Stuff happens

Life is spelt H.A.S.S.L.E. —Albert Ellis​, psychologist

Life is difficult. — M. Scott Peck, psychiatrist & author

Life is suffering. — Buddha

Shit happens. — Anonymous

In seeking to live a rich, full, and meaningful life, here’s what’s guaranteed: you will regularly experience fear, anger, guilt, frustration, disappointment, and sadness.

A ‘life well-lived’, a ‘flourishing’ life will always be one that comes as a package of positive and negative emotional experience. And that’s because it’s a life full of ‘stuff’ that matters.

(It is, therefore, possible to avoid negative emotional experience all together. Just don’t do anything that matters. Have no meaningful relationships, don’t seek to grow or develop at all, set no goals for yourself, never fall in love, and don’t contribute to your community. Instead, just sit on the sofa and watch reruns of Star Trek for the rest of your life.)

Wellbeing science is not attempting to make us ‘happy’ all the time or to help us avoid negative emotional experience. But it is seeking to provide evidence-based skills, knowledge, and strategies that help us handle the inevitable ups and downs of life more effectively.

A ‘good life’ still sucks at times. But we can learn, from wellbeing and human sciences, to better equip ourselves, family, friends, colleagues, and students for the journey.

Happily ever after

“…and they all lived happily ever after.”

No. No they did not.

I’m confused about how honest I should try to be with my three-year-old son. I’m conflicted about the Santa Clause ‘lie’. I’m struggling a little bit with the whole Easter Bunny thing. And I don’t know whether to let him know that, despite what his storybooks tell him, no one lives ‘happily ever after’.

From such an early age, we begin to build this socially-constructed myth that happiness is the normal, natural, default state for humans. And most of the time we don’t even know that we’re complicit in this myth. How many times as an adult have you seen a sad child and instinctively asked “What’s wrong?”. Sad = wrong. Happy = right. Instead of validating negative emotions, we tend to demonise them.

And children’s books are full of this narrative. Of course, they tell stories of challenge and struggle and fear, but in the final chapter, the sadness goes away, the ice melts, the little fish gets reunited with his family and everyone is okay and happy again. Back to the way it should be. Happy!

Clearly, there is a lot to be said for protecting the innocence of childhood. But there’s also a risk that, if the illusion is too great, if we build an impenetrable happiness myth, then we set our children up for unrealistic comparisons that can cause real problems later in life.

So, just as the best teachers demonstrate balance in their pedagogy, there is a middle-ground we should aim for with children. Let them get lost in the joy and wonder of Santa. And when they feel upset or afraid or disappointed, instead of asking “What’s wrong?”, be there, hold them, and say something like “I can see that you’re sad, I’m here with you. Tell me about what you’re feeling.”

The Santa and the Easter Bunny myths are relatively harmless; the happiness myth is not.

The rider and the elephant

New York University Professor Jonathan Haidt uses the analogy of a rider on an elephant to describe the two basic motivational systems in the human brain. The rider represents the rational system – the part that plans, thinks through problems, and weighs potential benefit against cost. The elephant represents the emotional system – the part that enables us to feel, to instinctively respond to the world, and that provides the power for the journey.

When the rider and the elephant are working together, synchronised on their journey, they make great progress. But the elephant is nearly 100 times heavier than the rider, so if there is disagreement or distraction – when push comes to shove…guess who wins?

So often, we spend a disproportionate amount of time finessing the rational element of our lessons, or meetings, or plans and we fail to intelligently and deliberately invest in motivating the elephant.

Teaching and learning is a highly human, highly emotional experience. In our classrooms, in our learning journeys, the rider matters a lot but the elephant matters more.