This week, I traveled to Durham to visit my godmother, who has just been made principal of one of the colleges of Durham University. She invited me to high table at one of their formal black-tie dinners, and then asked me to give a little after-dinner speech. It was somewhat nerve-racking, considering the calibre of the dons sitting around me and my lack even of a PhD, but I think it went OK, bar one don who I heard mutter ‘it’s just philosophy as self-help’. Yes indeed!
The morning after the dinner, I met for a coffee with Martyn Evans, the co-founder of Durham’s Centre for the Medical Humanities. The Centre was set up in 2008 along with King’s College London’s Centre for the Humanities and Health, both via a £4 million grant from the Wellcome Trust, and both with the mission to explore how health issues (like, say, hearing voices) are never simply biomedical, but are also subjective experiences, experienced through the prism of our beliefs, values, and culture. That sort of work is the humanities at its best: re-humanizing experiences which might have been reduced to mechanistic explanations. It’s the approach of, say, Oliver Sacks, who asks not just ‘what is happening in the brain’ but also ‘what is it like to experience that and make sense of it?’
This, to me, is why psychotherapy is such an interesting meeting-place between the sciences and humanities – it’s the place where our beliefs, values and culture meet and mesh with our bodies. We are flesh, blood and bone, but we are also bundles of beliefs and ideas, and our beliefs can be as good or bad for us as any other aspect of our diet. The word diet, by the way, comes from the ancient Greek diaita, meaning ‘way of life’ – you can’t separate health issues from ethics, as we are slowly remembering.
So let me get to the main course of this week’s newsletter.
While I was in Durham, I read that Anthony Seldon, headmaster of Wellington College, had called for better measures at universities for the well-being of undergraduates. He sent a questionnaire to 104 heads of secondary schools, among whom 96% thought universities weren’t doing enough for the well-being of their undergraduates. Seldon is particularly concerned with binge-drinking among undergrads. He’s called for higher prices in student bars (sure to make him popular with students), the introduction of personal tutors for each student, and the introduction of happiness or well-being classes at every university.
I’m a little wary when people use the language of epidemics to justify policy measures. Why would school headmasters have particular expertise on life at universities? In fact, the latest evidence (from a Durham academic) suggests young people are drinking less and taking fewer drugs. Teenage pregnancies are also down. I also think the stigma around mental health problems is much lower now than it was 15 years ago, when I was at university and too afraid to discuss my panic attacks with anyone apart from my long-suffering girlfriend. But other indicators are more worrying: students’ demand for counseling services is rising sharply, and the number of student suicides has also risen, perhaps in connection with higher levels of debt and worsening job prospects. There are problems at other levels of academia too: taking a PhD can be socially isolating, while senior academics are often depressed by the amount of paper-work they have to cope with.
Nonetheless, to some academics, the call for happiness classes in universities sounds awful. Shouldn’t university teach us to criticise simplistic or politically convenient definitions of happiness? Frank Furedi, lecturer in sociology at Kent and one of the loudest opponents of therapy culture, called Seldon’s proposals a ‘therapeutic crusade’ which would ‘infantilise academic life’.
Furedi has previously written an interesting book in which he bewailed the loss of the public intellectual. He’s also written many books and articles criticising our culture of therapy and well-being. To me, those two positions are contradictory. The greatest public intellectuals, from Aristotle to Marx to Maynard Kenyes, engaged with the public because they thought their ideas would improve people’s lives and enhance their well-being. In this sense, well-being thinkers like Seldon and Richard Layard are good examples of public intellectuals – though of course, like many intellectuals they can sometimes be a little too sure their ideas will help everyone.
I’ve criticized Seldon and Layard in the past for their certainty that they’ve scientifically proved precisely what happiness is and how we can all reach it. I’m wary of too positivistic an approach to well-being. I’ve since been surprised and impressed by their generous response to those criticisms. To me, that’s a good measure of a person: how well they respond to criticism (a measure by which I myself have repeatedly failed). I think both of them, and their organisation Action for Happiness, increasingly recognise the need for a more philosophically pluralist approach to well-being, one which strengthens people’s critical capacity to choose their own definition rather than accept the definition of experts. However, the work of experts is useful too – whether that be scientific or philosophical experts – as long as we don’t swallow their advice without question.
If universities were to introduce well-being classes, they would have to be philosophically pluralist, exploring the different approaches to well-being and the good life. I also think they could be liberal, in the American sense of balancing the humanities with the sciences, balancing ethics with evidence. There are good precedents for such courses in American universities, such as Stanford’s course in the Art of Living, or Yale’s course in the philosophy and science of human nature. My ideal course, as I said in my book, would be a combination of two Harvard courses – Tal Ben-Shahar’s course in Happiness (now alas finished), and Michael Sandel’s course in Justice. My ideal course would combine the scientific evidence of the former with the Socratic ethical inquiry of the latter.
I’ve been running the pilot of such a course at Queen Mary, University of London, for the last few weeks – we have another session coming up on Tuesday evening. The course explores the various Greek and Roman philosophies of the good life – Epicurean, Stoic, Platonic, Skeptic – all of which share the cognitive theory of the emotions and the idea that philosophy can help us flourish, while disagreeing on broader questions of the meaning of life. The course tries to balance philosophical discussions with some ideas and techniques from cognitive therapy.
I think the course is going well, though it’s still very much a prototype. Running it has certainly increased my respect for university lecturers who do this work week-in, week-out. I wouldn’t say I’ve been over-whelmed by hordes of eager undergraduates, and those that do come are often texting away on their mobiles. This makes me think that it would be a mistake to make such courses compulsory, but it might help if such courses carried credit, as they do in American universities. Undergraduates are, on the whole, happy-go-lucky, and mainly focused on partying. But a few of them are hungry for meaning and for answers to life’s big questions. That search for meaning should be at the heart of the university experience, not out-sourced to counseling services on the fringes of campus life.
The idea that academic work should be involved with the emotions and with well-being is not necessarily ‘infantilizing’. Students went to Plato’s Academy, or Aristotle’s Lyceum, or Epictetus’ school in Nicopolis, precisely to learn how to flourish. When Plato founded his Academy, 2,400 years ago this year, the idea was that you brought the whole of yourself to education, not just your intellect. When did we start thinking that academic work should leave out the emotions?
Academics are right to be wary of pat solutions to questions of the good life. It’s an on-going conversation, to which we can all bring something and take something. I can’t think of a better place for that conversation than universities, nor can I think of a better way for universities to engage with their societies.
PS, here’s a great article by Richard Schoch, who used to work at Queen Mary but has now alas left for Belfast, on a debate between Seldon and Furedi back in 2008. Schoch, who is the author of The Secret of Happiness: Three Thousand Years of Searching for the Good Life, also argues that the latest science should be taught alongside the wisdom of the ancients.