Happiness and education – theory, practice and possibility

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Happiness and education – theory, practice and possibility. What makes us flourish – and what does not? We explore the theory, practice and possibilities of putting happiness at the centre of education and helping.

Contents: introductionwhy all the interest in happiness? · what is happiness? · what makes us happy and unhappy? · the loss of happiness in market economies · education for happiness · happiness in education · conclusion · further reading and bibliography · links · how to cite this article

Create all the happiness you are able to create: remove all the misery you are able to remove. Every day will allow you to add something to the pleasure of others, or to diminish something of their pains. And for every grain of enjoyment you sow in the bosom of another, you shall find harvest in your own bosom; while every sorry which you pluck out from the thoughts and feelings of a fellow creature shall be replaced by beautiful peace and joy in the sanctuary of your soul.

Jeremy Bentham in a birthday letter to a friend’s young daughter, quoted in Layard 2005: 235-6)

Economic growth has been a central policy objective of most governments over the last fifty or so years. Part of their overt rationale has been that by increasing national and individual incomes, people have more choice and the ability to pursue that choice. However, as an increasing number of commentators have identified, the relationship between growing economic prosperity and both individual happiness and social well-being that may have existed in ‘developed countries’ appears to have broken down (see, for example, Frey, and Stutzer 2002). Shah and Marks (2004: 4) comment, ‘whilst economic output has almost doubled in the UK in the last 30 years, life satisfaction has remained resolutely flat… Meanwhile depression has risen significantly over the last 50 years in developed countries’. They go on to argue that many people are languishing rather than flourishing i.e. living happy and fulfilling lives.

For people to lead truly flourishing lives they need to feel they are personally satisfied and developing, as well as functioning positively in regard to society. Unfortunately too many people are instead languishing – living unhappy, unfulfilled lives as well as lacking social and community engagement. Estimates from the US suggest that less than 20 per cent of the population are flourishing and over 25 per cent are languishing, with the rest being somewhere in between. (Shah and Marks 2004: 5 – using material from Singer and Ryff 2001)

All this poses a particular challenge to educators for as Nel Noddings (2003: 1) has commented, ‘Happiness and education are, properly, intimately connected. Happiness should be an aim of education, and a good education should contribute significantly to personal and collective happiness’. Sadly, much schooling and non-formal education has become increasingly directed towards economic end. The result has been both a narrowing of educational experiences within schooling, and state-sponsored informal education and lifelong learning, and now, it seems, a sharply decreased ability to add to people’s well-being. If those concerned with the ‘new science’ of happiness are to be believed, much educational policy is profoundly misguided.

What is happiness?

Many contemporary explorations of happiness in everyday life are based upon a subjective reading of well-being. Investigators ask people about their current feelings, whether they are hopeful about the future etc. and from this establish some measure of happiness in a particular time and place. This sort of approach is based on the belief that there is such a thing as ‘feeling good’ and ‘feeling bad’ – and that people can identify and talk about it. Richard Layard (2005: 12-3) provides us with such a starting point:

[B]y happiness I mean feeling good – enjoying life and wanting the feeling to be maintained. By unhappiness I mean feeling bad and wishing things were different. There are countless sources of happiness and countless sources of pain and misery. But all our experience has in it a dimension that corresponds to how good or bad we feel. In fact most people find it easy to say how good they are feeling, and in social surveys such questions get very high response rates… The scarcity of ‘Don’t knows’ shows that people do know how they feel, and recognize the validity of the question…. [M]ost of us take a longish view. We accept the ups and downs and care mainly about our average happiness over a longish period of time.

As Nel Noddings (2003: 22) has written, ‘It seems obvious that a judgement of happiness is best made by the person who claims or disavows happiness’. However, it is also possible that there are objective features of happiness. It can be argued that happiness is an objective dimension of human experience – and that it can be measured (Layard 2005: 224). Indeed, it has been increasingly possible to marshal a range of scientific evidence to support this view. Developments in brain and gene research, and more broadly in psychology and biology, have allowed us to talk with more certainty in this area (see (Lykken 1999 and Martin 2005). We know, for example, that:

  • Genetically, we have a predisposition to a certain level of happiness. It could account for around 50 per cent of the variations we find in people’s current happiness. The key here, of course, lies in the interaction between our genetic predispositions and other factors such as our upbringing (Shah and Marks 2004: 5).
  • Life circumstances such as our income, possessions, and relationships as well as things like the nature of our neighbourhood and jobs play a part. However, it may only account for 10 per cent of the variation in our happiness (op. cit.).
  • Intentional activities – pursuits that we actively engage in such as socializing, doing meaningful work, reflecting upon and savouring life, and exercising – may account for 40 per cent of the variation in our happiness (ibid.: 6).

