In pursuit of happiness - RSA

In pursuit of happiness

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  • Education
  • Schools
  • Behaviour change
  • Mental health
  • Communities
  • Health & wellbeing

‘Happiness’ is a concept that I seem to be increasingly encountering. It is the subject of a piece of work that my colleagues in Arts and Society are involved with in collaboration with the Happy Museum Project, an initiative that is encouraging UK museums to support transition to well-being and sustainability in our society.

The Happy Museum Project was born from psychological research suggesting that happiness and well-being are not related to material wealth. On the contrary, an emphasis on material wealth has led to a focus on the short term, causing the majority to feel pressure to “keep up” and leading to more unhappiness. Key to a sustainable notion of well-being, according to the Happy Museum Project, is what they call ‘support learning for resilience’, which encourages learning that is curiosity driven, engaging, informal and fun and can build resilience, creativity and resourcefulness.

Of course this is not a wholly new concept. We're becoming increasingly familiar with research that shows that over a certain comfort threshold, increased wealth doesn't correlate with general satisfaction, take Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness index, for example, which was developed in the 1970s. Now the UK government has started to focus on the notion of happiness, with the announcement of the National Wellbeing Project in 2010, which will see them attempt to measure how happy Britons are and use the results to shape government policy.

One area where happiness does not seem to have been a central consideration however is in education. Take the new Ofsted framework, which requires inspectors to place emphasis on behaviour, safety and teaching but makes no mention of emotional wellbeing, sociability and support. The aim here may have been to concentrate on the essentials and perhaps the more quantifiable elements, but this only reinforces the lack of regard with which these qualities are held.

Plans for performance related pay for teachers could be taken as another example of overlooking the importance of happiness. Not only is this measure likely to increase pressure on teachers, making them less happy, but their performance is likely to be measured solely on academic results, as it must be, and not well-being. This is not to say that the two will always be unrelated. For example it seems obvious that if a child is taught in a way that is exciting, fun, collaborative and supportive then they will not only be happier but will be more engaged and therefore attain better results. But this policy risks increasing pressure on students to achieve academically, leading to more teaching to the test and so risking children’s well-being.

Additionally some proponents of performance related pay for teachers base their arguments on economics; a good teacher = a good education (good grades) = a good job = more money. Not only in the current climate is this not necessarily the case, as there are not enough good jobs for high achieving students, but if money doesn't make us happy then we shouldn’t be thinking only about education in these terms.

So I come back to the Happy Museum Project’s central tenet – our culture must focus on the long-term and sustainable benefits of its actions. Whilst achieving good academic results may lead to happiness in the short term, it can no longer guarantee a child’s future well-being in the face of unemployment, recessions and climate change, although perhaps it can help. My point is not to belittle academic achievement, but to emphasise that like so many things, we just cannot be sure. What we can be sure of is that having confidence, emotional stability and resilience, will help this generation of students to survive this uncertainty and to cope better, if not always be happy.

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  • unfortunately for so many of us today the 'comfort threshold' beyond which we can aspire to 'happiness' is itself tantalisingly out of reach, and the governments lame wellbeing survey a distracting smoke screen.