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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. 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 17/01/2006

I’ve been able to read much more in the past week as the much improved train service means means I’m now going to commute into Glasgow by train rather than by car. The first book to entertain me on my journey is Paul Martin’s Making Happy People. Not only is it an excellent review of the literature on happiness but his whole approach to the subject is very practical and down to earth. Martin has a three-part definition of happiness. According to him happiness is about pleasure, the absence of displeasure (such as sadness and negative moods) and satisfaction. Martin says himself that this definition covers how you feel (pleasure and displeasure) as well as how you think, as satisfaction is essentially about how you think about your life. I find this a useful way to define happiness and to my mind anyway is much preferable to Professor Richard Layard’s defintion which is essentially hedonic as he simply defines it as feeling good and wanting this feeling to be maintained.

Paul Martin’s book is subtitled “The Nature of Happiness and its origins in Childhood” but I couldn’t help thinking that this had been grafted on at the end by the publisher to make it more distinctive. The first three quarters of the book is simply a very useful review of the literature and evidence on happiness and then the last few chapters are specifically about bringing up children. Nonetheless these couple of chapters on children are excellent and should be essential reading for parents and teachers. Martin doesn’t believe that raising happy children is at odds with a good education or with children who will ultimately be successful in the world. In fact he keeps pointing out that happy, well-adjusted children are more likely to be motivated to learn and become educated. But Martin does marshall a convincing case against many of the new trends in education – arguing that many of them are counterproductive including the present obsession with tests and grades. In the course of the book, Paul Martin maintains that the most important ingredient of happiness is a feeling of ‘connectedness’. In other words, it is about the quality of our relationships with others. This is why he argues so convincingly of the need for an education system which isn’t solely concerned about narrow academic achievement but about social and emotional development as well. I’m sure we have all encountered in our lives people who outwardly have all the trappings of success – money or power, for example, yet are miserable people who find it difficult to maintain good relationships with others.

Paul Martin also argues convincingly for the importance of play which he helpfully defines as ‘a form of safe stimulation which allows children to experiment with their own capabilities in a variety of settings.’ He also argues against the idea that learning faster means learning better. In fact he argues that because ‘childhood has a purpose, anything that forestals or distorts it may be storing up problems for the future’. This approach not only questions the early entry into school in the UK but also the hot-housing now routinely indulged in by middle-class parents. Nowadays, it is commonplace for parents to believe that somehow their children’s - even their babies’ - lives must be filled with purposeful actitivies. So we have baby gym and all the books encouraging you to teach your baby to read. There’s now a company called “Baby Einstein” with resources for you to introduce your baby to the poetry of Shakespeare or the sounds of different foreign languages. I’m often exhausted when I hear about the structured activities that middle-class children participate in on a weekly basis. Some may be a result of their own interests but often they are decided by parents. What time do these young children have simply to be with friends and learn about themselves and the rules of life through play?

At the other end of the spectrum there are the kids whose parents neglect them and leave them to their own devices. This can often mean endlessly watching TV. Paul Martin is excellent too on the way that the modern media can undermine people’s happiness and how much our children are at risk. My favourite section of the book is his summary of how the media, paricularly television, is bad for your health and happiness. However, I must admit I’m not a fan of TV and watch it very rarely so it doesn’t take much to convince me of the negative effect it can have on people’s lives.

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