Lessons in Happiness

The following is another guest post by Jane Matthews.

benpaarman on flickr.comEven three decades after leaving school, being summoned to the headteacher’s office fills me with nerves.

This appointment wasn’t even about me: I’d been called in to talk about my son who was in danger of flunking school. The days when he actually used to skip into the classroom, ever fibre in his body excited by his life, were a distant memory. Ever since moving to the secondary school the energy had been leaching from him. Each year, the reports got worse. My son never turned in any homework, never spoke in class; above all he was miserable.

So there we were, being shown into the head’s office, me more nervous than my son, to talk grades, exam results, reports and options.

Instead of which, the head wanted to talk to us about happiness.

Big questions

“What are you passionate about? What makes you happy?” he leaned towards us, smiling. “What do you enjoy so much you’d spend all your time doing it if you could?”

We lost the headteacher for a few minutes then while he told us about his own passion for Russian history and how he’d read every book he could lay his hands on, taken himself off to watch Russian films, and how that had taken him to university and then naturally into teaching because he knew he wanted to light the fire of learning in others.

Then he was back, gently asking my son why he’d chosen to stay on and study for his A levels.

“So I can go to university.”

“Why? What do you want to study there?”

My son’s head dipped. “I don’t know.”

Even more gently: “So you can spend more years studying things that don’t interest you, because you don’t know what else to do and what’s what everyone else does?

“This isn’t about what anyone expects of you but what you should expect from life.”

Learning to be happy

For many of us, it’s only in midlife that we start to ponder whether doing what everyone else is doing is making us happy.

Just imagine how different our lives might be if our teachers had decided, like this head, that the most important lesson any school has to teach is to find out what really turns us on, what makes us so happy that – in our minds at least – we feel like skipping when we’re doing it.

What makes us happy may change with the passing years, as we change. But we would have learned that at every stage along the way we can choose not to follow the crowd. That we are the experts us on, once we’re given – or give ourselves – permission to make happiness our priority.

As I write this I’ve no idea where my son will be when school restarts. I suspect at 17 he won’t find the courage to give up halfway through his A levels, either to study something else, or go and do something entirely different.

And why should he? He lives in a world in which most of the adults he sees have precisely the same attitude, continuing on the same treadmill, even though it doesn’t make them happy, doesn’t bring them alive, because that in breaking out they may lose the way, lose friends, lose approval. Fearful that to make a change is to admit they may have wasted years moving away from their dreams rather than towards them.

And because they never had a teacher who told them the thing to do is the thing that makes them happy.

About Jane

Jane MatthewsJane Matthews is a writer, whose next book, The Best Year of Your Life, on how small changes can make a big difference will be published in 2010. She also runs personal development workshops in self esteem and Heal Your Life, Achieve Your Dreams. For details of these, and her other books, see www.smallbooks.co.uk.

Check out her blog at http://someonenicer.wordpress.com. Or follow her on twitter @janematthews

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7 thoughts on “Lessons in Happiness

  1. Jane, fabulous guest post! I love lessons in happiness. I look for them everywhere and it was so wonderful to read your here. Thanks for sharing them! 🙂
    .-= Positively Present´s last blog ..how to start right where you are =-.

  2. Kelly says:


    Wow, that was gently powerful. I got a tear in my eye for your son and for all the kids I’ve known who were just like that. I hope he finds what makes him happy. What a wonderful headteacher, to try to help him think out such a big issue.

    This post is a definite print-and-keeper. Thanks, Alex, you always have the neatest guests!


    .-= Kelly´s last blog ..5 Things I Learned About C.E. While Cutting James Chartrand’s Hair on my Vacation =-.

  3. Andy Hayes says:

    Wow – what a world it would be if all educational systems were geared up for that kind of powerful thinking.
    .-= Andy Hayes´s last blog ..Travel Inspired by the Charmed Life =-.

  4. Thanks for your thought Jane – so glad to read what you have to say. So many times (myself included), I’ve just gone along the path of what everyone else expects. It is only recently that I’ve started to think differently about what I want (I just hope I can commit to it and that it isn’t too late), but I don’t think it ever is. Great post and look forward to following you on Twitter!
    .-= Laura – The Journal of Cultural Conversation´s last blog ..Isn’t It Iconic…Don’t You Think? =-.

  5. Alex Fayle says:

    @Positively Present
    I too look for lessons in everything – it makes like a lot more fun!

    Thanks! I remember my high school Principal was much more interested in routing out and punishing the wrong doers than actually helping people. It’s sadly refreshing to hear of one who seems to want to help people!

    I agree but unfortunately educational systems are more about numbers than people. 😦

    Yay to thinking differently and discovering your own path!

  6. Jane, I hope your son finds something that does make him happy in the last year, something to look forward to.

    I realized not long ago that one of the things that has been holding me back in my freelancing was trying to live by the expectations of other freelancers I know, instead of choosing projects and fees that work for me. It made me feel freer and less stressed about my work.
    .-= Erin Hartshorn´s last blog ..end of vacation =-.

  7. Alex Fayle says:

    Yay to figuring that out! I put pressure on myself sometimes to promote my business the way many other Internet-based companies do, but then before I start I realize it’s not me and go back to doing what makes me happy.

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