How we feel as we live our lives fluctuates – but the argument here is that there is a broad movement that arises from the interaction of our genetic predispositions with our life circumstances and the extent to which we engage in intentional activities that facilitate flourishing. The problem in terms of the pursuit of happiness is that we have only limited control over both subjective and objective factors. ‘We do not choose the conditions into which we are born, and all sorts of contingencies plague human life’ (Noddings 2003: 25). Furthermore, there is a limit to which we may ‘act on’ our genetic inheritance.

There is also a normative dimension to happiness. To appreciate this dimension, and to understand it in relation to education in the Western world, it is necessary to return to Aristotle. He and other classical thinkers like Plato and Socrates looked to claim happiness from contingency. That is, ‘they wanted to define happiness in a way that makes it independent of health, wealth, and the ups and downs of everyday life’ (Noddings 2003: 9). Happiness for them was something that referred to the whole life or the trajectory of a life. It was not episodic. Central to Aristotle’s efforts is the question ‘What is the good life for wo/man?’ This human good or eudaimonia is sometimes translated as human flourishing or well-being, but is commonly called happiness.

Like later commentators Aristotle sought to identify the key elements of happiness. In his writings it is possible to discern two radically different conceptions. The first, ‘comprehensive’ view focused around eudaimonia and allowed for some contingencies. He recognized that wealth, health and friendship were significant but argued that the exercise of reason was ‘the major component of happiness’ (Noddings 2003: 10). His second, ‘intellectualist’ view was built around the notion that ‘theoretical or contemplative thought is happiness’ (op. cit.). Contemplation involves mulling over facts and ideas that the person already possesses. This is how one writer describes it:

The Aristotelian contemplator is a man who has already acquired knowledge; and what he is contemplating is precisely this knowledge already present in his mind… the contemplator is engaged in the orderly inspection of truths which he already possesses; his task consists in bringing forward from the recesses of his mind, and arranging them fittingly in the full light of consciousness. (Barnes 1976: 38)

This, in Aristotle’s ‘intellectualist’ view, was the highest form of human activity. It was the ultimate intellectual virtue: a life of unbroken contemplation being something divine. This hierarchy of human activities placing the intellectual above practical reasoning contributed to separation of theory and practice. It has had a lasting impact upon education contributing to the view that some subjects are more valuable and carry a higher status than others.

Such a view of happiness – where there were higher and lower pleasures – retained its significance and was to gain great currency in the nineteenth century. Here the efforts of John Stuart Mill were particularly noteworthy. Mill argued that happiness (meaning pleasure or the absence of pain) was the ultimate purpose or end of human life. But this was not an individualized phenomenon. Instead, Mill looked to the greatest happiness of the greatest number of individuals (known as the ‘greatest happiness principle’). Actions could then be judged as right ‘in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness’ (Mill 1863; 1998). Pleasures of the intellect (knowing and imagining) and pleasures associated with virtue or moral sentiments were seen by Mill as standing above other pleasures – mere sensation. ‘Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites’, he commented, ‘and when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification’. Mills concluded that:

it is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognize the fact that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others. It would be absurd that while, in estimating all other things, quality is considered as well as quantity, the estimation of pleasures should be supposed to depend on quantity alone. (Mill 1863, Chapter 2)

Richard Layard (2005: 22) has commented that Mill’s intuition in this was right – but that his formulation was wrong. ‘People who achieve a sense of meaning in their lives are happier than those who live from one pleasure to another’ (op. cit.). However, it is questionable that some forms of happiness are intrinsically better than others (ibid.: 23).

What makes us happy?

When researchers talk to people about what makes them happy, and what causes them pain, a fairly consistent set of answers emerge. For example, Robert E. Lane’s influential study (2000) showed strong links between subjective feelings of well-being and companionship (by which Lane meant family solidarity and friendship). We gain happiness through our relationships with other people. He argued, ‘it is their affection or dislike, their good or bad opinion of us, their acceptance or rejection that most influences our moods (ibid: 6). To all this we can add what we know of the significance of relationship in the early years of human life – particularly in the home. Lane found that once people rise above the poverty level happiness tends to lie in the quality of friendships and of family life. Increased income and the possession of more and more material goods have little impact on feelings of well-being.

