In Pursuit of Happiness

There has been a healthy shift in the public consciousness regarding our mental and emotional health. As a nation we are becoming increasingly articulate; at least from an emotional perspective. Whilst some might feel uncomfortable with the candid revelations of celebrities and royalty, there is no doubt in my mind that such openness has led to important and long-overdue conversations. Furthermore, it has resulted in a  growing acceptance that we should not distinguish between physical or emotional problems in terms of which is more important or deserving of our attention. 

When I first arrived at Rossall, there were concerns that I wanted to make the School ‘more academic’ and that this would, inevitably, be at the expense of our children’s happiness. For some, happiness was read as a felicitous state of being that would automatically result from an absence of expectation or personal aspiration. Admittedly, there are times when we would all be tempted to sympathise with that view. I have often kidded myself that I would be happy were I to take a job in a hardware store. In my dreams, I map out an alternative existence, where I potter from aisle to aisle with a beaming smile on my face as I help customers locate screws or drill bits. A relative who has spent his working life in just such a store recently shot my dreams down in flames. The customers are not always as cheery as I would like to imagine and staff have to remember where to locate 20,000 different products which does not sound so much fun. 

At the moment, we tend to dream of all the things that we would do if we were not in ‘lockdown’ – holidays that we would take and friends whom we would meet. All these things might make us happy in the short term but experiences and the acquisition of ‘stuff’ cannot sustain us. Pleasure that results from new experiences is something we should enjoy. However, the emotion quickly drifts away – much like water seeping through cupped hands.  

It strikes me that we should be striving for fulfillment much more than happiness, which is a  transient sentiment. Happiness can only really be measured against periods of despondency and unhappiness. After all, if environmental factors, success and wealth all served to make us truly happy then why is Hollywood synonymous with tragic personal narratives of excess and misery? Of course, many self-help gurus have made millions by claiming to know how to achieve happiness. Schools have claimed that they can ‘teach’ happiness as if it is a skill or state of being that can be acquired through diligent study. It is a conceit which does not take account of our true state of being.  

David Robson, the science writer and author of The Intelligence Trap argues in The Guardian that populist and oft-cited strategies such as ‘visualising your success’ are, ultimately, not especially helpful. Professor Gabriele Oettingen at New York University suggests that such strategies are counterproductive. Dieters who pass their hours imagining a newer and more healthy figure actually lose less weight than those who do not entertain such thoughts. Similarly, there is little evidence that dreaming vividly about future professional success is, of itself, of much use. Of course, sitting here imagining a gold medal around my neck as I stand on the podium at the Tokyo Olympics is not going to make me any more likely to outpace Justin Gatlin in the 100m final. 

We should be teaching young people that a fulfilling and meaningful life does not result from being in a state of nirvanic bliss. It is unrealistic because, as we all know, life is full of challenges, frustrations and loss. Similarly, encouraging young people to think that their personal happiness constitutes a fundamental right will leave them feeling dissatisfied and more likely to make decisions which are less considerate of others. A relentless focus upon one’s own happiness will not necessarily make you any happier. True fulfillment comes from having the opportunity to enrich the lives of others and engage in activities that provide one with a real sense of purpose and meaning. Well lived lives are full of highs and lows. Sadness, loss, anxiety, happiness, excitement are all emotions worth feeling. An acceptance that our emotional range is to some extent dictated by the extraordinary complexity and beauty of our existence is liberating. There is nothing wrong with us for feeling all of these emotions in quick succession. 

People often talk about the need to put their own happiness first. We would all want our children to be especially attentive to their emotional and mental health.  However, excessive navel gazing is not always healthy.  When we tell our children that we just want them to be happy or that nothing matters more than their happiness, we might well be filling their minds with unrealistic expectations. We might, inadvertently, be setting them up for a life of disappointment. Don’t get me wrong, life is amazing and is filled with moments of joy, excitement and happiness. We are sustained by the love of family and friends and it is good to have goals and dreams. However, there is more to life than this and the self-centered pursuit of happiness has founded an industry that is built upon little of meaning whilst leaving us all feeling a little less satisfied. Our morale or moods are not immutable or quantifiable in the way that is suggested by the reductive and trite questions so often asked of us in online surveys. We are complex, fascinating and responsive to the world around us. As sentient beings we need to embrace life in all of its vividness and hold precious those relationships and emotions that serve to sustain us through difficult times. However, our children do need to know that it is also fine to feel frustrated or sad and that giving expression to such emotions is normal and simply part of what it means to be alive. 

Mr Jeremy Quartermain
Headmaster of Rossall School