Howard Jacobson: The only good life is an interesting one - and it doesn't come with 'happiness studies'

Call no man happy until he is beyond the reach of Positive Psychology
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The Independent Online

Enter also, though indubitably with his hands (at least for now) less bloodied, the lecturer in Happiness Studies. Or Positive Psychology, if you wish it to sound more like an academic discipline. Harvard appears to gone further than other learned institutions in substituting self-help for intellectualism, Positive Psychology 1 currently enjoying status as the most subscribed course on campus. But anything Cambridge over there can do, Cambridge over here can do too; hence the new "Well-being Institute" set up at the university by Dr Nick Bayliss. And now, acknowledging his debt to both Cambridges, Dr Anthony Seldon, MA, PhD, FRSA, MBA, FRHisS, announces that he is to put happiness on the curriculum of Wellington College, the Berkshire public school of which he is the new headmaster.

And will the happiness course he teaches include the encouragement of pupils to get as many letters after their names as he has after his? MA, PhD, FRSA, MBA, FRHisS - are these not assurances of happiness? It would seem not. Or it would seem, at least, that if they are not a bar to happiness exactly, they do not in themselves provide it. Which is why happiness lessons in Wellington College, in Dr Seldon's words, will not be "like history or physics, where it is primarily the intellect involved and where the acquisition of knowledge is all important". Instead, they will be about "emotional learning and emotional intelligence ...".

As an ex-English and European Lit in Translation man myself, I am not averse to a bit of the old emotional intelligence talk. Don Quixote's lapses in emotional intelligence vis-à-vis the windmill, Othello's failure of emotional intelligence with Desdemona, Medea's lack of emotional intelligence in murdering her children - true these were all instances of emotional intelligence in absentia, so to speak, but our terrain was the inner life, intelligence understood as a feature of character no less than mind. So why call this happiness studies all of the sudden? What would be wrong with just going back to teaching literature the way it used to be taught? The emotionally intelligent man doesn't throttle his wife out of jealousy and then say how much he loves her - discuss.

Because Dr Seldon has another aim - as inculcators of happiness always have another aim - that's why. "Pupils," he goes on, "will learn how to form healthy and sustaining relationships. They will gain understanding about the goals they should want to set in life, which should be realistic and appropriate for their own talents and interests." At which declaration of objectives my skin begins to creep. The last time anyone talked to me about setting goals he was trying to sell me insurance. And had anyone told me to be realistic about my interests and advised I cut my cloth according to my talents I'd have hit him. It is the case that we have thrown away a generation of iPod kids whose sole ambition is to rattle like Beckham in full bling and whose idea of culture is getting legless in a European city whose name they can neither spell nor remember. But that's because we educated them into incuriosity, embraced triviality, declined to set an example of seriousness, not because we didn't sit them down with diaries and get them to map out the rest of their lives.

It's good for the young to be footloose. We don't want them old before their time with their retirements planned and their pensions in good order. And what, would someone kindly tell me, is a healthy and sustaining relationship? No, I don't mean tell me - mutual respect, helping with the children, encouraging individual growth within the couple, blah blah. I mean would someone tell me what we are doing preaching relational "health" to 18-year-olds. Relational health, when you're 18, is making as big a mess of your life, outside contracting a fatal disease, as you possibly can: falling in love with the wrong people, disgusting yourself with too much sex, tearing your hair, beating your breast, expecting never to enjoy life again, then discovering that your capacity for renewal is infinite. But a "sustaining" relationship - when you're at school! Dr Seldon, youth is not age; sustainment is for later.

But Dr Seldon of Wellington is Dr Arnold of Rugby come again. "The lessons will be highly moral," he continues. "Pupils will learn how to look after their bodies well and how not to abuse them. A healthy body is far more likely to lead to a happier mind..."

Enough. This is irresponsible, not to say wicked talk. True, the emaciated heroin addict half-dead in a cardboard box in your doorway is not a pretty sight. But neither is a gym-load of financiers in silky shorts breaking sweat to repetitive music. A healthy body guarantees nothing but a healthy body and, in my experience of talking to those who happen to have acquired one, tedious conversation. He who has not abused his body, and does not still sometimes abuse his body, has not lived, and he who has not lived cannot be happy, whether happiness exists or not. As for a happy mind - the phrase demeans our mental life, as though any person of feeling and perception could be pleased with all he sees of folly or made content by all he knows of grief.

Here lies X, he had a happy mind. Fancy that on your stone? Wouldn't you rather have inscribed, courtesy of Joseph Conrad, "One could not refuse him a measure of greatness, for he was unhappy in a way unknown to mediocre souls."

In the end the only good life is an interesting one. And the only good school that which teaches its pupils where interest might be found. The rest is impertinence. Call no man happy until he is beyond the reach of Positive Psychology.

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