Tom Bennett

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The Pursuit of Happyness. Can it be caught? Or taught?

Working title: ‘The Pursuit of Money’

Happiness, happiness. The greatest gift that I possess? Ken Dodd, the noted pedagogue asked one of today’s most important metaphysical questions. But the Prophet of Doddyland brought us no closer to answering the ontological assumption that underpins his subliminal Socratic dialogue: what is happiness? Is it important?  

I’ve written about this before, mainly because of two reasons: firstly, there is an annual news vacuum which journalists frequently abhor, filling it with stories about scientists discovering its secret formula (in a laboratoire, no doubt); secondly politicians are obsessed with Happiness indices as a comparative means of assessing relative happiness between nations. This of course ignores the obvious, that awareness of another’s happiness is, for some people, enough to destroy it in oneself. ‘It is not enough,’ Gore Vidal diabolically opined, ‘To succeed. Others must fail.’ This is particularly true if someone is happier than you, or if you are from the United Kingdom, where the joy of another is viewed suspiciously by many as a depletion of their right to complain their own failure to achieve their heart’s ambitions.

Another reason I come back to this is because there are those in education who frequently return to the claim that the purpose of education is to make children happy. This is often expressed by the sentiment that lessons should be engaging and enjoyable, and if they are not, then the lesson is a bad one. This is a lovely thought. But it suffers from the paradox of the inane reversal: nobody is seriously claiming that lessons should be deliberately made boring or disengaging. You hope that ALL your lessons are interesting and switch the kids on.

Sir Ken Robinson. ‘Happy’.

But that simply can’t happen. 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. And while Mary Poppins assures us- correctly- that when you find the fun in the work then SNAP! The work’s a game, this is the exception. Incidentally, the answer to this conundrum isn’t to gamify lessons, or to transfer learning onto a virtual platform: the same principles of effort and concentration are necessary for learning to happen in any situation, traditional or radical. Just watch any IT lesson where kids stare at the screens like laboratory beagles if you don’t believe me. Just because it’s on a screen doesn’t make it fun or interesting. And if you don’t believe that, try reading the terms and conditions of your Smartphone online.

But the main distraction and obfuscation in this argument is in the definition of happiness itself. Can it, as Sir Kenneth suggests, above, be possessed? Is it être or avois? Funnily enough, Great Minds have considered this question before, so we don’t have to grope around the DfE best practise closet to work it out. Aristotle considered happiness to consist of flourishing in a flourishing community (Eudaimonia); that the greatest and most valuable form of happiness consisted of developing your talents and your virtues, and becoming a valuable member of a community, however abstractly one defines it. So I flourish by developing myself as a teacher, by being a better teacher; I obtain something more rewarding than mere sensual pleasure by doing so- I  am satisfied. I surf a crest where challenge and development crescendo into each other in a sublime synthesis. This concept is well known to computer games designers, who try to make sure that games are neither too hard nor too easy for competitors to be deterred or bored by their activities. The perfect mean is the goal, throughout each level, and in many ways it is for us too: to be challenged enough to be tested, but not so much we give up and sink.
Mr Happy. ‘Happy,’ allegedly.

The meanest, least worthy form of happiness is mere sensual pleasure; not because it is worthless, but because, like the love of money, it is the root of many evils. The utilitarians like JS Mill, even though they based their entire philosophy on the pursuit of pleasure, knew that the mere pursuit of sensuality was a poison; that it would lead to a diminishing of the spirit, where all that mattered was feeling good. And if that’s all that matters, then you’ll do anything to achieve it. See: greed; addiction; selfishness, and a few other deadly sins. Pleasure is desired by all; but it doesn’t mean that pleasure SHOULD be desired by all, or that it was the only goal.

I have run nightclubs in Soho; I am familiar with several forms of pleasures; I have also known disaster from within and without. I am, in other words, just like everyone else. And my experience (with which Aristotle has been good enough to agree) is that few things valuable don’t require struggle and loss; that pleasure for its own sake is the mission of a moron; that the greatest rewards often come, like the sorrows of a parent, or the sleepless nights of the undergraduate- under the shadow of the thresher.

It is through knowing defeat that we understand winning. It is through suffering that we value the suffering of others, and learn to detest it. Happiness, pursued for its own sake, is the most miserable thing of all. Comfort is universally appreciated, but past a certain point where our basic needs are met, we must understand that comfort is not all there is to being human. The job of a government is, at least partially, to see that the community’s survival needs are met. The job of education is to teach children. We can’t teach them to be happy because you should only teach what you’re an expert in, and who amongst us is an expert in happiness? Or is happy? And what does it mean?

You want children to be independent learners, as is so painfully fashionable these days? Far safer that we teach children to be wise. Let them make their own mistakes. Don’t make them make yours.

Let them work out what happy is.

