhanced? (in an individual and society)

The first question belongs to philosophy and the method of choice is conceptual analysis. The second question is also largely philosophical, though psychology will also be relevant to the extent that research shows one value (e.g.happiness) leads to another (e.g. altruism). The "how to" question, number 3, is mainly psychological, though politics and education are also highly relevant -as are 2 thousand years of thoughts of philosophers and religious thinkers. I really recommend bearing these three questions in mind about any value or virtue you are interested in, as you need to consider all 3 to get the complete picture. For example, if Anthony Seldon is only considering question 3 - about how happiness can be enhanced - then he may be missing what happiness really is, or its limitations.

In my next article on happiness, I will look at the first question - What is Happiness?

Exernal Links

Lessons in Life - Why I am Teaching Happiness

Top boarding school to give lessons in happiness

True happiness is more than feeling good

Monday, April 03, 2006

A short meditation on love

One of the highlights of the Viktor Frankl workshop previewed in the last post was a short meditation on love. It was so powerful, in a positive way, with several of the participants, that I'd like to share it with you.

In Man's Search for Meaning Frankl describes how such a meditation transformed an appalling ordeal into some moments of beauty and meaning. This is what Frankl writes:-

We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road running through the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbour's arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his hand behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: "If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don't know what is happening to us."

That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another on and upward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife's image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look then was more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise. A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth-that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world may still know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when a man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way-an honourable way-in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfilment. For the first time in my life, I was able to understand the words, "The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory." In front of me a man stumbled and those following him fell on top of him. The guard rushed over and used his whip on them all. Thus my thoughts were interrupted for a few minutes. But soon my soul found its way back from the prisoners existence to another world, and I resumed talk with my loved one: I asked her questions, and she answered; she questioned me in return, and I answered... My mind still clung to the image of my wife. A thought crossed my mind: I didn't even know if she were still alive, and I had no means of finding out (during all my prison life there was no outgoing or incoming mail); but at that moment it ceased to matter. There was no need to know; nothing could touch the strength of my love, and the thoughts of my beloved. Had I known then that my wife was dead, I think that I still would have given myself, undisturbed by that knowledge, to the contemplation of that image, and that my mental conversation with her would have been just as vivid and just as satisfying. "Set me like a seal upon thy heart, love is as strong as death."

We read this in class -as you have just read it. Then I asked people to imagine the following in their mind's eye:-

Focus on someone with whom you have experienced love, someone who appreciates you a great deal and whom you appreciate.
You could choose a romantic love, or a parent a child or close friend.
Focus on their smile and the inner beauty you see in them.
Feel the love and appreciation they have for you.
Now have an imaginary conversation with them.
Hear the appreciation and love you have for them.
Tell them what you feel about them.
Smile and enjoy the meaning you can gain from love.

Try this out for yourself and see if you experience the meaning and - Frankl's word - bliss that love can bring. Why not treat yourself to it on a daily basis. It not only helps you re-experience meaningful love - it will motivate you positively as well.