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Definition: happiness from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

(15c) 1 obs : good fortune :prosperity 2 a : a state of well-being and contentment :joy b : a pleasurable or satisfying experience 3 : felicity aptness


Summary Article: Happiness
From Encyclopedia of Educational Theory and Philosophy

What is happiness and why does it matter? What is the relationship between happiness and education? Should happiness be seen as a key educational aim, as some philosophers, teachers, and policymakers suggest? These questions are at the fore not only of much of philosophy and educational policy and practice but also of psychology, economics, sociology, neuroscience, and other domains. To resolve them may seem like an impossible task. “There is hardly a muddier concept [happiness] in the over 2000-year history of philosophy,” says Kristjansson (2010, p. 300); Bruckner describes happiness as “an enigma, a permanent source of debates, a fluid that can take every form but which no form exhausts” (2010, p. 3). Watery metaphors abound, but progress can be made by reflecting on what happiness means to us as human beings and by clarifying basic concepts. This entry discusses various concepts of happiness, including the utilitarian concept of pleasure, the Aristotelian concept of flourishing or a good life, and the contemporary eudaimonic approaches. It then considers how a theory of happiness shapes our understanding of the goals and aims of education.

Two Concepts of Happiness

It is useful to start with the “original” concept. Children learn that happiness is an enjoyable experience that they want to prolong. It is contrasted with unhappiness, an experience they want to avoid, and subjective reports on both are normally taken seriously. If a child is lucky, her happiness is treated as a reason for action, though regrettably not (in all probability) an overriding one. In short, the original concept of happiness is hedonistic, polarized, subjective, and motivational. This concept underpins Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism (1789), which sees happiness as pleasure, unhappiness as pain, and claims that these govern us in all we “do, say and think.”

The original concept, often expressed as feeling happy, differs from the sense in which we say someone is a happy person or has led a happy life. The latter was important to ancient philosophers, and Seneca (1932) expressed the problem well: “To live happily … is the desire of all people, but their minds are blinded to a clear vision of just what it is that makes a life happy” (p. Capital: Cultural, Symbolic, and Social). Happiness in this sense is something about which we learn by reflecting on our lives, our errors, and the limitations of the original concept. It is linked to Plato's idea of the examined life, and many philosophers (and more recently, positive psychologists) turn to Aristotle for guidance about its meaning.

The Aims of Education

According to Aristotle, eudaimonia (translated as happiness, well-being, flourishing, and a good life) is the ultimate end toward which we aim in whatever we do. In current idiom, it is a thin specification of this end, for its meaning is disputed. We generally agree that it is the most important thing in life; the philosophical task is to specify its meaning without, as Aristotle said, seeking more precision than “the subject matter admits of.”

Aristotle is an objectivist; he never questions the scope for error in our thoughts about happiness. To thicken its specification is a task requiring reflective discipline, and Aristotle believed that “many” (the uneducated, the wicked, and the young) mistakenly characterize it as pleasure, honor, or wealth. The “wise” by contrast concur in the view that happiness means living and faring well. Living well means developing our distinctively human capacity for reason in moral and intellectual spheres; we cannot be happy without being virtuous or good. Thus, it would be wrong to infer (moving from the subjective to the objective perspective) that someone who gets away with her misdeeds and feels happy much of the time is a happy person.

There are no happy tyrants, on this view. Many people, preferring a subjective approach, would disagree, and here is a rich area of philosophical debate to which literature as well as argument may contribute much (Cigman, 2014). Most people nowadays also reject Aristotle's suggestion that happiness belongs within the framework of a complete life “or even beyond.” Aristotle quotes Solon's “Call no man happy until he is dead” approvingly and adds (remarkably) that if misfortune befalls one's descendants after one's death, this will detract from the goodness of one's life as a whole. We may resist this thought, but the idea of embedding happiness in years or even decades, rather than moments or other brief periods, makes a certain sense.

We generally agree with Aristotle that a prerequisite of happiness is faring well. He sounds a note of realism (absent from the views of Plato and the Stoics) when he insists that the enjoyment of certain goods— reasonable health, modest wealth, and an adequate moral and general education—is important. Aristotle also resonates with modern intuitions by finding a role for happy feelings in the good life. The virtuous person, he says, takes pleasure in doing the right thing; although it is hard to be good, it is satisfying. This reinforces the idea (appealing to educators) that living virtuously is an aspect of living well.

This much seems clear: If happiness is to be an aim of education, we need a conception that is enriched by reflection and embedded in extended periods of time, if not an entire life. We want more for children than happy feelings and happy moments. Progressive educators such as A. S. Neill may have relied too heavily on the original concept, taking their cue from experiences that children enjoy and want to prolong and seeing these (too “precisely,” in Aristotle's terms) as educationally motivational. Some philosophers of education have challenged these ideas; R. F. Dearden (1972/2010) argued that the “springs of action may be more complicated than a happiness-doctrine suspects” and “even anxiety can be facilitatory” (p. Gilbert Ryle's Behaviorism). Many teachers and parents would agree on this.

