PoW: Wellington's five-year experiment in happiness

I just got back from Wellington College, the boarding school in Berkshire which has been a pioneer in teaching well-being. I was invited to give a 'fireside chat' to some of its pupils by the headmaster Anthony Seldon.

Seldon is a remarkable person - besides being a successful boarding school headmaster, he's also very spiritual, he meditates and practices yoga every day, and his conversation is littered with references to Gurdjieff, the Bhagavad Gita, Krishnamurty or Kahlil Gibran. He has rather limpid hypnotic eyes, that reminded me somewhat of an Indian fakir. He's kind of a Buddhist version of Thomas Arnold, the 19th century headmaster of Rugby who was big on instilling character into his pupils. Instead of Arnold's muscular Christianity, we have Seldon's bendy well-being.

But he's also well-connected politically - he's written biographies of Blair, Brown and Major, and likes to discuss Westminster village gossip, who's in and who's out etc - and probably has a bigger media profile than any other headmaster. So he's an unusual combination of the swami and the Westminster player.

He brought these two quite distinct worlds together in Action for Happiness, the political movement he set up in 2011, along with Lord Richard Layard of the LSE, and Geoff Mulgan, a former Number 10 policy advisor who is also into Buddhism in a big way.  Action for Happiness is trying to prove that we can create happy schools, happy companies, happy communities and even happy nations.

Wellington College is, so far, one of the more successful experiments in this sort of happy community. When Seldon arrived at Wellington in 2005, it had bad exam results and a reputation for a culture of bullying. He pulled up the grades, introduced girls to the all-boys school, and replaced the bullying, chauvinist ethos with a new emphasis on well-being, including the introduction of well-being classes taught by Ian Morris. They're now planning to build a 'well-being hut' in the woods where students can study and meditate.

All of this at Wellington, a school famous for its muscular military ethos and links to nearby Sandhurst. Lord knows what the Army makes of the meditating peaceniks coming out of Wellington these days.

My concern, which I expressed in my book, is that 'well-being classes' could be too dogmatic and indoctrinating, so you end up telling young people what well-being is rather than giving them space to come to their own ideas. But Ian Morris, the well-being teacher at Wellington, is clearly not a close-minded person - he seemed more up-to-date with criticisms of Positive Psychology than I am. He says the well-being course consists in a series of ideas which the pupils try out. They don't have to agree with them or adopt them permanently, they just have to try them out. I haven't yet read Ian's book on teaching well-being, but I plan to - he's had more hands-on experience of teaching well-being than pretty much anyone else.

Anyway, I gave my talk, to a room of 15-year-olds. I wonderered what the hell they made of my discussion of Stoic philosophy and cognitive therapy, and worried that I was babbling incoherently, but they actually came up with very smart questions - they didn't seem like brain-washed automatons at all.

It remains to be seen how much the success of Wellington's 'happy experiment' depends on the resources and assets at the College's disposal, including the beautiful grounds. In the next few years, as Wellington looks to export its ethos to a chain of academies, we'll see how well the experiment works in inner cities.

By the way, Wellington has organised what looks an amazing conference this month on education, with everyone from Geoff Dyer to Michael Gove to AC Grayling speaking. Definitely want to go to that.

Meanwhile, the Times Educational Supplement had a good cover story looking at how the Department of Education appears to be rolling back on Every Child Matters, New Labour's flagship education policy, which gave schools a statutory responsibility to nurture the well-being of every pupil. Under Michael Gove, out has gone the emphasis on 'well-being', and in has come a more hard-headed focus on 'achievement' along with endless inspections. The TES expressed concerns that this shift in priorities, along with the huge reforms replacing comprehensives with academies and free schools, could create an institutional confusion that allows vulnerable or abused children to fall through the safety net.

Two heartening stories about higher education: the Guardian had a piece on Britain's oldest graduate, a 90-year-old who's spent the last 30 years in higher education; while the Wall Street Journal had a good piece on a bookclub for the homeless.

Two big and contentious issues in the 'politics of well-being' are obesity and pornography. Both revolve around our ability, or inability, to control ourselves, and the extent to which government should intervene to shape the values culture in which we live. They're both, in a way, post-liberal issues.

To take obesity first, it seems that, left to ourselves in the candy-coated world of capitalism, we gorge ourselves silly and end up with 25-50% of the population obese. So what can we do about it? You can try to educate people, which is what that well-known paternalist Jamie Oliver tries to do. Or the state can intervene more directly, which is what New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has done: New York has now banned giant-size holders of high sugar drinks. Putting the cookie jar on the top shelf, basically.

Meanwhile, in the UK, Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson (who is on the All-Parliamentary Committee on Well-Being) has also set up a committee on body image, which has recommended that all school children should be educated to consider body image, so they can resist the media' pushing of over-thin stereotypes. But aren't more than a third of UK children overweight or obese? Do they have body image problems, or body management problems? Or perhaps the media's thin hegemony actually makes overweight people feel lower self-esteem, so they eat more?

Also on the politics of obesity, a professor of politics at Sunderland University has brought out a new book on 'the philosophy of dieting' from Plato to Hobbes to Locke.

Meanwhile, I see more and more signs that the public debate is shifting on pornography from a libertarian consensus that it's a great thing and it's weird and prudish to criticise or control it. I think we're coming to a sense that the explosion in internet porn, including increasingly hardcore violent porn, is bad for us and should be controlled. Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo has a new book out saying a generation of boys has become addicted to the easy and non-intimate arousal of internet porn (here's his recent TED talk on the topic). I also noticed the news story about a 12-year-old boy who raped a 9-year-old girl after watching a lot of extreme pornography. Rape porn was made illegal in the UK in 2009, yet it's still prominently advertized on main porn websites like YouPorn and PornTube (both of which are owned by a Swiss conglomerate called Manwin). Why doesn't the government enforce this law and protect our children?

Alain de Botton thinks we need to create more aesthetic and more ethical porn. Go for it Alain - can't wait for the School of Life to branch out into that. All it needs is one of those beady curtains on the door to protect the anonymity of its customers.

Some happyology stuff. Firstly, the United States is being overcome by the mania for happiness measurements, state-by-state. Vermont and Maryland have both passed new initiatives to launch 'Genuine Progress Indicators', to include things like quality of the environment - though I'm not sure if they also include measures of subjective well-being.

The Atlantic has an excellent article on the problems with happiness economics. It points out, for example, that people who say at university that money will make them happier do genuinely tend to be made happier when they make lots of money. And people who say money doesn't make them happier are right too. So the answer to the age-old question 'does money make us happier?' is...it depends.

There's a lot of interesting developments in happiness science and gaming (see Jane McGonigal's Reality is Broken for lots on this). The latest instance is a game soon to be released by Nintendo called Project Happiness. 'We are gaming for Love, Peace and Earth' it says. Sure you are fellas.

Some self-promotion stuff (sorry, tawdry of me, I know) : my book got a great review from Donald Robertson, the author of The Philosophy of CBT, which is a book that really helped and inspired me, so am glad to hear he liked my book too! Also if you're in Hay this weekend, come and see me speak on Tuesday June 5th at the main festival at 10am in the Sky Arts Arena, or the following Sunday (the 10th) at 10.30 at How The Light Gets In, where I'm down on the programme as a 'happiness guru'....um, what?

Oh, and happy Jubilee to the Queen! Here, to my mind, her finest moment.

Hope you have a great weekend,