Tuesday 10 May 2011

Happiness & the folly of the positive Life

University & the popularity of 'Positive Psychology'

Dan Haesler is a teacher, writer and speaker. In 2010 he was awarded the NSW Premier’s Anika Foundation Teacher’s Scholarship to address and raise awareness of youth depression. In a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald (5th May 2011), he points out that the most popular course at Harvard University is not medicine, dentistry, engineering or even law. Rather, it is positive psychology.  Penn State Centre for Positive Psychology describes this new field within psychology as "the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive".

The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play. Positive Psychology has three central concerns: positive emotions, positive individual traits, and positive institutions. The Penn State centre suggests that:
"Understanding positive emotions entails the study of contentment with the past, happiness in the present, and hope for the future. Understanding positive individual traits consists of the study of the strengths and virtues, such as the capacity for love and work, courage, compassion, resilience, creativity, curiosity, integrity, self-knowledge, moderation, self-control, and wisdom. Understanding positive institutions entails the study of the strengths that foster better communities, such as justice, responsibility, civility, parenting, nurturance, work ethic, leadership, teamwork, purpose, and tolerance."
Dan Haesler rightly asks, "How could it be that at one of the most respected universities in the world, America's top scholars need lessons in how to be happy?" He poses this question alongside the observation that 20% of the high school students who enter Australian universities will drop out each year, at an estimated cost of $1.4 billion to the taxpayer each year.

He suggests that the reasons for dropping out are complex, but rarely related to academic ability. Students will often drop out because they lack the social or emotional skills to work effectively outside the regimented structure of their high school. He argues that the standardisation of school education isn't helping...while most schools do a good job of getting kids through exams... only a few institutions genuinely prepare students for ''real life''. This is an appropriate warning on this the first day of NAPLAN testing in schools for 2011.

This standardisation he suggests is turning our schools into factories, and our children into mere products on the production line, without a clue what they will do with their lives, or what they are good at. The result is that many end up studying fields with no inbuilt motivation or any sense of intrinsic reward for studying it. Does this explain the "happy classes" at Harvard?

The 'upside down' nature of a preoccupation with happiness

I'm not sure when we begin to learn what it is that we think will make us happy. I suspect that it begins very early in life; perhaps first as we simply observe the priorities in adult lives that are communicated unknowingly to children. School then picks the agenda up and more explicitly signals the things that seem to be most important; success, exams, winning, popularity, looks... And then of course there is every imaginable element of popular culture 'nipping' at children's heals. Is it any wonder that young people arrive at university confused about what they want to do and why.

From a biblical perspective there is something upside down about focussing on happiness and the control of external circumstances like success, appearance, pleasure, wellbeing and so on to achieve it. The Bible says little about seeking this type of earth-bound happiness, but says much more about eternal blessings. In Jesus’ first major teaching event (Matthew 5:3-12) he made it clear that those who mourn, the persecuted, the hungry and so on can have much more than this temporal happiness; we can be blessed with eternal membership of the Kingdom of God.

The Bible's message is that rather than focusing on external circumstances, the key to 'true' life is to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).

There are many things in this world that can bring us temporary happiness – money, good health, a good reputation, people who love you and so on, and they are all good. But the things of this world cannot ensure ongoing happiness; we are foolish to place our hope and trust in these things.

Jesus taught, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?

I find Paul's words at the end of his first letter the young Timothy (1 Timothy 6) to be a great encouragement in these matters. He warns of many things but amongst these he challenges Timothy to seek contentment rather than the things of this world:
"Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction." (1 Timothy 6:6-9)
"But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses." (1 Timothy 6:11-12)
Other reading

You can read Dan Haesler's article 'Cookie Cutters and Happiness' HERE

In issue 14 of the Case magazine we examined this matter in detail. You can still buy single copies by visiting the CASE website HERE.

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