The Pursuit of Happiness: Jeremy Bentham, David Cameron and the Principle of Utility

Spent a fascinating afternoon at the UCL on Friday, taking a Platonically Ideal group of A2 students to take part in the Transcribe Bentham project. Jeremy Bentham was a 19th century utilitarian philosopher and reformer who famously requested in his will that his cadaver be dissected, reassembled, stuffed with straw, and dressed for display. This charming paperweight (called the Auto-Icon) is a handsome addition to the foyer of any metropolitan University, and surely the perfect gift for any lonely academic this Christmas; it was also an ideal focal point for a Philosophy trip, which at the best of times proves problematic. You tell me how I organise a fun day out based on Wittgenstein’s Tractatus.

Bentham wrote 60,000 papers, but only 20,000 of them have been transcribed and studied properly, so it’s a Wiki-style project to crowd-source labour, an enormous open contribution that will eventually digitise every nuance of thought the old pleasure-seeker scribbled. I can’t recommend it highly enough for any teacher with RS or Philosophy students doing Ethics, and we even had the pleasure of a short lecture from Philip Schofield (no, not that one, you cultural illiterate. This one). Dr Valerie Wallace, the charming coordinator of the project showed us around the campus (including visiting Bentham, sitting imperially over the sit-ins in the University rooms dedicated to his name, and now used as meeting rooms- I’m sure his chest would have swelled with pride, had he still a thoracic cavity with which to do so- which was the sweetened pill before an hour of transcription itself. I have to say, it was a lot more fun than I anticipated, and it concerns me in retrospect how much I enjoyed attempting to read 200 year old handwriting and guess which word Jeremy was searching for. The temptation to transcribe the words ‘X-Factor’ and ‘crowd-sourcing’ was, fortunately, resistible.

Bentham’s focus was Utilitarianism, a moral philosophy that revolves around the proposition that we all seek pleasure, and therefore pleasure is the commonly agreed good that we all seek; therefore we can distinguish moral acts from non-moral acts by the amount which they maximise pleasure. Or more simply, the good is that which produces the most pleasure.

Why is this relevant to anyone other than unemployable philosophy nerds like myself? Because David Cameron has been sticking his size 14 Burberry Wellies into a debate that centres on exactly this proposition: that happiness is something that should be measured. Of course, such a project presumes that happiness can in any way be measured, and it’s here that Bentham has a lot to say- well, a lot more than PremierBot DavCam. He realised that in order for us to assess whether an action entails more pleasure than another alternative action, we need to be able to quantify happiness in some way. But how do you approach that problem?

His answer was what he called the Hedonic Calculus: a series of considerations that would enable us to quantify and thereby compare pleasure, despite its apparent intrinsically relative nature. The ins and outs of the calculus are beyond the remit of my trivial output, but in summary he asked us to consider the pleasure’s intensity, duration, remoteness, fecundity (my favourite, incidentally) and other factors, in order to establish how we should esteem it.

It sounds great, and paying him his dues, it was a massive step in ethics; but the sticking point remains- how do we quantify what will always be an essentially interior experience? If I give ‘eating a toffee apple’ a 3 out of 10 on my pleasure scale, how does that compare to your three out of ten (which, for all I know, might involve launching a fire extinguisher off the top of Millbank Tower)? It may be easy to compare massively dissimilar pleasures – I can say that winning the lottery is ‘greater’ than eating an ice cream- but beyond that, we are back in the realms of licking our fingers, holding them into the wind, and saying ‘About that much’.

I understand that several million pounds are to be invested in DavCam’s ‘Happy-o-meter’ (sorry, Wellbeing Index). And I think we can all congratulate him on money well spent in these times when a man can barely employ a retinue of photographers and stylists at public expense without enduring the brickbats of an ungrateful electorate which just doesn’t understand how important it is for a millionaire to have the right width of pinstripe when he meets the Japanese Ambassador.

It’s not that I don’t applaud any attempt to dislocate the contemporary dogma that money and happiness are inextricably, necessarily connected- Siddharta Gottama had that much right- but this predictably Pound stretcher way of sticking a pin into how we’re all feeling so that we can then graph, track, crunch and pontificate the ‘results’ is so philosophically flawed as to produce little ripples of nausea in my duodenum just thinking about it. What kind of data does this scheme seek to produce? What correlation can be drawn between patterns (or lack thereof) that might ensue? If numbers fall, does that suggest that we’re all less happy? How can an electorate be relied upon to remember how happy they were feeling five years previously, or will they be forced to rely on an imagined perception of how happy they were? Of course they will. Of course they will.

‘On a scale of one to ten, how deep is your love?’ Or perhaps even better, ‘On a scale of one to ten, how much sunlight can be extracted from a cucumber?’

On a scale of one to ten, my visit to Transcribe Bentham was a 7; piling into Waterstone‘s basement Costa afterwards and hiding from the cold with a Hot Chocolate drove that up to a 7.5. David Cameron’s latest agenda grabbing piece of attention whoring?

Well, I’ll give that a 2. Your thoughts, Cheryl?