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Can we teach happiness (and is it worthwhile)?

23 Sep

Dalai Lama     A couple of days ago the Dalai Lama’s endorsement of an Action for Happiness course which offers training in how to be happy made the headlines. ‘Can happiness really be taught?’ the media were asking.

Personally I’m not knocking such courses. I’m sure lots of people find them helpful. At one time I would probably have got quite a lot out of one myself; and they certainly provide a cheaper alternative to psychotherapy or psychoanalysis. But I’d like to make a couple of observations. 

Firstly, on the individual level if we want to achieve something we generally have to suffer a bit, or even quite a lot. We have to work and worry and deal with self-doubt and stay at our desks or in our workshops instead of going out to the pub with our friends. And secondly, for me, the happiness of the individual is not the main point. I found an excellent illustration of this in a comment made by one of the previous participants in a happiness course. ‘I’ve not got a lot of money,’ the young woman said. ‘But I’ve learnt to get pleasure from some very simple things, like buying a homeless person a sandwich and a cup of coffee. Something like that makes me feel so much better.’ 

Good on her. It’s more than I ever do for a homeless person, and I bet the recipient as well as the giver felt better for a while too. But we mustn’t believe that the homeless person’s prospects are going to be fundamentally changed by her action. The point as far as the homeless person is concerned is that the rest of us ought to be struggling to change the world, not just making it a little bit nicer for the one on the streets. For the individual who takes on such a burden on a full-time basis this may well mean the end of happiness, not its beginning, because it will be hard and exhausting and soul-destroying and certainly in the short term a failure. I’m not brave enough to do it myself, but I do hope that there are people out there who will make that sacrifice, because there’s an awful lot that needs to be done.