Robertson Davies said this about that elusive emotion we all seem to be grasping for: “Happiness is always a byproduct. It is probably a matter of temperament, and for anything I know it may be glandular. But it is not something that can be demanded from life, and if you are not happy you had better stop worrying about it and see what treasures you can pluck from your own brand of unhappiness.”
This quote hangs on the wall of my office at home, perpetually reminding me to appreciate the glimpses of joy and satisfaction that waft in and out of my life. The semester I student-taught, I stood before a room of seventh graders on my last day and told them that the greatest gift they could give the rest of the world would be to find their own happiness. My thinking was, and still is, that as long as we don’t sacrifice the happiness of others to attain our own, experiencing regular bouts of bliss can act as an antidote to evil, tipping the scales toward the side of good.
I know, this is the worst kind of optimism, simply unfounded, except this might not be so unfounded after all. According to a study conducted by Harvard Medical School and the University of California, San Diego, happiness spreads like a virus among friends and family and can even be contagious between you and your friends’ friends’ friends (that’s three degrees of separation). In other words, our happiness truly can be a gift to others just as an epiphany, that moment when the world shifts on its paradigmatic axis, can feel like the educational equivalent of a miracle.
However, some would have us believe that the core of education has nothing to do with self-actualization, that it is about fitting pegs into holes (or some other mechanistic metaphor), that it’s an economic imperative. To that I say, show me a happy person, and I’ll show you someone who is more productive than ten automatons.
Davies says that happiness is a byproduct, and so it is, one of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. We want to feel free, as if we have choices, even if they are limited. We want to challenge ourselves, to work toward expertise in at least one dimension of our lives. And yes, we want to feel like the grueling work to which we submit ourselves has a purpose, connects us, perhaps, to the larger world. And when we experience this trifecta, a certain inalienable delight is had.
Here’s the good news for those worried that students might miss out on the most vital aspects of learning if they happily get to make decisions about their educations: the side effect of happiness is achievement. Of course we want students to perform well as measured by all the possible definitions of performance, and of course we want them to contribute to society in useful ways. We want them to pick up after themselves and treat their neighbors kindly and keep all of our systems ticking along.
We want them to achieve. And they will. Studies confirm it. If only we would take our eye off the goal long enough to wonder what would happen if, lo and behold, their happiness bore more weight than money or promotions or the GDP…
– Jaime R. Wood is an educator in the Portland, Oregon, area and the founder of Dream School Commons.