Thursday, April 29, 2010

Should schools and universities teach students how to be happy?

This question arose from the education chapter of ‘The politics of happiness’, by Derek Bok. I wrote some general comments about this book in my last post. Bok’s views about education deserve further consideration, however, not least because he was president of Harvard for a large slice of his professional career.

In reading the education chapter I was particularly interested to see how the author would deal with evidence that education, like economic growth, has little direct effect on happiness in the United States. (Australian evidence suggests that university level qualifications have a negative effect on happiness.) Bok’s views on education are somewhat more positive than his views on economic growth, but he is highly critical of the weight that education policies currently give to acquisition of vocational skills.

The first paragraph of the chapter sets the tone for the discussion that follows:
‘People often misjudge what will bring them enduring happiness or pain. It stands to reason, then, that any serious attempt to increase well-being should give a prominent place to education. Schools and universities are the obvious institutions to assume this responsibility by trying to cultivate interests and supply the knowledge that will help young people make more enlightened choices about how to live their lives’ (p. 156).

I would have liked to see recognition in that paragraph of the responsibilities of parents and of young people (who should be accepting responsibility for their own lives by the time they get to university). But I guess that most parents hope that the schools their children attend will somehow help them learn how to make enlightened choices about how to live their lives.

Does that mean that the results of happiness research should be taught in schools? Bok toys with that idea. He notes that one program based on happiness research, which was presented to school students by Martin Seligman, succeeded in cutting the incidence of depression in half over a two- or three year period. In the end, however, he comes down against teaching happiness in schools on the grounds that teachers who are not adequately prepared to present such material could give students a distorted view based on pop psychology. I suppose that view is wise. I think it would certainly be unwise for time spent on happiness studies to be at the expense of literacy and numeracy skills, and the development of skills in acquiring knowledge.

Most kids probably pick up more than enough pop psychology already from various sources, including their teachers, sports coaches and the self-help section of the local bookshop. If they are lucky they might look on a different shelf at the bookshop and find something more informative, like ‘Stumbling on happiness’ by Daniel Gilbert. When they find difficulty coping with life they might also get some helpful coaching from a competent therapist. To put these thoughts less cynically, while I doubt whether it is appropriate for happiness to be taught in schools, it would be good if children could be mentored by people whose knowledge of positive psychology was not gained solely by reading best sellers on such topics as the power of positive thinking and the secret of becoming an instant success at everything you might like to do.

Professor Bok is more strongly supportive of the study of the science of happiness being included in higher education. He has some reservations, however, about the inclusion of practical exercises to help students bring about ‘a personal transformation’, on the grounds that this ‘may strike some people as uncomfortably close to indoctrination’ (p. 172). It certainly strikes me that way. I think it makes sense to draw a firm line between what is taught as part of a curriculum and practical exercises in self-help that may be offered as an extra-curricula activity.

As noted earlier, Bok is highly critical of the current emphasis in education on acquiring vocational skills. He suggests that more research is required to understand what undergraduate experiences tend to be associated with greater happiness in later life. Our lack of understanding of such matters was highlighted to me in a recent paper by Michael Dockery which indicates that young people in Australia who experience higher education switch from having relatively high to relatively low levels of happiness (compared to others of the same age) at about the time they complete their degrees (LSAY, ‘Education and happiness in the school to work transition’, 2010). A variety of explanations are possible, including the development of unrealistic expectations at universities and a change in reference group following graduation. Andrew Norton's theory is that the graduates become unhappy because they are moving from an intellectually stimulating environment where they have a great deal of freedom to one they have much less discretion over what they are doing.

I think Australian universities should be giving priority to research to shed light on the reasons for this decline in happiness. Some young people may begin to wonder whether the sacrifices they make to attend university are worthwhile when they find out that they will probably end up less happy than their contemporaries who attain less advanced vocational qualifications.
Winton Bates

Since writing this I have been reminded that Martin Seligman has been involved in a major experiment in teaching happiness at Geelong Grammar School. He recently worked and lived with the teaching staff for six months preparing them to teach positive psychology. A transcript of Kerry O'Brien's ABC interview with Seligman in December 2009 can be found here.


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Thought Bubble Ten said...

Hi Winton! Thanks for referring me to this post:). It's always useful to know how others are thinking about this subject.

If we agree that everything we attempt to do and acquire in life is ultimately because we believe that it will make us happy or happier (including the so-called 'mistakes' we regret in hindsight), then I think it's critical that we give happiness our concerted effort and attention.

Those of us who have a deeper understanding and experience of happiness and its causes i.e. the nature of mind, can help others come to this key realization.

Happiness (and there are several expressions of it ranging from quiet stillness to raucous excitement) is not the 'random' elusive thing that many people believe it to be simply because they do not understand what it is and how it 'happens'.

Happiness is the natural state of mind that we can intentionally and methodically access with proven skills and tools, mindfulness and mental observation being some of them.

When we more fully grasp the meaning and nature of happiness, we will be less likely to attribute it to the external effects of our thinking including the amount of money, qualifications and other acquisitions we have (or don't have) and which we preoccupy ourselves with.

Winton Bates said...

TBT: I think you are on the right track - as usual :)

I think everyone should be encouraged to think a little about the meaning of happiness. It would help just to give people some exposure to different views.

Happiness is a positive feeling. The findings of surveys which ask people what they were doing the previous day and how happy they were suggest, not surprisingly, that people are most happy when they are socializing.

Happiness is satisfaction with life. The surveys asking people how satisfied they are with life as a whole confirm the importance of relationships and a sense of achievement as well as economic security and health.

Then there is the idea that happiness depends on developing our truly human capacities. I think that relates to our ability to reflect on our own lives and our attitudes. As you say, that is about mindfulness and mental observation.

Thought Bubble Ten said...

So much of our frustration and sense of futility is the result of putting the cart before the horse - doing things to make us happy (which offers momentary relief rather than re-establish our natural/default state of happiness)instead of achieving things *as a result of* the happiness, joy, peace and bliss which we naturally have/are and can tap into if only we would give ourselves that time (and it doesn't have to be years in an ashram or on a secluded mountain top :)). 5 minutes a day would help circumvent the nervous pathways established by conditioned/neurotic thought/feeling patterns while creating new ones :)

Winton Bates said...

I agree with you, TBT. In some respects I am living proof that it is even possible for mature adults to circumvent the nervous pathways established by conditioned/ neurotic thought/ feeling patterns. I am also living proof of how easy it is to slip back into old ways of thinking.

However, I think we need to recognize where other people are coming from when they talk about the difficulty of changing personality. This post on neuroticism might be of interest to you.