Throughout Whitehall civil servants are working overtime to devise policies that will make us happy. Happiness has become the Big Idea of the political class. The project of managing people's emotions has attracted the interest of Government officials in desperate search of positive policies. In 2002 the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit explored the potential for promoting happiness policies at its Life Satisfaction Seminar in Whitehall. Since then different Government departments have been working on cobbling together a happiness index. And now schools have become the target of the happiness crusade.
At a time when Britain's schools face serious difficulties in providing children with a good education, they are to be charged with providing happiness lessons. Recently it was announced that Martin Seligman, a well-known US psychologist, has been invited to train British teachers in the art of making pupils happy. Anti-depression classes will be piloted from September next year. Advocates of happiness education claim that lessons using cognitive behavioural therapy techniques will help children deal with emotional problems and raise self-esteem.
This initiative is the latest technique adopted in a futile attempt to tackle the crisis facing the classroom through the management of children's emotions. Making children feel good about themselves has been one of main objectives of US schools during the past three decades. By the time they are seven or eight years of age, American children have internalised the prevailing psychobabble and can proclaim the importance of avoiding negative emotions and of high self-esteem. Yet this has had no perceptible impact on their school performance.
In Britain too, educators who have drawn the conclusion that it is easier to help children feel good than to teach them maths, reading and science, have embraced the cause of emotional education. During the past decades they have also adopted a variety of gimmicks to improve classroom behaviour through helping children relax. Some schools have opted for yoga, others use aromatherapy or chill-out music to improve concentration and learning. At least these gimmicks are harmless. They are certainly not going to help raise educational standards but there is no reason why they should have a negative impact on the classrooms.
Not so with some of the other more intrusive initiatives which are designed to teach children how to be happy. The elevation of happiness into a classroom subject will consolidate the shift in focus from learning about the world to dwelling on the internal lives of pupil. Even by the confused standards of British educational policy this is an unusually stupid idea. Happiness can not be taught. People have always pursued happiness. But until recently, happiness was not seen as an end in itself or something that could be promoted in its own terms. Teachers hoped that their students would be happy with their experience but they did not set out to teach their pupils how.
Perversely, the more we try to make children feel good about themselves, the more we distract them from engaging in experiences that have the potential for giving them a sense of achievement. These programmes encourage a mood of emotionalism in the school. I can predict with the utmost certainty that an expansion of the resources that schools devote to managing the emotional life of children will encourage the expansion of mental health problems.
There are two further problems with the adoption of happiness education. First, it does not work. Although we live in an era of "evidence-based-policy" there seems to be no attempt to measure or account for resources spent on efforts to raise children's self esteem and to "empower" them. Second, there is something insidious about schools attempting to manage the internal life of pupils.
In previous times, educators were charged with teaching children to behave well. Good conduct was associated with clearly defined public acts such as politeness, honesty and altruism. But, the regime of emotional education is based on a form of behaviour modification that targets conduct and tries to alter certain forms of feeling. Training a child how to feel is far more intrusive and coercive than educating a pupil how to behave. Good teachers will always try to understand how their pupils feel. And they will try to be sensitive to those feelings. They can even do a lot to help the emotional well-being of their pupils. But they will do so as teachers of interesting, challenging subjects.
The writer is a professor of sociology at Kent University and author of 'Therapy Culture: cultivating vulnerability in an anxious age' (Routledge)Reuse content