I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring”

T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land


I saw in the paper last weekend a headline along the lines of ‘Happiness To Be Taught in Schools’.  If you believe what you read (which, for the record, I tend not to – even The Independent is a tabloid now) the government has appointed a ‘Happiness Tzar’ to help schoolchildren work on their self esteem and imbue them with (warning: new buzzword approaching) ‘Positive Psychology’.  This relatively recent discipline is largely the work of Dr Martin Seligman, a serious academic who has conducted much research in this field and can produce many sober statistics to demonstrate its effectiveness (see www.authentichappiness.com)

Indeed, Happiness is a serious business these days.  According to the newspaper article, the age at which mental illness first strikes has fallen from 30 to 14, with 10 percent of schoolchildren showing signs of depression (look out, teenagers: your monosyllabic grunts are no longer just ‘grumpiness’ – you’re now officially suffering from ‘prolonged bouts of despair’).  Psychologists and educationalists are articulating a nightmare ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario: wind the clock forward 60 years and pensioners in hoodies will be brandishing machetes in your local shopping centre, unable to find the love they were denied as infants.

Can this be true?  Were things really so much simpler in the good old days, when you could achieve a warm inner glow simply by doffing your cap as the Royal Family came by in a golden carriage, or by helping your neighbours sift through the rubble of their doodlebugged house?  Well, maybe: A recent BBC study found that the proportion of people describing themselves as ‘very happy’ has fallen from 52% to 37% in the last 50 years. 

There is an axis of interested parties, from Cognitive Behavioural Therapists to Buddhists, who are very clear that happiness comes from within; that taking responsibility for one’s own destiny is the only way to break free from the vicious cycle of “I will be happy when…”.  For the record, I share this philosophy; and in simple terms, I believe people can be ‘taught’ how to be happy.  But if you’re dealing with genuine cases of depression and despair, whether in the workplace or a school, it’s not just a case of getting the Positive Psychology manual off the shelf and having a 45 minute coaching session. With happiness, one needs to be in it for the long haul. 

There is no shortage of zeitgeist products to help: Solution-focused Coaching, Appreciative Enquiry, Positive Organisational Scholarship (and not a ‘TM’ in sight – maybe things are changing for the better).  But still, the real challenge is how to convince an ‘unhappy’ person that it is in their interest to take responsibility for their own destiny.  Imagine you’re being harassed at work and it’s depressing you.  You can choose to believe that if you spend several months working on your self-esteem and assertiveness you will be able to transform such incidents yourself; or you can take out a grievance procedure and prove it’s the other person’s fault.  Which feels easier? 

And we’re assuming that an office full of happy people is Good for Business.  The consensus of studies into this area is that while happy employees are less likely to leave, they also are less productive than workers who are ‘driven’, whether by draconian bosses or their own internal compulsion to be perfect – a compulsion which by its very nature, is unlikely ever to be satisfied.  I can see the hooded pensioners usurped by a pitched battle between life coaches and the CBI: self-determination versus competitiveness.  I wonder what Karl Marx would make of it all.

There is a seductive theory that the increasing level of wealth in our society has the counter-intuitive effect of making everyone more miserable.  The more we know is available to us, the more times we obtain the thing that we thought would make us happy only to find it didn’t, the more anomic we become.  An entry level New Age concept, indeed, but…..

During a lunch break on a recent workshop, I was sharing a table with two participants from Switzerland, the acme of wealthy societies, and two from the civil-war-torn Ivory Coast, currently one of the world’s most unstable countries.  The Swiss were explaining their complex system of democratic elections – a long and serious process designed to be as fair and representative as possible and keep everybody happy.  The gentlemen from the Ivory Coast – who could not be sure that their families would still be there when they got back, let alone whether they would ever experience a democratic election again – listened intently; then tipped back their heads and laughed.  And laughed.  All of a sudden they were the happiest people in the room.  You couldn’t make it up.

(c) Phil Lowe, 2006.  All rights reserved