I was recently given a copy of two sections of Adam Phillips’s On Balance. The first of these, entitled “Should school make you happy?,” raises an issue worth exploring these days. If we take happiness as a moral demand (“You have to be happy and you are failing if you are not”) then what do we do with our unhappiness?
Non-happy moments are not only unavoidable, but also essential in everyone’s life. At risk of sounding redundant, it’s important to observe that non-happy moments show children how to deal with life when they’re not happy. As Phillips eloquently explains:
It is unrealistic…to assume that if all goes well in a child’s life he or she will be happy. Not because life is the kind of thing that doesn’t make you happy; but because happiness is not something one can ask of a child. Children, I think, suffer—in a way that adults don’t always realize—under the pressure their parents put on them to be happy, which is the pressure not to make their parents unhappy, or more unhappy than they already are. “Be happy” can be a paradoxical injunction, like “be spontaneous”; if you do it you are not doing it, and if you are not doing it you are doing it. And the worst-case scenario could be generations of children cheated on what they were educated to believe was their right to happiness.
In 2010 Sara Ahmed examined how happiness is used to discipline cultural critics in order to maintain the status quo. I recommend it.
“I’m happy if you’re happy.” That’s another powerful injunction. Thank you for the reference.
While happiness is something one experiences usually as the result of some form of struggle, it still is essential. In school when one is told to “be happy” it usually means to shut up and become invisible to the teacher. When this occurs, in its many manifestations, of course the idea of “happiness” is absent from the equation altogether. Usually when people are told to do things – especially experience emotions – not only is the task impossible, but its unappealing.
Such instances taint what happiness is. During my training as a teacher I was told that education should not be “fun” for students. And as someone who has run educational programs for a number of years I have seen the necessary ups, downs, struggles, frustrations and triumphs that come within this territory. Yet I also have never seen one greater example of learning than students experiencing happiness. There is no example of learning that surpasses the academic, social, developmental, cultural, health and traditionally unknown values of simply being happy. When students are happy in the process of learning, they are able to retain knowledge, build new skills, express themselves with confidence and view learning as an experience rather than an unappealing combination of miserable teachers, crowded classrooms and standardized tests.