Spectator – Carla Carlisle

Despite the long wait on the A14, lorry jack knifed, fatalities I got Sam to Cambridge nearly on time. I made the right decision: to get off the motorway and take the back roads around Newmarket. You never know, of course: sit it out or risk getting lost for an hour. It was with a sense of triumph that I delivered him to the address near the Botanic Gardens so he could spend three hours absorbing the Economics that he hasn’t grasped in the past seven months.

The final day of tutoring meant that I had a morning to myself, beginning with a stint in the Cambridge Coffee House reading newspapers. The article that grabbed my attention was about the historian Anthony Seldon, the new headmaster of Wellington College who’s introducing a revolutionary new course into the timetabled lessons: Happiness.

The very thought of it breaks my heart. Why am I sitting here drinking cappuchinos while my son is being forcefed economics in order to produce the As needed to apply to the universities that we dangle over him as the key to all future happiness? Sam, who is basically goodnatured, who has a genetic disposition towards the cheerful that defies his gene pool, who only becomes unhappy at the thought of Economics (and all forms of economy).

Apparently, the idea of the course began here in Cambridge with Dr Nick Baylis who lectures in Positive Psychology at the university, a branch of psychology that doesn’t concentrate on mental illness, but on mental wellness. If it sounds American, it is: Positive Psychology is taught on hundreds of US campuses and it became the most popular course at Harvard this year, beating Introductory Economics, tops for two decades. Sceptical as I can be about American imports litigation, hypochondria, the mall this one makes sense to me. I’ve always had a soft spot for unorthodox Lord Layard, the London School of Economics economist who’s dared to question the religion of economic growth over the promotion of happiness, maintaining that the best society is one where the citizens are happiest.

It’s not that schools avoid the notion of well-being. I know that Sam’s had lectures on the pitfalls of drugs, careless sex, alcohol, cigarettes; lectures designed to instil enough fear in young minds so they might think twice before doing something irrevocably stupid. My own talks always begin with a story that ends in tragedy and Sam tries to hush me up: ‘I’ve heard it all at school’.

I believe the course in Happiness would be a better thing altogether. Instead of focusing on the destructive, the shallow, the dumb and the dangerous, it ploughs the greener fields of emotional intelligence. Dr Seldon wants his pupils to learn how to form healthy and sustaining relationships, to avoid the destructive ones; to be realistic about their own talents; to detect what causes them pain and, knowing that, how to deal with it. He wants them to discover what generates happiness and how they can cultivate it.

This concept of happiness, developed by the 18th-century Enlightenment and inspiration to the authors of the Declaration of Independence who put its pursuit up there with Life and Liberty, is worth all the time we can give it. The truth is, I’d be happier for Sam to be taking a course on Happiness than Economics. I can imagine one that would at least acquaint him with Epicurus, Bertrand Russell and the Dalai Lama. However, if he doesn’t get an A in Economics, ain’t nobody going to be happy.

This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on April 27, 2006.