Other writers have used a range of published research and have come to broadly the same conclusions. According to Richard Layard (2005: 62-3), for example, when we look at studies seven factors stand out. However, many of these are linked to the quality of our relationships.

Exhibit 1: Layard’s ‘big seven’

Richard Layard (2005) argued that seven factors are central to happiness. Furthermore, he used research such as the US General Social Survey to establish (for the US at least) five in some sort of order of importance. Two further factors were seen as central, but could not be ranked due to lack of survey evidence.

  1. Family relationships. In just about every study, family relationships and our close private life are ‘more important than any other single factor affecting our happiness’ (ibid: 63).
  2. Financial situation. As we have already seen our individual financial position is of significance – especially when we are on the margins of poverty – but beyond that it is a poor second to the quality of close and family relationships as a significant source of longish term happiness.
  3. Work. There is considerable evidence that we need to feel we are contributing to the wider society. Layard comments, ‘[W]ork provides not only income but also an extra meaning to life’. He continues ‘That is why unemployment is such a disaster: it reduces income but it also reduces happiness directly by destroying the self-respect and social relationships created by work’ (2005: 67). However, it is also that the work is fulfilling (and here one of the most significant features is the degree of control people have over what they do) (ibid. 64). This is a theme that Richard Sennett has explored in The Corrosion of Character (2000).
  4. Community and friends. As we have already seen writers like Lane have placed a strong emphasis upon companionship. However, it is also clear that the quality of the communities in which we participate has a strong influence upon how we feel. If we do not live and operate in communities and groups where there is a sense of trust and belonging then there is a raft of evidence that shows the impact upon our ability to be happy. In recent years issues around this have been most strongly articulated in debates around social capital (see, in particular Robert Putnam).
  5. Health. In studies people frequently cite health as an important contributor to happiness – and for some reason. While we may be able to adapt to many things that happen to us physically, but they take an emotional toll. When it comes to chronic pain and mental illness adaptation is more difficult and there should be a priority placed upon controlling suffering (Layard 2005: 69).

Also key:

  • Personal freedom. Happiness also depends upon the quality of the political, economic, legal and social systems in which we operate. There is some evidence that people living in stable and peaceful societies in which they have a voice and an ability to follow their interests (where it does not harm others), and in which institutions are accountable will be happier. (Lane 2000; Layard 2005: 69-70).
  • Personal values. People’s happiness depends on their ‘inner selves‘ and philosophies of life. ‘People are happier if they are able to appreciate what they have, whatever it is; if they do not always compare themselves with others; and if they school their own moods’ (Layard 2005: 72). While we may want to question an emphasis on ‘schooling moods’ and its behaviourist overtones, and to balance it with a concern with biography and the unconscious, the direction of Layard’s argument is surely right. As Parker Palmer has put it, it is difficult to see how people can come to know others, or the world, if they do not know themselves. And, in turn, it is difficult to overcome ‘the pain of disconnection’ if we do not attend to matters of the spirit.


One of the interesting things about lists such as these are the factors that are omitted. Five features that we might expect on such a list, but that appear to have little impact on happiness are, according to Layard:

  • age. Such research as we have shows that average happiness is remarkably stable over the lifespan.
  • gender. Surveys show that men and women are roughly equally happy in nearly every country researched.
  • looks. Such research as we have seems to show that how we look makes little difference.
  • IQ. In self-rated studies IQ is said to be only weakly correlated with happiness in terms of subjective feelings of happiness.
  • education. Education appears to have only a small direct impact on happiness, though it does raise happiness indirectly through its impact on people’s ability to earn, for example. (Layard 2005: 62)

The focus in many societies on the acquisition of things – be they material goods, qualifications or good looks – seems woefully misplaced in the light of this. Most people recognize that the quality of family and home life (whatever form it takes), friendship and the ability to contribute to society are what count, yet many are still wedded to consumption. Why is this?

The loss of happiness in market economies

Many consistently choose higher income over companionship. People are not, it seems, very good judges ‘of how, even within the private spheres of their own lives, to increase, let along maximize, their happiness’ (Lane 2000: 9). The reasons for such poor choice lie, in part, in the ‘economistic’ cultures and ideologies that dominate western societies. As Erich Fromm put it some time ago:

Modern capitalism needs men who co-operate smoothly and in large numbers; who want to consume more and more; and whose tastes are standardized and can be easily influenced and anticipated…. What is the outcome? Modern man is alienated from himself, from his fellow men, and from nature. He has been transformed into a commodity, experiences his life forces as an investment which must bring him the maximum profit obtainable under existing market conditions. (1995: 67, but first published in 1957)

More recently Jean Baudrillard has argued that many now live in societies dominated by the object and spectacle. People with wealth ‘are no longer surrounded by other human beings, as they have been in the past, but by objects‘, Baudrillard wrote. ‘Their daily exchange is no longer with their fellows, but rather, statistically as a function of some ascending curve, with the acquisition and manipulation of goods and messages’ (Baudrillard 2001: 32). Once this happens we can never be satisfied and will always be frustrated. Further, according to Baudrillard, given the power of advertising and the dynamics of consumption, resistance is difficult if not impossible (see Norris 2004). Whether or not things are so bleak is a matter for significant debate and the sense we make of three interlinked dynamics that appear to contribute to distorted decision making. These are the models of selfhood we employ; the way in which we make comparisons with others and with our own previous experiences; and the privatizing impact of social and technological change.


To understand why resistance is difficult and why people do not, thus, choose paths that lead to their own well-being, Lane argues, we have to go back to the highly individualistic nature of selfhood that is common in those societies. In ‘premodern’ or more traditional societies greater weight was and is put on the whole and the transcendent. Indeed, it is very difficult for people to know who they are and what they are to do without these. It is through membership of social groups that individuals identify themselves and are identified by others. With the break-up of such an order in many western countries came ‘possessive individualism’ (Macpherson 1962: 270). This involved the idea that we naturally ‘own’ our own person and capacities, and owe nothing to society for them. The result is a much greater emphasis on the pursuit of individual rather than group goals, and a more instrumental view of relationships. The latter are approached more in terms of profit and loss – what they might yield to the individual – rather than as part of living. Furthermore, a key dimension here is the extent to which such individualization is linked to a fear of meaninglessness which in turn derives according to the influential arguments of Paul Tillich (1952) and others as deriving from a lack of connection to God. Whether resistance is possible, and whether it is possible to achieve greater happiness, thus, is dependent to some extent on our ability to come to a different appreciation of who we are – and to place ourselves in the world. The fact that significant numbers of people are able to do this provides us with some grounds for hope.

Social comparison and habituation

As well as the looking to the particular notions of selfhood in use we also need to attend to the significance of comparison – especially around income and wealth. We look at what others have, and what we have got used to. The first is governed by social comparison. As Layard (2005: 42 and 43-48) has put it, people care greatly about relative income. Indeed, it appears from various studies that rises in other people’s income but not our own is felt deeply. It is also clear that many people would be prepared to take a significant fall in living standards if they could move up the ladder when compared with others (op. cit.).

This basic psychological mechanism reduces the power of economic growth to increase happiness. It also leads to distorted incentives. For if I work harder and raise my income, I make other people less happy. But when I decide how much to work, I do not take this ‘pollution’ into account. So I will tend to work more than is socially efficient – and so will everyone else. (Layard 2005: 47)

There are differences in the way that work and other aspects of life are balanced between different societies (the so called ‘work-life balance). There is evidence that various cultural factors (in part linked to the notion of selfhood we employ) moderate the drive to work ever-longer hours. Some research also shows that countries will have a higher level of average happiness the more equally its income is distributed (once the famous economists caveat is employed) – all else being equal (ibid.: 52).

This mechanism also sheds an interesting light on something that many commentators take for granted: that it is conformity that drives consumerism. What this basic phenomenon appears to demonstrate is that consumerism (an obsession with acquiring more and more goods and services) is ‘a product of consumers trying to outdo one another’ (Heath and Potter 205: 106). Ironically, the very attempt to avoid branding (and to be different) can fuel consumer spending and competition.

When we turn to habituation – or what we have got used to – we encounter the problem of adaptation. Put simply, once we have a certain experience, for example, having and being able to use washer-dryer or a dvd recorder, we need to have more of it to sustain our happiness. This is how Layard (2005: 48), again, puts it: ‘You are in fact on a kind of treadmill, a “hedonic” treadmill, where you have to keep running in order that your happiness stands still’.

Privatized leisure time

As well as looking to issues around individualism and the comparisons we make, it is also worth noting the privatizing impact of technological and social change upon the ways in which we live our lives, and to look at the way that these impact upon our capacity to foster companionship and friendship. Perhaps the most sustained and interesting treatment of such questions in recent years has been in the context of social capital. Here the work of Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone (2000) has been especially influential. He was able to demonstrate, for the United States at least, that there had been a significant decline in political and civic engagement; the scale and depth of informal social ties; and in tolerance and trust. Putnam was able to demonstrate that some favourite candidates for blame around this decline could not be regarded as significant. Residential mobility had actually been going down for half of the century. Time pressure, especially on two-career families, could only be a marginal candidate. Some familiar themes remained though:

  • Changes in family structure (i.e. with more and more people living alone), are a possible dynamic as conventional avenues to civic involvement are not well-designed for single and childless people.
  • Suburban sprawl has fractured the spatial integrity of people’s lives. They travel much further to work, shop and enjoy leisure opportunities. As a result there is less time available (and less inclination) to become involved in groups and informal social ties.
  • Electronic entertainment, especially television, has profoundly privatized leisure time. The time we spend watching television is a direct drain upon involvement in groups and social capital building activities.

Taken together these elements are a powerful force. Declining involvement in associations and organizations that promote alternative paradigms of what might make for happiness (especially involvement in many religious groups and in social movements concerned with justice and social solidarity) has had a significant impact.

The stress on possessive individualism, the tendency to compare; and the impact of privatized leisure time have all taken their toll. The idea that happiness might reside in companionship, worthwhile activity, in our having some sense of our place in the world and the like is half recognized by many of us. When asked most of us can say what makes for happiness, but we fail to follow what we know when it comes to making decisions. The fact that we have some sense of what might make for human flourishing does provide us with some possibility for change. As Gramsci has persuasively argued hegemony is never complete and this means that there are always tensions and gaps that can be opened up. In this there is clearly a role for educators.

Education for happiness

One of the striking features of political life and discussions around educational reform is the almost complete absence of any sensible conversation around well-being and what might make people happy. Instead much debate is formulated in terms of how education might contribute to economic growth (which, as we have already seen, often has a negative impact on human flourishing) and upon accreditation and achievement within the narrow boundaries of national curricula and the like. Attention is given to what is taught and how. In one of a number of memorable passages in The Courage to Teach, Parker J. Palmer dissects a fundamental problem with much of the discussion around educational reform:

The question we most commonly ask is the “what” question – what subjects shall we teach?

When the conversation goes a bit deeper, we ask the “how” question – what methods and techniques are required to teach well?

Occasionally, when it goes deeper still, we ask the “why” question – for what purposes and to what ends do we teach?

But seldom, if ever, do we ask the “who” question – who is the self that teaches? How does the quality of my selfhood form – or deform – the way I relate to my students, my subject, my colleagues, my world? How can educational institutions sustain and deepen the selfhood from which good teaching comes? (Parker J. Palmer 1998: 4)

We cannot hope to reform education, he argues, if we fail to cherish and challenge ‘the human heart that is the source of good teaching’ (Parker Palmer 1998: 3). Nor will much be achieved if do not engage with the question of aims.

As Nel Noddings (2003: 74) has commented, until recently ‘aims-talk figured prominently in educational theory’, and most educational systems had some sort of statement of aims. Today much discussion in market democracies is dominated by a concern with standards – and ‘the reasons given for this emphasis is almost always economic’ (ibid.: 84). If we believe that people should have the chance to live happy and fulfilling lives then this will simply not do. We both need to rescue aims-talk – and to infuse it with a concern for flourishing.

Placing happiness at the centre of debates around aims does not mean a lack of attention to vocational and to the economic – as John Dewey was so careful to point out. But it does mean putting them in their place alongside other facets of life. As John White (1982) has helpfully shown when we place well-being, happiness at the core of educational effort then three tasks come to the fore. First, individuals have to understand in general terms what their well-being consists in. They have to see themselves as animals with an array of desires, ‘and to appreciate the way in which these desires may take different forms owing to cultural influences and new desires of all kinds be built out of them’ (White, 1982: 58). This process is both expansionary (it opens up doors) and restrictive (i.e. choices have to be made).

Second, the educational task must include the development of competencies in relation to the attainment of such basic human goods. This involves the development of skills in relationships, in obtaining the means of subsistence, in work and so on. Nel Noddings (2003) has explored a number of possible areas with regard to educating for ‘private life’ (making a home, loving places and nature, parenting, character and spirituality, and interpersonal growth) and around educating for ‘public life’ (preparing for work, educating for community, democracy and service).

Third, and crucially, the possession of general understandings and skills is not enough – educators also have a fundamental role in shaping dispositions. In other words, if people are to flourish and be happy they need to gain various dispositions or virtues which enable them to fit all this together into a coherent whole.

Just how educators start to do this within narrow, prescriptive and economistic education systems is a matter of some interest to many at the moment. For individuals it does entail having the ‘courage to teach’ rather than merely parrot the requirements of national and state curricula – and finding the resources to do this is a struggle. This is especially so where teachers have been trained and socialized as unquestioning ‘deliverers’ rather than educators. However, the example of the significant number who dare to question and to subvert narrow schooling does provide something of a beacon. It is also clear that little can be achieved without educators joining together to develop different understandings, organize and campaign.

Happiness in education

We can now turn to Parker J. Palmer’s ‘who?’ question. Education aimed at happiness cannot be achieved by simply teaching about happiness. We come to flourish in important ways through experiencing flourishing. This means cultivating spaces for learning where people can be happy. It also requires the involvement of educators who are happy in what they are doing and are seeking to live life as well as they can (see Palmer 1998). As Nel Noddings has again written with regard to the education of children:

The best homes and schools are happy places. The adults in these happy places recognize that one aim of education (and of life itself) is happiness. They also recognize that happiness serves as both means and end. Happy children, growing in their understanding of what happiness is, will seize their educational opportunities with delight, and they will contribute to the happiness of others. Clearly, if children are to be happy in schools, their teachers should also be happy. Too often we forget this obvious connection. Finally, basically happy people who retain an uneasy social conscience will contribute to a happier world. (Noddings 2003: 261)

One of the clearest explorations of the what is entailed in creating space of this kind has been given by Parker J. Palmer. In To Know As We Are Known, he argues that a learning space has three essential dimensions: openness, boundaries and an air of hospitality (1983; 1993: 71-75). In the first the educator and participants work to clear away the clutter – whether that is meaningless words, pressure to get on with the daily round, obstructive feelings, whatever. However, ‘the openness of a space is created by the firmness of its boundaries‘ (ibid.: 72). It has to be a structure for learning, not ‘an invitation to confusion and chaos’. (op. cit.). Learning can be painful, its processes and outcomes off-putting. For this reason, and much in the same way that Ivan Illich championed conviviality, Parker J. Palmer has looked, helpfully, to hospitality. ‘Hospitality means receiving each other, our struggles, our newborn ideas, with openness and care’. He continues, ‘the classroom where truth is central will be a place where every stranger and every strange utterance is met with welcome’ (Palmer 1983; 1993: 74) (for a discussion of Palmer’s view of spaces for learning see Parker J. Palmer: community, knowing and spirituality in education).


In this piece we have seen just how societies that focus on economic growth run the risk of significantly depressing the happiness of many of their members (as well as people in other societies). We have also seen that there is strong evidence to the effect that certain areas of human experience encourage happiness and well being. These include the quality of relationships in the home and with friends, the ability to contribute to economic and social life, and a strong philosophy of life. We have also seen there is a very strong case for putting happiness at the centre of educational endeavour.

If educators are to take happiness, human flourishing, seriously then there need to be some fundamental changes in the way we understand, approach and organize education.

First, a concern for happiness in education entails looking beyond the classroom and immediate teaching context. If formal educational institutions are to have a care for the whole person then a range of other opportunities and experiences must be offer. This includes a extra-curricular activity and the opportunity to become involved in associational life.

Second, it involves engaging with informal education, community learning and more dialogical forms of educating.

Third, it entails jettisoning large areas of national and state curricula (if not the state or national curriculum itself) and seeking out approaches and subjects that do not alienate.

Fourth, happiness in education requires the possibility of easy access to counselling and pastoral provision so that those who are troubled have a means to come an understanding of themselves and their situation.

The list goes on … and its scope and scale is an indicator of the difficulties involved in re-orienting educational systems. Perhaps Jean Baudrillard was right when he spoke of the difficulties of resisting dominant cultures – but people’s happiness seems too important for us not to try.

Further reading and bibliography

Lane, R. E. (2000) The Loss of Happiness in Market Economies, New Haven: Yale University Press. 465 + x pages. Important study demonstrating declining happiness in market economies, and the significance of companionship as a contributor to well-being.

Layard, R. (2005) Happiness. Lessons from a new science, London: Allen Lane. 310 +ix pages. Highly recommended and readable exploration of the nature of happiness and what makes us happy (and unhappy) and in the process undermines the supposed link between wealth and happiness. Explores what can be done.

Noddings, N. (2003) Happiness and Education, New York: Cambridge University Press. 320 pages. The book explores what we might teach if we were to take happiness seriously as a goal of education. It looks at education for private and public life.

Palmer, P. J. (1998) The Courage to Teach. Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Based on the premise that good teaching cannot be reduced to technique, but comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher, this book explores a number of themes central to informal education and to teaching generally.

Putnam, R. D. (2000) Bowling Alone. The collapse and revival of American community, New York: Simon and Schuster. 541 pages. Brilliant analysis and setting out of evidence concerning the decline and possible reconstruction of civil life in the United States.


Aristotle The Nicomachean Ethics, London: Penguin. (The most recent edition is 1976 – with an introduction by Barnes).

Aristotle The Politics (A treatise on government), London: Penguin.

Barnes, J. (1976) ‘Introduction’ to Aristotle The Nicomachean Ethics (‘Ethics’), Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Barnes, J. (1982) Aristotle, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Baudrillard, J. (2001) ‘The Consumers Society’, in Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings, edited by Mark Poster. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Bentham, J. (1988) Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, London; Prometheus Books.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, New York: Harper and Row.

Frey, B. S. and Stutzer, A. (2002) Happiness and Economics: How the economy and institutions affect human well-being, Princeton NJ.: Princeton University Press.

Halpin, D. (2003a) Hope and Education: The Role of the Utopian Imagination, London, Routledge-Falmer.

Halpin, D. (2003b) ‘Hope, utopianism and educational renewal’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education, www.infed.org/biblio/hope.htm.

Heath, J. and Potter, A. (2005) The Rebel Sell. How counterculture became consumer culture, London: Capstone.

Lykken, D (1999) Happiness: the nature and nurture of joy and contentment, New York: St Martin’s Press.

Martin, P. (2005) Making Happy People. The nature of happiness and its origins in childhood, London: Fourth Estate.

Mill, J. S. (1998) Utilitarianism (ed. R. Crisp), Oxford: Oxford University Press. First published in 1863. Chapter 2 of Utilitarianism – ‘What utilitarianism is’ can be found at: http://www.utilitarianism.com/mill2.htm.

Norris, T. (2004) ‘Hannah Arendt and Jean Baudrillard: pedagogy in the consumer society, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education, www.infed.org/biblio/pedagogy_consumer_society.htm.

Palmer, P. J. (1983, 1993) To Know as We are Known. Education as a spiritual journey, San Francisco: HarperSan Francisco.

Shah, H. and Marks, N. (2004) A well-being manifesto for a flourishing society, London: New Economics Foundation. http://www.neweconomics.org/gen/z_sys_publicationdetail.aspx?pid=193. Accessed March 25, 2005.

Sennett, R. (2000) The Corrosion of Character. Personal consequences of work in the new capitalism New York: W. W. Norton.

Singer, B and Ryff, C (eds) (2001) New Horizons in Health: An Integrative Approach, Washington: National Academies Press.

Tillich, P. (1952) The Courage to Be, New Have CT.: Yale University Press.

White, J. (1982) The Aims of Education Restated. London, Routledge and Kegan Paul.

The Bentham quote at the start of the piece is taken from Layard (2005) page 111.


Ricard Layard’s LSE page has links to the Lionel Robbins Memorial Lectures he did on happiness in 2002/3, and the annexe to his book Happiness.

Nel Noddings, caring and education. An exploration of her seminal contribution.

New Economics Foundation: well-being programme with various articles and studies.

How to cite this article: Smith, M. K. (2005, 2013). ‘Happiness and education – theory, practice and possibility’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [https://infed.org/mobi/happiness-and-education-theory-practice-and-possibility/. Retrieved: insert date].

Acknowledgement: The picture is from heal your mind 2012 and is credited to festivalopenmind. It is reproduced here under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC 2 licence and was sourced from Flickr.

© Mark K. Smith 2005, 2013

Last Updated on October 10, 2019 by infed.org