Six Insights That Call for Happiness Education

When you seriously consider what children are taught in our schools, and the reasons given for teaching it, it is clear that their education aims first and foremost at meeting the presumed needs of society. This is not troubling if you assume that meeting the needs of society is the best way to serve the individual good of each child as well. But what if it isn’t? What if, in deeply pondering what the true good of a human being is, you realized it is almost completely neglected in our schools?

When you combine this realization with the understanding that the greater good of society cannot be served by neglecting the greater good of the individuals that comprise it, you arrive at the insight that something is fundamentally wrong with public education as we know it throughout the world. This disturbing conclusion follows from insight into what the greater good of a human being is.

You could simply accept what philosophers through the ages have said: the main aspiration of human beings is happiness. But this is too vague and ambiguous to be practical. You have to look deeper to understand the wellsprings of human motive.
The core insight is what I call the “affective theory of value,” which is similar but not synonymous with the “emotive theory of value” associated with Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, A.J. Ayers, and others. Robert Solomon comes close to my view that feelings entail the core experience of valuing when he says “Every value and everything meaningful—as well as everything vile, offensive, or painful—comes into life through the passions.”1

The next four paragraphs are a somewhat fuller explanation of this insight taken from an earlier version of the book, though most of it is word-for-word in the published version. I dwell on it because it undergirds the thesis of the book.

The core subjective value of any experience is entailed in feeling. We can distinguish between feelings that move us to seek a preferable experience—emotions such as fear, anger, hatred, lust, boredom and various other forms of dissatisfaction with present experience—and what we might call states of mind that are at least temporarily sufficient—happiness, fulfillment, joy, peace of mind, etc. This is an important distinction, but I include both emotions that move us to seek a preferable feeling and states of mind desired for their own sake in the word ‘feelings’ in a broad sense. Remove feeling in this broad sense from an experience and one is left with, at most, a robotic awareness of sensory data and perhaps a sentient acknowledgement of cause and effect without a motive to seek experience, to care about what you are experiencing, or to establish any preference among experiences.

Sensory perceptions have no experiential value shorn of the feelings that are associated with them. Even considered solely as sources of information about your environment, the value of such information derives from a purpose you are moved to pursue, and feeling in a broad sense is both the motive force and the target of human purpose. The same is true of thoughts; without motive to think them, without prospect of affective benefit, they would have no more experiential value than the calculation of a computer with no interest whatsoever either in the process or the result. Feeling is therefore the core value of experience, the treasure we seek in trying to arrange what we prefer to experience and without which experience would be no more than acknowledgment of data without purpose, and therefore without meaning in the sense of value.

Affect both entails and determines the value—positive, neutral, or negative—of all experience. Of course, the usual meaning of value is what we desire, appreciate, or find useful to our purposes. We usually do not speak of value in regard to what we loathe or do not care about. To value usually means to hold in positive regard. It is in this sense that feeling is the treasure we seek in experience; we seek preferable feelings. We are moved to attain a feeling preferable to what we are presently feeling, and experiencing the feeling at which we aim is the reward of attainment. The proximate objects of our pursuits may be people, possessions, comfort, entertainment, love, esteem, meaning, understanding, truth, circumstances and all else that glitters in the eyes of our minds, but their value lies in the feelings we hope they will evoke.

The desirability of the feelings we associate with experiencing these things is our subjective judgment of their relative value. Thus to speak of value without consequence to the human heart is to speak of value without consequence to human experience. It is the heart that bestows value, not the affect-barren reasoning of the mind.

I combine the affective theory of value and the understanding that the desire for a preferable feeling moves us in all we do in a single core insight into human motive. In the light of this insight, the neglect of children’s hearts in our schools may impoverish the subjective value of their life experiences. This neglect may diminish the experiential quality of their lives.

I say “may” because it depends on whether schools can realistically improve students’ prospects for feeling better than otherwise. The answer to the question of whether schools can contribute more than they do to the affective quality of children’s lives requires two further insights.

The third insight is a practical understanding of the pursuit of happiness as the moment-to-moment steps we take to experience a preferable feeling. These steps may be the steps of our bodies to arrange external experiences we associate with preferable feelings. Or they may be the steps of our minds to conjure such feelings. The importance of internal steps is revealed in the fourth insight: feelings are responses to our thoughts, in particular to our judgments, rather than direct responses to perceptions per se. In other words, our external experiences do not determine our feelings; our judgments of our experiences determine them.

These two insights point to the fifth: the ability to manage thoughts and judgments is the ability to influence what we feel. The sixth insight is that the knowledge and skills that help us feel better than otherwise and improve our chances for more happiness in our lives can be learned, and taught. In fact they have been successfully taught in thousands of schools with impressive results. We have the means, but do we have the will?

We can profoundly improve the subjective quality of our children’s lives in our schools if we choose to do so. The question is: do we think our kids are worth the time and effort to make the necessary changes?

1. Robert C. Solomon, The Passions: Emotions and the Meaning of Life (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hacket Publishing, 1993) p. 71.

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About Tony Armstrong

Professor of political science at Wesley College, Dover, Delaware. Author of Educating Angels: Teaching for the Pursuit of Happiness
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