Kingswood House is proud to host its inaugural Well-Being Week:
Monday 11 June – Friday 15 June 2018
Parents are warmly invited to join us for:
Tuesday 6.45pm “E-Safety Seminar” David Blake
Thursday 7.00pm “Well-Being Workshop” Dick Moore
In advance of our first Well-Being Week at KHS, I explore the concept of happiness…
The Pursuit of Happiness – how might we catch it?
As a small boy, I remember coming across the phrase “a beatific smile” in a book I was reading. I cannot remember what the book was and “beatific” was not a word I had heard of; rather than doing the sensible thing and looking it up in a dictionary, I did what most boys would have done – and took a shortcut. Given that the internet was still just a pipe-dream and there were no adults on hand to consult, I made as educated a guess as one can do at eight years old. I assumed it meant something like “a rueful grin”, wrongly associating the stem ‘beat’ with the word ‘beaten’. Of course, I am now aware that the word ‘beatific’ means euphoric – or to put it simply, a state of extreme happiness.
It is a word most commonly associated with the New Testament, in particular, “The Beatitudes” from The Sermon on the Mount – which constitute Jesus’ longest recorded and most often-quoted teaching. Some bibles translate the Beatitudes as ‘Blessed’ (Blessed are the poor, Blessed are the meek and so on) whilst others translate it as Happy (‘Happy are the poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers and those who hunger and search for righteousness). I find this play on semantics quite intriguing.
A dictionary will tell you that happiness is ‘a mental state characterised by positive emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy’. That definition covers a multitude of emotions, really. You can be a little bit happy, moderately happy, very happy or exceedingly happy. Some of the most influential thinkers on the planet have claimed that happiness should be our guide to ethical behaviour – that we should endeavour to create the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people – this concept is, of course, Utilitarianism, as espoused by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.
Bentham, in particular, advocated that our morality should be guided by our decision making – which in turn should be guided by “the greatest happiness of the greatest number, since that is, in his opinion, the true measure of right and wrong”. But how do you measure happiness? A recent BBC opinion poll suggested that despite the irrefutable fact that Britain is far wealthier than fifty years ago, people’s happiness levels have declined; politicians are now being told that they should put people’s happiness ahead of wealth creation – in the jargon it is called ‘subjective well-being’.
There can be little doubt, happiness is a growth industry. Just consider the number of courses, books and guides that exist with the sole purpose of exhorting us in this direction. Life coaches make a living out of it. Interestingly, scientific studies have shown that money and education (and even the weather) do not have a very great impact on our long-term happiness – but that certain ways of thinking and acting do.
Experts define various characteristics that make people happy. Chief among them is positive thinking – especially optimism, gratitude and humility. Our School community should reflect these factors appropriately. If you are a ‘glass half-empty’ sort of person (not that teachers or parents ever grumble, do they?) then perhaps there is a need to think more positively. We are, I think, right to celebrate and uphold the importance of the Kingswood House Way at this school, but is it not meaningless to do so if its message is only applicable to some, and not all, of our school community? We, as the adults, must aspire to personify those values just as much as the children in our charge.
One of the most important ways to achieve happiness is to engage with other people – fundamentally, to try and work towards their happiness; because, if we do that, we are likely to find happiness ourselves. It is obvious enough that happiness is not found in material possessions – you only have to look at the abysmal tales of woe that have afflicted National Lottery winners over the years – but it certainly can be found in the development of interpersonal relationships and the emotional investment of caring for others. If you set out in pursuit of happiness for its own sake then you are unlikely to find it – but you will certainly find it in everyday life if you are intent on giving happiness to others.
There is an old Chinese proverb to this effect, popularised by the American author Nathaniel Hawthorne, which uses a metaphor to compare the pursuit of happiness to chasing a butterfly – the more you try to catch it the more elusive it will become; but if you just get on with ordinary things as part of your day to day life, it will come and land on your shoulder.
Gurus declare that it is good practice to set achievable targets for oneself and to take regular physical exercise (the principle of being healthy in body and mind). Just think back to the London Marathon. There is a prime example of thousands of people combining exercise with virtue to raise money for various charities. I am certain that the participants will have found happiness through their achievement of helping others as well as by fulfilling a very testing personal goal.
Going back to the significance of ‘The Beatitudes’, The Sermon on the Mount reminds us how Christians can find true happiness. But happiness is a concept that transcends religion. In short, to be happy we need to ensure that our possessions do not possess us; we need to fight for the powerless to bring them justice; we need to recognise our own human frailty and be understanding of the needs of others; we need to have pure intentions, motivated by love of our neighbour; we need to take positive action to bring about peace and reconciliation; we need to have the courage of our convictions and the strength of mind not to follow the crowd. I advocate that happiness is found in having the right mind-set, the right values – and the courage to stand up for them.
In other words, we have to develop a positive attitude and live it every day. We have to become people who live for others and people who seek a spiritual investment, rather than a material reward. So as we embark on a new season, symbolically the summer with its associations of youth, prosperity and warmth – I challenge you to reclaim your happiness and reflect upon it as an iterative process, a commitment to maintaining a pathway in life underpinned by altruism, harmony and contentment.
Mr Duncan Murphy