The pursuit of happiness

The United Nations recently published its latest World Happiness Report, in which the UK has fallen two places, from 17th to 19th. Not bad given our current cost of living fears combined with rising interest rates, sky-high inflation and energy costs. 

The report ranks countries according to six criteria that contribute to wellbeing: income, freedom, trust, healthy life expectancy, social support and generosity. All fine things to aspire to but a little statistically opportune for my liking: can happiness really be accurately and reliably measured in such a conveniently mechanistic way? 

As an educationalist, ‘what makes you happy?’ is surely one of the most important questions to ask, not least as it’s the number one thing most schools, and certainly most parents, want for their children. And yet it’s a question that’s been oddly neglected over the years, eclipsed by seemingly more important and relevant questions along the lines of ‘what gets you the best exam results/jobs/income?’

If you ask school pupils what they think will make them happy, most of them would probably identify future wealth as the key factor. In their minds, future wealth is strongly linked to a suitable career which is linked to a good university degree which is linked to an enviable set of exam results at school. Whilst there may well be some truth in this well-worn perception of linear causation, most of us with a little more life experience would probably disagree and I believe there are two reasons for this.

Firstly, the relationship between happiness and income is a spurious and complex one. There’s been quite a lot of research done in this area and the general conclusion is that happiness does increase income up to a subsistence level at which points one’s basic needs are met, after which the correlation breaks down as other factors become more relevant. Economics Professor Richard Layard of LSE takes this a step further, postulating that the positive correlation returns at higher levels of wealth when people are able to give money to others; something that makes them feel better about themselves. Layard concludes that the key to maximising national happiness is the distribution of wealth from those who have a lot to those who don’t have enough. 

Secondly, one must distinguish between what one thinks will make you happy and what actually makes you happy. Young people may think money will make them happy (probably induced by a lack of the resource when young) but when it comes to it, that ain’t necessarily so. When asked what genuinely makes them happy, most adults refer to less material things such as friendship, personal health, spending time with family and feelings of being loved and secure.

This is one of the key points made in Happiness by Design, an insightful and intelligent book written by Paul Dolan (another LSE professor). I have never read a self-help book before this, but I would recommend it to anyone interested in this area and particularly to those who want to be happier in life.

As a consistently happy person, with a relatively sunny and cheerful disposition, I found myself identifying with many of the traits that Dolan encourages us to adopt in the name of happiness. I listen to a lot of mellow classical music, my phone does not receive Facebook or other social media notifications, and I prefer to spend money on experiences rather than products. But am I happy because I adopt these behaviours, or do I adopt these behaviours because I am happy? Unfortunately, Happiness by Design will do little to dispel your concerns about causality. Though the book is evidence-based throughout, few of the references convincingly demonstrate causal relationships between behaviour and happiness.

The book starts by discounting ‘happiness’ per se as a fleeting and highly variable emotion which is almost impossible to measure, suggesting that terms such as life satisfaction or general contentment are more appropriate. Dolan then suggests that such things are achieved through a balance of pleasure and purpose. He states that we pay attention to what we think ought to make us happy – to our lofty judgments about a “meaningful life” – instead of moment-to-moment feedback about which activities actually bring us feelings of pleasure or purpose. I think most people would agree with that and yet many still tend to focus overly on one or the other, albeit inadvertently. 

The second half of the book concerns the importance of maximising our mental attention towards positive things that make us feel good and minimising the opposite. Dolan touches on a powerful idea: happiness need not be pursued, simply rediscovered. In other words, sources of pleasure and purpose are all around us, if only one knows where to look.

So how does all this information and research relate to the school context and promoting sustainable happiness in our students at Northampton High?

Firstly, I’ve always been a fan of the mantra ‘work hard, play hard’ and though I now often add ‘rest hard’ too, I believe that a balance of purpose – gained largely from academic work and achievement – and pleasure – gained from other activities both in and out of school – is essential for the happiness and wellbeing of students. It’s a simplistic distinction when one considers the entirety of what a busy Northampton High student gets up to but an important one to get right nevertheless.

Secondly, I have often told students in assemblies and otherwise that one of the great benefits of showing generosity, kindness and compassion to others is that it makes you feel better about yourself. Whilst this could be interpreted as an inherently selfish motive, there is no doubt that being part of a strong, mutually-respectful and diverse community where people actively support each other definitely raises levels of happiness. Certainly the most contented people I have known are those who spend significant amounts of their time in service to others. As such, we invest some of our time in activities with the purpose of increasing future pleasure.

Thirdly, there is little doubt that how we control our own emotions and thought processes is critical to contentment and I believe that encouraging students to practise ‘self-regulation’ and ‘self-nudging’ is an essential aspect of the education we provide. By organising our lives in ways so that we can go with the grain of our human nature and be happier without having to think too hard about it. I would probably go one step further and suggest that ensuring individual students are emotionally intelligent, happy in their own skin and not prone to worrying unduly about things they can’t control, are some of the most important things we can do to set them up for their future adult lives.

In closing, when we are struggling, sometimes the very act of doing one small thing can help us shift our mood. By learning what happiness is and taking simple daily actions to be happier, we can regain a sense of agency in our lives. In doing so, we are prioritising mental health and self-care and actively coping with the challenges to happiness that may arise. 

Dolan, P (2015) Happiness by Design: Finding Pleasure and Purpose in Everyday Life, London: Penguin Books Ltd.
Helliwell, J. F., Layard, R., Sachs, J. D., Aknin, L. B., De Neve, J.-E., & Wang, S. (Eds.). (2023). World Happiness Report 2023 (11th ed.). Sustainable Development Solutions Network. Available at: