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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. Her latest book is Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland's ill health. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 22/01/2008 | 3 Comments

The Tal Ben Shahar events proved very popular with most of the people who came along – and there were lots of them. Both events sold out – the Glasgow event before Christmas. On the night we had almost three hundred folk in Dundee and 380 in Glasgow.

One of the ironies of Tal’s visit was that he was also the keynote speaker at an event at Wellington College, Berkshire last Friday on whether happiness could be taught. The event was geared primarily to those working with young people in schools or other settings. The ironical bit is that I was asked to speak at the event under the banner of ‘critics of happiness’. Replying to my talk was the man who is increasingly becoming England’s happiness academic – Lord Richard Layard. Unfortunately, the chaos at Heathrow airport at the end of the week meant that I just couldn’t get there.

I had been asked to talk at the event, presumably because of my SEAL paper. When we published it last year the Sunday Times ran the story that I was critical of ‘happiness classes’ because, overnight, happiness had been added onto SEAL’s prodigious remit. The focus of my paper was the explicit teaching of social and emotional skills, but, the prospect of giving the speech made me think through my position on teaching happiness in schools.

Basically I’m of the view that there is a world of a difference between the adult use of Positive Psychology and psychological interventions in schools based on some of this material. The difference is easy to understand. Adults can decide for themselves what they want to do as a result of listening to Tal Ben Shahar. However, children and young people at schools are a captive audience. They can’t just decide for themselves so easily. What’s more many of those interested in this material want to shape young people’s personalities and behaviour. In other words, this can easily become social engineering.

I also think that a focus on young people’s level of happiness has exactly the same capacity to backfire as the focus on self-esteem has done in the USA. One of Seligman’s criticisms of the self-esteem movement is that it encouraged teachers and parents to be overly concerned with how young people feel. This means that if young people feel frustrated at learning or because of the ups and downs of life, adults are likely to intervene to reduce this negativity. This is why Seligman claims the emphasis on children’s feelings can easily undermine their learning and resilience. It also encourages narcissism and undermines meaning.

Personally, I think that an emphasis on happiness is unhelpful. Of course, it is likely to appeal to individuals and is guaranteed to sell books, but it is not a good foundation for education or for public policy. Instead it is better to focus on well-being or what leads to flourishing lives and flourishing communities. It is also essential for us, as adults, to look at how we bring children up – the prevailing culture and ourselves as role models – rather than formally teaching social and emotional skills in the classroom (or happiness as it may well be rebranded).

Of course, aspects of the happiness literature deal with well-being. For example, in Tal Ben Shahar’s talk on happiness the other night he spent considerable time on the importance of exercise which is essential not just for physical health but also good mental health. But for me, there is something about the packaging of much of the happiness literature which panders to, rather than challenges, the malaise in modern life – the obsession with the self and how it feels.
Comment By Comment
Amanda Horne
Joined: 14/05/2006

Comment Posted: 23/01/2008 04:45
Hi Carol, this is a great clarification. The broader focus on wellbeing is important. In your 18 Oct 02007 blog, you comment on your preference for wellbeing and flourishing, and you referred to Marty's model which emphasises wellbeing and flourishing. In a paper Marty co-wrote in 2005 "Positive Psychology in Clinical Practice" positive psychology is defined as "the scientific study of build strengths, wellbeing and optimal functioning". It's so much more than feelings of happiness.

Many thanks for the hard work you have committed to your Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing.

Amanda Horne (many miles and kilometres away: Canberra, Australia)
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Johnny Walker
Joined: 23/01/2008

Comment Posted: 23/01/2008 17:05
Hi Carol

I very much enjoyed the event with Tal Ben Shahar and Phil Hanlon; it made me reflect on some of the barriers to happiness. One of the key barriers to happiness, that I see, is the fear of failure.

I believe that nowadays we live in a culture where failure is unacceptable and only pure, untainted success will do. To advance in the world, you must reach every goal and never, ever make a mistake that you can’t hide or blame on someone else. Most people’s happiness is built on their achievements and by being successful we value the power it brings to our lives. However, there is a perception that the outcome of failing will always be so high that it is to be avoided at all costs. This results in the constant covering up of the smallest mistakes to enable the illusion of perfection to continue leading to a culture of lying, cheating, falsification of data, the hiding of problems, until the dam bursts and a bloody massacre ensues.

I believe, especially in Scotland, that we have a habit of clinging to the past and even worse our past successes. We have a habit in this country of shying away from innovation afraid that anything new and innovative will fail. We hang on to past glories with the fear that the success of something new might prove that those achievements we made in the past weren’t so great after all. Why take the risk when you can hang on to your reputation by doing nothing?

What would make me happy? If we as a nation got the necessary reality check to pursue getting the balance right instead of following an increasingly prevalent culture of polarised views. How many times do we hear, you’re either for us or against us, leaving no room for measured debate and a healthy exchange of views. We need to be aware of unbalanced values in our lives. Beware when any one value becomes too powerful. Over-achievers destroy their own peace of mind and the lives of those who work for them or with them. People too attached to goodness and morality become blindly self-righteous. Those whose values for building close relationships may slide into an unbalanced smothering of their friends and family with constant expressions of affection and demands for love in return.

Everyone likes to succeed. The problem appears when fear of failure is dominant. When you can no longer accept the inevitability of making mistakes, nor recognise the importance of trial and error in finding the best and most creative solution. The more creative you are, the more errors you are going to make. Get used to it. Deciding to avoid the errors will destroy your creativity and your ability to take risks.

Balance counts more than we think. A little selfishness is valuable even in the most caring person. Without doubt a little failure is essential to preserve everyone’s perspective on success. We hear a lot about being positive. Maybe we also need to recognize that the negative parts of our lives and experience have just as important a role to play in finding success, in our work, our life and most importantly our HAPPINESS!

Johnny Walker
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