Happiness: Caught or Taught?

By Smith, Peter R. | Teaching Geography, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Happiness: Caught or Taught?


Smith, Peter R., Teaching Geography


Peter discusses notion that the way we teach field studies helps to develop students' well-being and happiness.

This article was conceived and started long before HM Government decided in November 2010 that happiness was a politically worthwhile idea to promote, and needed indices to measure it. It now appears that the National Wellbeing Project (Office for National Statistics, 201 1 ) will include a question about levels of happiness enjoyed, beyond the traditional economic factors. Possibly the Office for National Statistics was inspired by the publication of the 'The Geography of Happiness', a theme issue of Primary Geographer in 2009. Recently there have been a growing number of publications on the topic, including the recent translation from French of Pascal Bruckner's Perpetual Euphoria: On the Duty to Be Happy(2010), and George MacKerron's current research on 'Mappiness' (Heathcote, 2011). In December 201 1 Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council, sent a letter and a copy of Leo Barman's The World Book of Happiness to all world leaders, urging them to make people's happiness and well-being their political priorities for 201 2. 1 hope what appears below contributes to a better understanding of some aspects of happiness, despite the topic being steadily overtaken by events. Any final words are unlikely ever to be written on this controversial matter.

'I want my child to be happy in school' is a consistent and persistent parental wish. The position of UK children in the UNESCO (2007) report on their well-being, at the bottom of some 30 economically developed countries, shows the importance of this continuing parental aspiration. Can, and does, the way we teach, particularly the way we teach field studies, help promote and develop student's well-being and happiness?

The topic of happiness is constantly relevant in education, though rarely discussed as such. As all teachers must know, unhappy students will surely learn less than happy ones. Rousseau considered this at length in his book Emile (1 762) and came up with views about styles of learning and experiences that continue to influence progressive and liberal educators, especially those who favour and use the outdoor and off site environment as their classroom. Recently, Anthony Seldon (2007), the head teacher at Wellington College, has made a strong and public case for making 'happiness' a specific feature of the school's curriculum. There are timetabled lessons utilising a combination of positive psychology, emotional intelligence and caring. According to Seldon (2007) happiness can be learned, and should help to change fundamentally ill-balanced curricula, as well as challenge the idea that academic success and league table positions are what define good education. One area of learning he proposes is how simply being out in the natural world can improve (students') well-being.

It would be possible to go on at length quoting eminent sources to illustrate the point that happiness is a vital feature of human life. And of course it would also set up the very obvious question, 'It all depends what you mean by happiness', opening up its enormous philosophical complexity. The topic must be narrowed. If you listen to parents of school-age children, particularly when they are expressing a preference for a school for their child, they consistently wish that their child should be happy there, this often above other considerations. Whether this happiness will be 'caused' by the school is not clear, though possibly assumed by parents, with no way of clearly and verifiably knowing quite what it is that the school does or does not do that will generate this hoped-for happiness. It will almost certainly be everything about the school and its ethos.

Happiness and field-based education

What can field-based teaching and those working from field centres do to contribute to happiness and well-being? Can 'fieldwork' help make for happy or happier students? …

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