John William Tuohy lives in Washington DC

Getting serious about happiness

Dr. Tony Armstrong, a professor at Wesley College, has written a book and teaches courses on understanding happiness. Dr. Armstrong said teaching happiness education at an early age would help bring down behavioral issues, make better students and give children a deeper sense of purpose. 

By Eleanor La Prade

DOVER — At some point, Tony Armstrong, a professor at Wesley College, started to question how he could make a difference in his students’ lives.

Like most teachers, he said he had always embraced it as his “higher calling.”

For all his theorizing, though, he wondered whether he had actually made an impression. And what difference was worthwhile to make?

That was when he started to think about happiness — “the deepest aspiration of a human being,” Dr. Armstrong said.

“It would seem reasonable to ask, how does education contribute to that?” he said

Dr. Armstrong, who has taught political science at Wesley since 1991, decided that it was time to get serious about happiness — what is its nature? What are its sources? And how can you achieve it?

Following those questions, Dr. Armstrong published his third book in November 2013, “Educating Angels: Teaching for the Pursuit of Happiness.”

The book delves into the purpose of education. In it, he discusses how teachers can enhance children’s ability to realize happiness.

The examined life

In an interview last week, Dr. Armstrong said he believes that the value of any experience you have “is what you feel about it.”

His definition for happiness is simple. “Happiness is what you’re feeling when you want to keep feeling it,” Dr. Armstrong said.

According to Dr. Armstrong, the key to the good life is to take control of your feelings; to know what you really want to do and understand how it’s connected to what you feel.

He encourages his students to think about what they are feeling when they’re enjoying friends, or when their team won the Super Bowl, or just when they are “spacing out” in nature.

“If you’re going to pursue happiness, be aware of what it is you prefer to feel,” he said.

He calls the discipline “inner awareness.”

“If you’re not aware of your feelings, you’re not consciously choosing them,” he explained.

“The more progress you make, if you can learn to feel somewhat better in most moments, in most days, that’s progress and that’s valuable in itself,” Dr. Armstrong said.

Happiness 101

Dr. Armstrong started teaching a class at Wesley entitled “Happiness” in the fall, an inquiry into the “nature, sources and means of happiness.”

In the class, students take on a man’s basic challenge — the pursuit of happiness.

Dr. Armstrong said students have signed up across disciplines.

“I think they were intrigued,” he said.

“I had student who told her mother I’m taking a course on happiness. She said, ‘What? Why would you take a course on that? What good is that going to do you?’”

Happiness courses have sprung up everywhere in colleges and universities, he said.

“Most of those courses are based, however, on positive psychology, on research findings, to make it a little bit more intellectual,” he said.

“My course, I do bring in that aspect, but I also bring in the philosophical questions.”

“The course is not teaching you what happiness is,” he added.

“It’s giving you the awareness and understanding that will improve your ability to choose your own understanding of it,” he said. “You don’t teach truth. You empower students’ ability to pursue what they choose to do.”

He said that at the end of the fall semester, some students walked away saying the class should be mandatory.

“A couple of the people who took it, the feedback was they were in a difficult time in their life and I think they were searching for something,” Dr. Armstrong said.

“I think I made quite an impact on those students.”

The purpose of education

In his book, Dr. Armstrong argues that happiness education should start from a young age.

He said last week that education focuses too much on what students can contribute to the economy.

“The belief is that training students to get a job is the best thing that we can do to contribute to happiness,” Dr. Armstrong said.

He thinks schools can do better.

“What if we took feelings, happiness, seriously in schools?” Dr. Armstrong said, speaking at an event in August.

At the TEDx event, an independently organized TED Conference on technology, entertainment and design, he set out the groundwork.

He encouraged lessons in inner awareness; social awareness; mental practices to feel better, like gaining perspective and mindfulness; expression and engagement, “ways of feeling by doing” that allow children to pursue happiness; and inquiry, “systematic and ongoing inquiry into the fundamental questions of life.”

The basics could be taught starting in kindergarten. They could learn to identify their feelings, and discuss happiness through the stories they read.

Research shows the lessons help bring down behavioral issues, too, and make them better students.

But more than that, happiness education would give children a deeper sense of purpose. It would teach resilience and enrich relationships.

“They would have the light of an examined life to illumine their paths,” Dr. Armstrong said at the TEDx event.

“And the fruits of a happiness education are immediate. Kids won’t have to wait until they’re grown up to taste the fruits of their education.”

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