A biblical view of lessons in happiness

The nation’s best-known headmaster is probably Dr. Anthony Seldon.

A regular voice on Radio 4, he runs Wellington College, is a voluble proponent of the sponsorship of academies by independent schools, and is Tony Blair’s biographer, among other things. He is also at the forefront of a movement to introduce lessons in happiness to school pupils. Ridicule has been a common response, but often from a shallow understanding of the intentions and philosophy which drives education in well-being. This is a serious and, in many ways, laudable attempt to grapple with some of the besetting ills of our society. There is much to admire, but also a great deal to challenge, and above all an opportunity for biblically orthodox Christians involved in education.

Economics of happiness

Economists have long recognised that crude measures of average income are inadequate as an index of development, and the ‘economics of happiness’, in some form or other, has become part of the calculus by which political decisions are made. In this country, very obviously, statistics reveal a mental health crisis, and one that begins in childhood. The numbers of emotionally and behaviourally disturbed children in the UK has doubled since the 1970s, and the main causes of their anxieties will come as no surprise — looks, possessions, friends (or lack of them) and the ever-increasing load of public examinations and the pressures they bring.

Unhappy children become unhappy adults, and unhappy adults are (statistically) unproductive adults, and don’t make for a cohesive and developing society. For the economist Professor Lord Layard (another major figure in the Well-Being movement) it is obvious that lessons in happiness make economic sense, quite apart from the personal benefit they bring. Empirical research shows that people who seek the happiness of others (rather than making their own the primary aim) tend to be happier on the whole, and that what is needed, therefore, is a return to a moral education which teaches pupils how to be selfless and how to promote happiness as the ultimate virtue.

Osmosis in chapel

The great sadness for me, in listening to him speak recently, was in understanding a little of the personal story behind those views. He believed, he said, that he had gained a desire to be useful, an ability to count one’s blessings, and the robustness to accept bad things happening in the world, through a process of osmosis in Eton Chapel, where he reckoned he had spent thousands of (compulsory) hours. He lost his faith at university and, though recognising the value of the approach it had given him, saw the need to find a new language to express it, given that an increasing number of people could no longer accept the beliefs which shaped it. This should be rooted, he said, in the utilitarian values of the Enlightenment, and pupils should be taught their duty to create the most happiness and least misery within their power.

If this is no longer to happen in chapel, then moral character must be cultivated elsewhere — in happiness lessons. The insights of Cognitive Behavioural Psychology are regarded as important, because they teach us that you can choose your thoughts, and thus your feelings, rather than being at the mercy of them. PSHE, for example, should become a specialist subject ‘once we’ve got enough to be scientifically grounded’. To sum up, he said, we are all conscious of the moral vacuum which currently afflicts us. Our job as educators is to keep the best bits of the old culture, but in a new ethical language — one that convinces the majority of the population.

Golden rule

Christians need not fear a universally convincing morality, of course — the gospel is a unique solution to a universal problem. As C.S. Lewis wrote, Christ did not come to preach anything new where right and wrong were concerned – the Golden Rule of the New Testament (‘Do as you would be done by’) is a summing up of what ‘everyone, at bottom, had always known to be right’ or, as Paul would have it, what was ‘written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness’. A new ethical language, however, is a rather more troubling idea, because it suggests all sorts of presuppositions about the meaning and purpose of human life.

A utilitarian pursuit of happiness may have much to commend it, but the ‘greatest happiness for the greatest number’ begs the question of what happiness is, and what grounds we have for supposing it to be the primary aim of society and its endeavours. It is generally conceived in terms of material well-being and development, and thus the thrust of our efforts at home are economic, and abroad are well-meaning labours to bring about the same thing. It was the atheist and journalist Matthew Parris, however, who realised that this was not enough — certainly not in Africa, for example.

Changing hearts

It was Christianity that he saw changing hearts, and bringing real transformation and change to a culture and worldview. The contribution of Christian evangelism stood in sharp contrast to the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. Those who preached and led this liberating change were influenced, he accepted, by a conception of man’s place in the universe that Christianity had taught. We can’t avoid the metaphysics — there needs to be an answer to the question, ‘What is truth?’, unless like Pilate we discover that utilitarian foundations are really no foundations at all.

Purpose in life

Far from happiness being the ultimate aim of humanity, the Westminster Confession describes our chief end ‘as to know God and enjoy him forever’. Lewis also wrote a memorable essay entitled ‘We have no right to happiness’, and elsewhere asked: ‘Does it not make a great difference whether I am, so to speak, the landlord of my own mind and body, or only a tenant, responsible to the real landlord? If somebody else made me, for his own purposes, then I shall have a lot of duties which I should not have if I simply belonged to myself’.

Joyfully and paradoxically, however, locating our moral focus outside of Self, and in God, does not make us less happy; rather the opposite. In dying to ourselves we live; in seeking first things first, everything else is added. Professor Layard discovered that meditating on the seemingly harsh and uncompromising truths of the Bible gave him a much healthier perspective on life as a result. He would like to retain the best of this without the metaphysics, but one thinks instantly of Nietzsche’s madman — it simply isn’t possible.


If one were to sum up the well-being approach, then happiness lessons could be described as encouraging self-acceptance. How difficult this is, though, among pupils in a society which prizes celebrity, fame and transient ideals of beauty. What opportunities, in contrast, Christian educators have who can teach confidently that God is there and is not silent, that each individual is of infinite value and that happiness is best achieved when it isn’t our primary aim.

The Rev. Nick Seward is headmaster of Kingham Hill School, Chipping Norton — a Christian day and boarding school for boys and girls aged 11-18.