Sunday, 15 February 2015

We're all going on a soma holiday. On the teaching of happiness.

"you do look glum! What you need is a gramme of soma."

Many years ago I sang in a folk choir at church (I'm guessing that any last vestiges of my street credibility are now gone). One of our standards was a song called "The Happy Song" - it's lyrics were along these lines:

People ask why I sound so happy
And why I always sing a happy tune
It's only happy songs they hear in heaven
I'm singing so that God can hear me too

And so on in that vein all to one of those annoyingly cheery and catchy tunes essential to modern hymns (or 'Praise Songs' as I believe they're known now). The whole message of the song - and I can't vouch for the theology here - is that God wants us to be happy so dammit we're going to be happy by singing this song.

In the years since I was last caught singing "The Happy Song" the world's attitude to happiness has evolved into something of an industry. We have Bhutan's 'gross national happiness' (unless of course you smoke or happen to be from the Nepali minority). We had the flirtation of David Cameron with happiness measures as an alternative to dull old 'gross domestic product'. And we have a whole area of pretty dodgy academic study into 'happiness' led by former New Labour cheerleader, Lord Layard.

Now Lord Layard has teamed up with everyone's favourite health fascist, Lord Darzi to publish a really important study and to call for every child in the world to be taught how to be happy.

Children of all ages should be given an hour’s “happiness lessons” every week to nurture their development and stop schools behaving as “exams factories,” a major report will warn this week.

Indeed the good Lords argue that this sort of teaching must be given "the same attention as reading and writing". Indeed, the Lords say, our schools, far from being the happy and smiling places they should be, have become stress-filled exam factories full of children in need of counselling. So therefore we should teach children a set of approved 'lifeskills' and have counsellors on tap in case little Johnny or Mary get a bit sad.

The problem with this (and the term "well-rounded" is thrown around here) is two-fold. Firstly, we don't send children to school to spend an hour-a-week "discussing their emotions, setting positive life goals, and learning how to cope with everyday pressures and social media". And secondly - as teacher and education writer Tom Bennett has observed - one of the lifeskills that children need to learn is that some stuff is very hard and pretty stressful:

The business of education intrinsically requires many actions that are, dare I breathe it, difficult. Learning is hard work; better learning is often very hard work indeed. Nobody became a Professor of Electronics by playing the Xbox. There are often fun ways of learning, and if you’re good at your job, you’ll be good at implementing them. But there is often the point where you concede, willingly, that in order to get anything done, then elbow grease must be applied. 

Rather than making clear that learning how to do arithmetic and geometry is both essential and hard, we allow children to believe that there's a cop out - "I'm excused your hard maths lesson sir, my counsellor says it's too stressful for me".

Imagine a world where a vaguely defined happiness is deemed to be the primary aim. Not the rollercoaster, football supporter sort of happiness - ecstasy at Adrian's penalty to defeat Everton in the cup is replaced with a deep and abiding gloom at the team's abject surrender to West Brom. Rather it's a soma sort of happiness - a lowest common denominator contentment:

“Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the overcompensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn't nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.” 

It is a misplaced idea that human children lack the strength to deal with the stress of taking examinations and the expectations of family, friends and society in general. This is not to say that some children really do struggle with the pressure but to observe that, of the 700,000 or so young people who take GCSEs each year, only a handful really need help.

Instead of focusing on identifying the child with a problem, what Layard and Darzi propose is a vague sort of new age version of sitting in a circle of hands singing Kum Ba Yah.

...schools must address the emotional and spiritual needs of their children, as well as their intellectual development...

The effect of all this isn't to make for stronger adults or a better society but rather is to gentle young people - in one respect in the original meaning of the word:  "touch (a person or animal) gently, typically in order to make them calmer or more docile". But it might also be in the brutal manner of Robert Jordan's 'Wheel of Time':

When a man is severed it is referred to as gentling. This term came about sometime after the Age of Legends and reflects the view that male channelers are like wild animals (due to their eventual madness) that must be controlled.

The world that Layard and Darzi want is a place where risk is eliminated, where challenge and assertiveness are sins, and where (and I'm grateful to Andy Bower on Twitter for this) narcissism and introspection are seen as essential 'life skills'. This sort of society is one where a benign, motherly state holds contented citizens to her bountiful bosom, where those citizens are discouraged - even forbidden - from doing things that might result in hurt or upset, and where the greatest achievement is a contented nothingness, a sort of perpetual infanthood.

This is the world of prizes for all, of dumbed down exams everyone passes, where games don't have winners and in which people look to the state's supposed bounty before their own enterprise. It's a world of citizen's income where folk can live out their lives as supine drones contributing nothing except the contented humming of "The Happy Song". It is a profoundly depressing prospect, a world where edge, excitement, speed, risk and challenge are frowned on - where they're not actually banned.

The object of government isn't to smooth and still everything so no-one is ever unhappy but rather to create the circumstances where we can, in the words of the American Declaration of Independence, engage in the 'pursuit of happiness'. If my happiness and pleasure comes from things that are risky that's my business. If I choose to do something hard, dull and stressful because of the happiness it will bring me in the future, again that is my business. But it is no business of government to, in effect, declare some things too stressful, too hard. Nor is it the business of government to pretend that a successful life can be conducted without risk, stress and difficulty because that is quite simply a lie.


1 comment:

asquith said...

Decided to forego my usual lengthly and flatulent comment style and issue a one-number response.