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“Happiness” is a tricky word. It is a common subject of philosophical confusion, which means that it is a common subject of confusion in education. It’s so often heard as something unserious, as something like “feeling good”, that I sometimes find it tempting to just avoid it.
But it’s too important to give up on. So let’s sketch a portrait of a sense of happiness in education worth preserving. I’ll start with happiness and work, and then move outward to happiness as a kind of long-term life pattern. Education can help on all counts.
Montessori doesn’t say much about happiness as an overall state, but she is very clear that there is a kind of elevated pleasure that the child can experience and to which the child should habituate. And it’s closely connected with working, with doing real things intentionally and earning confidence.
“We think the child is happiest when he is playing; but the truth is that the child is happiest when he is working.” (Montessori, Education and Peace)
That is, the paradigmatically happy child for her isn’t giggling at the delight of a tickle war; he is lost in concentration, brow furrowed, trying to peel an orange.
This deep connection between happiness and work—that doing good work is the path to avoiding misery and experiencing elevated pleasure—is a recurrent theme among my favorite writers:
Virginia Valian’s classic essay, Solving a Work Problem. A classic first-personal account of a woman painstakingly learning to write her thesis (and that is still recommended reading for struggling PhD students everywhere).
After figuring out how to find herself in work, she relates it to achieving a broader, integrated life project, the point of which is, well…:
“What was the point of life? I asked myself. After a good deal of thought I decided that the point was to be happy. I consider this obvious to the point of triviality, except that I’m always running into people who can’t believe I’m serious.”
Baldwin’s fiction is replete with a specific form of happiness through work: artists for whom their art is a salvation.
Fonny, in If Beale Street Could Talk, “had found something that he could do, that he wanted to do, and this saved him from the death that was waiting to overtake the children of our age.”
Sonny, of Sonny’s Blues, chastises the narrator for saying that “you know people can’t always do exactly what they want to do—”: “No, I don’t know that… I think people ought to do what they want to do, what else are they alive for?”
The capacity to find meaning in the discipline of purpose—which is the sine qua non of real happiness—is not common. Many people feel alienated from their work, from any work, from work as such. Montessori characterized this alienation as developmental:
“The inert child who never worked with his hands, who never had the feeling of being useful and capable of effort, who never found by experience that to live means living socially, and that to think and to create means to make use of a harmony of souls; this type of child...will become pessimistic and melancholy and will seek on the surface of vanity the compensation for a lost paradise.
“And thus, a lessoned man, he will appear at the gates of the university. And to ask for what? To ask for a profession that will render him capable of making his home in a society in which he is a stranger and which is indifferent to him. He will enter into a society to take part in the functioning of a civilization for which he lacks all feeling.” (From Childhood to Adolescence, Appendix C)
In her view, one of the main jobs of education is to protect and nurture the capacity in a child to experience happiness through work. I discussed and wrote about this at the Chalkboard Review last December. This means both helping the child practice this capacity and setting a broader moral-historical context in which work is valorized.
Work is central to happiness. But it’s not the only part of it. Indeed, it’s more than possible for someone to have a fine career—and to feel nothing for it, and feel nothing more broadly. Here’s Ayn Rand describing a tragic 20-something man of her acquaintance:
He had a brilliant mind, an outstanding scholastic record in the field of engineering, a promising start in his career—and no energy to move farther. He was paralyzed by so extreme a state of indecision that any sort of choice filled him with anxiety—even the question of moving out of an inconvenient apartment. He was stagnating in a job which he had outgrown and which had become a dull, uninspiring routine. He was so lonely that he had lost the capacity to know it, he had no concept of friendship, and his few attempts at a romantic relationship had ended disastrously—he could not tell why. (“Art and Moral Treason”)
Like Montessori, Rand traces this problem to a missed (or destroyed) opportunity earlier in development: children need to experience art, and to be enabled to take art with a kind of moral seriousness such that “any higher value or nobler experience” brings pleasure, not fear, guilt, or indifference. Having or lacking this capacity redounds upon all the higher goods of life: work, friendship, romance, art. And having or lacking this capacity is, again, a matter of development and learning and so the providence of parenting and education.
What does this look like? So far we’ve gestured at:
The intentional association of joy with purposeful activity and boredom with passivity, instead of the reverse
Engagement with and valorization of heroes in literature
A historical education that takes all facets of the work of civilization with moral seriousness
In addition to these, there’s an overall life design mindset that is critical. Tim Urban had a fantastic piece in the NYT last week about overcoming the “joy deficit” that Covid has left us. His solution is intentional, long-term living, shaking off the premises that underwrite passivity. “These two delusions—that we have countless time ahead of us and that we can’t change our course—are a recipe for complacency. Shedding them can wake us up and inspire us to live more wisely.”
It’s worth reading the whole piece for a sense of the kind of toolkits and cognitive resources about one’s lifespan and agency—that every adolescent should get in school. The perspective adopted by Tim is implicitly and explicitly lacking in education, for no good reason; this longterm-happiness-conducive perspective can be imparted using didactic, explanatory resources.
Lastly, two more philosophical pieces:
Happiness is about work, about higher and more elevated activities, and is something achieved over the long-term. Happiness is a life-span level pattern. Don Watkins comes to a similar conclusion in “Everyone Is Wrong About Happiness”. He surveys different approaches to happiness, from addition to negation to abstinence, and concludes that happiness is long-term and total. It’s not playing the game, or even winning the game, but having a “winning season” with all the thinking and adjustment, and highs and lows, that a long-term goal implies.
For a final and truly deep cut on this topic, check out Greg Salmieri’s academic paper “Aristotelian Ethics Without Exploitation”. It’s not directly about happiness. But in thinking through some puzzles about why Aristotle considers work to be a source of characterological corruption and unhappiness, Greg argues that “we need to reconsider the distinction between activities that have their ends in themselves and productive processes that have their ends outside of themselves.”
In order to truly embrace the Aristotelian notion that happiness is activity in accordance with virtue, we need to see “living a whole human life in accordance with the virtues” (emphasis added) as the fundamental activity of concern.
Thus concludes this roundup-cum-happiness-sketch.