There was a lively debate on the Moral Maze, BBC Radio 4, on Saturday night. The motion was: “Should the Government measure our national happiness?” Apparently this is what the Coalition is planning to do. As today, January 24, is now unofficially designated “the most miserable day of the year” it might seem a subject worth considering.
Of course, none of the programme’s witnesses was able to provide a satisfactory definition of “happiness” and the panel was sceptical, if not downright dismissive, of the whole idea. Anthony Seldon, headmaster of Wellington College, one of the witnesses, actually incorporates the teaching of “happiness”, or “well-being” as he prefers to call it, into his school curriculum and struggled to put up a case for it by saying that A-level results had shot up by over 30 per cent since these lessons had started.
Melanie Phillips, panel member, told him bluntly that “some of the happiest people in society are those with religious faith. Why not just teach religion?” It turned out that Seldon does believe in “a power beyond ourselves”. His lessons in happiness turn out to be a variation on the Golden Rule, common to all religions: “Do to others what you wish them to do to you.”
Just as I wanted to join the debate and bring up the possibility that we can never be wholly happy on this earth (I planned to quote those famous lines of St Augustine on the first page of his Confessions – “Our hearts are made for you, O Lord, and they will have no rest until they rest in Thee…”), panellist Clifford Longley – with whom I am not normally in agreement – did it for me. What about St Augustine, he said, adding that the need for meaning in people’s lives is more important than simply “happiness”.
If I were let loose in the classrooms of Wellington College (a public school so I would hope not completely at the mercy of the Thought Police of political correctness), I would tell the pupils that happiness is a fragile and ephemeral state of mind (and that it is a waste of time and money for the Government to try to “measure” it), but that there are certain ways to avoid unhappiness: it is better not to squander money and get into debt (as Mr Micawber in David Copperfield would illustrate); working at an unsatisfactory marriage is usually better than abandoning it (Anna Karenina is apposite here); gambling is to be avoided (see Dostoevsky), also alcoholism (they could study the life of Edgar Allan Poe); ambition is worthy, but best to avoid becoming obsessive (Moby Dick?) – and so on. Shakespeare illustrates everything.
In other words, rather than study “well-being”, let the pupils study literature. They could also be made to learn by heart Kipling’s poem “If”. It is always voted the most popular poem in the language, for good reason: it is uncomplicated, it is stirring, it rhymes, and it inculcates a tough, manly programme of ethics, very suited for running large corporations now that the empire is no more.
I would also explain to the pupils why I am a Catholic: back to the purpose and meaning of life; back to St Augustine.