Scientific Approaches to Happiness

By identifying happy feelings as our governors in all we “do, say and think,” and by introducing the idea of a “felicific calculus” that measures their intensity, duration, and other properties, Bentham provided a foundation for a psychology of happiness that many deem suitable for a scientific age (see Layard, 2005). The psychologist Daniel Kahneman's hedonic approach computes happiness in the Benthamite manner from a “dense record” of self-reported pleasurable and unpleasurable states. Positive psychology refines this, adding “life satisfaction” assessments and producing a composite conception of happiness (positive affect and life satisfaction) as subjective well-being. More recently, it has added a eudaimonic dimension, reflected in the title of Martin Seligman's 2011 book Flourish. Flourishing is Aristotle's objectivist concept, referring to the fulfillment of natural capacities. Human flourishing, unlike that of a tree or dog, involves virtue, and positive psychologists claim that they can measure this. Can virtue be measured? It is a controversial question on which many philosophers have expressed doubts.

Subjective and objective approaches to happiness have been amply criticized. Few nowadays see happiness as synonymous with pleasure, for a life that ranks highly on a hedonic scale may be utterly pointless. Robert Nozick's “experience machine” thought experiment highlights the undesirability of a condition in which neurological stimulation (the notorious “brain in a vat”) might create the illusion of a flourishing life. Few would be tempted by the prospect of limitless pleasure if the distinction between reality and illusion were entirely lost. Life satisfaction seems closer to what we mean when we call people happy, until we reflect that some are satisfied with limited or impoverished lives because they are ignorant, self-effacing, or oppressed. Eudaimonic accounts appear to resolve these difficulties, but many regard the idea of contesting a person's subjective sense of happiness, on the authority of science or philosophy, as unacceptably paternalistic.

Eudaimonic accounts have, at least, this to recommend them: They recognize that not all kinds of happiness are equally worth having. Criticizing Bentham, J. S. Mill insisted on this point when he argued that some pleasures are “higher” than others. It is better to be Socrates dissatisfied, he said, than a pig satisfied, as any competent judge who knows both will attest. This complicates the quantitative model, for “higher value” is hard, if not impossible, to compute.

Mill's competent judges are problematic. Any attempt to identify them would be infinitely regressive, and the elitist implications are offensive. This is, however, a pivotal moment for contemporary philosophizing about happiness. Like Aristotle, Mill understood that happy and unhappy feelings are not simply experienced; they are also evaluated, reflected on, and “learned about.” Sometimes, as Friedrich Nietzsche emphasized, it is good to feel unhappy, and Peter Roberts (2012, p. 209) argues in this vein that suffering has “profound value for our development as human beings” and that education “should make us uncomfortable.” If there are “higher pleasures,” there are presumably “higher pains,” and education could be a rich site for both.

Implications for Educational Theory and Practice

Education is an ethical practice, needing what Avishai Margalit (2002) calls a “literary picture”: “We are the authors of our lives, and we had better make sure that they add up to something meaningful” (p. Citizenship and Civic Education). It is arguable that recent educational policy has neglected this picture. The enhancement agenda (social and emotional learning, happiness lessons) tends to polarize positive and negative feelings, promoting the former and trying to inhibit the latter (Cigman, 2009). It asks “how children are” and returns gloomy statistical answers, aiming to reverse these through national interventions (Department for Education and Skills, 2005; Seligman, Randall, Gilham, Reivich, & Linkins, 2009). It is strongly influenced in the United Kingdom by Richard Layard's Benthamite philosophy; happiness (“feeling good”), says Layard, can and should be learned early in life. Pascal Bruckner (2010) describes this as a perversion of the Enlightenment's “beautiful idea: that everyone has the right to control his own destiny and to improve his own life” (p. Existing Achievement Gaps). Is he right? Is there now a duty to be happy, intrusively pursued through education? Many believe this to be the case, and the need to reflect on such questions could not be clearer. Instead of drowning in watery metaphors, this entry aims to provide a rudimentary map.

See also Aristotle; Mill, John Stuart; Neill, A. S., and Summerhill; Positive Psychology and Education

Further Readings
  • Bruckner, P. (2010). Perpetual euphoria: On the duty to be happy. Princeton University Press Princeton NJ.
  • Cigman, R. (2009). Enhancing children. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 42(3-4), 539-557.
  • Cigman, R. (2014). Happiness rich and poor: Lessons from philosophy and literature. Journal of Philosophy of Education.
  • Dearden, R. F. (2010). Happiness and education. In R. F. Dearden; P. H. Hirst; R. S. Peters (Eds.), Education and the development of reason. Routledge & Kegan Paul London England. (Original work published 1972).
  • Department for Education and Skills. (2005). Emotional, behavioural and social skills guidance. Author London England.
  • Kristjansson, K. (2010). Positive psychology, happiness and virtue: The troublesome conceptual issues. Review of General Psychology, 14(4), 296-310.
  • Layard, R. (2005). Happiness: Lessons from a new science. Penguin Books London England.
  • Margalit, A. (2002). The ethics of memory. Harvard University Press Cambridge MA.
  • Roberts, P. (2012). Education and the limits of reason: Reading Dostoevsky. Educational Theory, 62(2), 203-223.
  • Seligman, M.; Randall, E.; Gilham, J.; Reivich, K.; Linkins, M. (2009). Positive education, positive psychology and classroom interventions. Oxford Review of Education, 35(3), 293-313.
  • Seneca. (1932). Moral Essays (Vol. 2; Basore, J. W. , Trans.). Harvard University Press Cambridge MA.
  • Ruth Cigman
    © 2014 SAGE Publications, Inc

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