I had an interesting discussion today about happiness with the fifth grade students with whom I’ve been doing philosophy this year. We started with an exercise I adapted from David White’s book Philosophy for Kids. I gave the students a list of 8 activities — having fun with a friend, reading a book, sitting in a dentist’s chair, eating your favorite foods, etc. — and asked them to rank them according to how important they were as elements of happiness.
Most of the students ranked activities like having fun with a friend, helping a classmate, and eating your favorite foods as the most important for happiness. Sitting in a dentist’s chair was by far the activity ranked by the students as the least important for happiness.
When I asked the students why the things that made the top of the list were important for happiness, most agreed that these things were fun and/or made them feel good. “So are happiness and pleasure the same thing?” I asked them.
“I think they’re two different things,” one student responded. “You could have happiness without having fun.”
I asked if anyone could think of an example where something was pleasurable but didn’t lead to happiness.
“Playing video games is pleasurable, but it isn’t important to happiness,” replied a student.
“I think having fun is part of happiness, but you can be happy without having fun,” another child offered. “Sometimes I feel happy but I’m not having fun.”
We began talking about the activity of sitting in the dentist’s chair, which most of the students ranked as an 8, not very important for happiness. Some students thought it was important for happiness, and the reasons they gave included having fun playing in the chair and enjoying laughing gas. “Are there any other reasons sitting in a dentist’s chair might be important for happiness?” I asked.
“I didn’t put it as an 8, going to the dentist is just something you have to do to keep your teeth in shape and your mouth healthy. It’s not pleasurable, I don’t enjoy it, but it’s important for happiness to have your mouth be healthy. Really, sitting in a dentist’s chair is essential.”
“So is happiness a feeling?” I asked.
Most of the students thought so. One student mused, “I think happiness is both a thought and a feeling. How you think about what’s going on is part of happiness. It’s a feeling and a thought. So maybe together that’s happiness — having both the feeling that you’re happy and that you know that what’s going on is a good thing.”
“I want to know,” a student remarked, “if there any real happiness. Or is it just satisfaction? What’s the difference between satisfaction and happiness?”
We then talked about eudamonia, the classical Greek word for happiness, and the idea that perhaps happiness is not a feeling but refers to the state of your life. I explained to the students Aristotle’s conception of happiness as self-actualization, as living the best life you can live, being the best person you can be.
“So if you’re a king and you’ve been a great king, doing really good things for your kingdom, for you that would be happiness,” imagined a student.
And another student reflected, “And for me laughter is important to happiness. So it could be that laughter is an important part of living the best life I can.”
Jana Mohr Lone is the director and founder of the University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children, an academic research center dedicated to research and practice in philosophy for children and philosophy of childhood, and she is an Affiliate Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Washington. Jana is the author of Seen and Not Heard (2021) and The Philosophical Child (2012). She co-authored the textbook Philosophy in Education: Questioning and Dialogue in Schools (2016) and co-edited the collection of essays Philosophy and Education: Introducing Philosophy to Young People (2012). Since 1995 she has taught philosophy in classrooms from preschool to college and beyond. A frequent writer and speaker about precollege philosophy, Jana is the founding president of PLATO (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization) and the founding editor-in-chief of the journal Questions: Philosophy for Young People. Follow her on Twitter: @JanaMohrLone