On Friday I talked about happiness with the fourth grade students with whom I’ve been working at John Muir Elementary in Seattle. One of the things that’s always so interesting to me about discussing philosophy with children is that the conversations frequently parallel in many aspects the discussions I have with college students. They unfold at different levels in terms of language and sophistication, but the issues tend to emerge in very similar ways.
We talked about what’s important for happiness, and many of the students expressed the view that central to thinking about what you need for happiness is being aware of what creates unhappiness. That is, many of the children thought that happiness involves avoiding experiences like loneliness, isolation, pain and feelings of meaninglessness.
The students then broached the question, “What exactly is happiness?” In this conversation, they raised many issues about happiness, noting, for example, that you can be happy and unhappy at the same time, that you can have a happy life and still feel unhappy at any particular moment, that happiness seems to be more than a feeling and that, although we talk about feeling happy, happiness is really more like an evaluation of the state of your life. One student suggested that happiness is attainable to everyone, and another said, “I think it’s your attitude about life that’s most important for happiness.” We ended by observing that we often talk as though happiness and feeling happy are the same thing, but that upon reflection happiness, though we still might not know precisely how to define or attain it, is more complex and multifaceted than the experience of feeling happy.