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Friday Note: Happiness
Happy Friday, everyone.
“Happiness” is a tricky word. Sometimes it’s heard as something unserious, as something like “feeling good”. Other times it feels like an unrealistically high bar. And what does it even mean? What does happiness look like? It’s a timeless question, which means it’s a difficult question.
But it’s too important to give up on. The happiness of our students, both now and in their future, is of paramount importance. Happiness is an indicator that a life is going well and that the person living it is able to enjoy it. We want both for our students.
And I think we can at least sketch a sense of happiness—morally important happiness, not just feel-good-right-now happiness—that is important to education, and that we can help support as educators.
Montessori doesn’t say much about happiness as an overall state, but she is very clear that there is a kind of elevated pleasure that the child can experience and to which the child should habituate. And it’s closely connected with working, with doing real things intentionally and earning confidence.
“We think the child is happiest when he is playing; but the truth is that the child is happiest when he is working.” (Montessori, Education and Peace)
That is, the paradigmatically happy child for her isn’t giggling at the delight of a tickle war; he is lost in concentration, brow furrowed, trying to peel an orange. Here’s my daughter doing just that:
This deep connection between happiness and work—that doing good work is the path to avoiding misery and experiencing elevated pleasure—is a recurrent theme among my favorite writers. Two examples:
Virginia Valian offers an account of struggling with her own work ethic when writing her PhD thesis. She works through her “work problem” partly by giving it broader meaning in her entire life:
“What was the point of life? I asked myself. After a good deal of thought I decided that the point was to be happy. I consider this obvious to the point of triviality, except that I’m always running into people who can’t believe I’m serious.”
James Baldwin’s fiction is replete with a specific form of happiness through work: artists for whom their art is a salvation. Fonny, in If Beale Street Could Talk,
“had found something that he could do, that he wanted to do, and this saved him from the death that was waiting to overtake the children of our age.”
Sonny, of “Sonny’s Blues”, chastises the narrator for saying that
“you know people can’t always do exactly what they want to do—”…
“No, I don’t know that… I think people ought to do what they want to do, what else are they alive for?”
The capacity to find meaning in the discipline of purpose—which is the sine qua non of real happiness—is not common. Many people feel alienated from their work, from any work, from work as such. Montessori characterized this alienation as developmental:
“The inert child who never worked with his hands, who never had the feeling of being useful and capable of effort, who never found by experience that to live means living socially, and that to think and to create means to make use of a harmony of souls; this type of child...will become pessimistic and melancholy and will seek on the surface of vanity the compensation for a lost paradise.
“And thus, a lessoned man, he will appear at the gates of the university. And to ask for what? To ask for a profession that will render him capable of making his home in a society in which he is a stranger and which is indifferent to him. He will enter into a society to take part in the functioning of a civilization for which he lacks all feeling.” (From Childhood to Adolescence, Appendix C)
In her view, one of the main jobs of education is to protect and nurture the capacity in a child to experience happiness through work. (See this earlier Friday Note directly on this topic.) This means both helping the child practice this capacity and setting a broader moral-historical context in which work is valorized.
Work is central to happiness. But it’s not the only part of it. Indeed, it’s more than possible for someone to have a fine career—and to feel nothing for it, and feel nothing more broadly. Here’s Ayn Rand describing a tragic 20-something man of her acquaintance:
He had a brilliant mind, an outstanding scholastic record in the field of engineering, a promising start in his career—and no energy to move farther. He was paralyzed by so extreme a state of indecision that any sort of choice filled him with anxiety—even the question of moving out of an inconvenient apartment. He was stagnating in a job which he had outgrown and which had become a dull, uninspiring routine. He was so lonely that he had lost the capacity to know it, he had no concept of friendship, and his few attempts at a romantic relationship had ended disastrously—he could not tell why. (“Art and Moral Treason”)
Like Montessori, Rand traces this problem to a missed (or destroyed) opportunity earlier in development: children need to experience art, and to be enabled to take art with a kind of moral seriousness such that “any higher value or nobler experience” brings pleasure, not fear, guilt, or indifference. Having or lacking this capacity redounds upon all the higher goods of life: work, friendship, romance, art. And having or lacking this capacity is, again, a matter of development and learning and so the providence of parenting and education.
What does this look like? What should we do as educators? So far we’ve gestured at:
The intentional association of joy with purposeful activity and boredom with passivity, instead of the reverse
Engagement with and valorization of heroes in literature
A historical education that takes all facets of the work of civilization with moral seriousness
These things start very young, in early childhood and primary education. And they do a lot of work. They provide material for the child to build the foundations of her soul, her implicit ideas and worldview, in a way that gives her the best shot at enduring happiness.
What about explicit ideas? There’s an overall life design mindset that can be very helpful, even critical. Last year, Tim Urban had a fantastic piece in the NYT about overcoming the “joy deficit” that Covid has left us. His solution is intentional, long-term living, shaking off the premises that underwrite passivity:
“These two delusions—that we have countless time ahead of us and that we can’t change our course—are a recipe for complacency. Shedding them can wake us up and inspire us to live more wisely.”
It’s worth reading the whole piece for a sense of the kind of toolkits and cognitive resources about one’s lifespan and agency—that an adolescent could get in school. The conceptual framework adopted by Tim is lacking in education for no good reason; this longterm-happiness-conducive perspective can be imparted using didactic, explanatory resources. The most famous example of this is Stanford’s ultra-popular Life Design course, which exists in book form.
Happiness matters, and happiness is related to the deep virtues and mindsets that we are exceptionally well-positioned to help our students build. Our educational framework is precisely about those virtues and mindsets: the practice of agency, the capacity for meaningful work, the joy of understanding, the love of human beings. And our educational programs cover the entire age range of a developing human, so that we can offer a perfectly-layered foundation of experiences and ideas to help a student achieve these things.
Have a happy weekend,
Executive Director, Montessorium