Principal's assembly 30th April 2019


My favourite film of the Easter holiday was a contemporary musical, a love story and a swashbuckling adventure. It was a tale of true friendship, of moral courage and of spiritual awakening. It was the story of good versus evil, of freedom versus slavery and of happiness versus being eaten alive by a Bergen. It was Trolls!
The Trolls are happy because they sing, dance and hug each other all day. The Bergens are only happy when they are eating Trolls. There can hardly be a better allegory for twenty first century life!
Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to ten at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step are you currently stood?
I’m not too worried if there aren’t many tens – life isn’t perfect and striving for a perfect world can be harmful to your happiness. I’m more worried if you are a one or a two – I hope you are sharing that already with people you trust.
This may be a question that you don’t think about very often. That’s not all bad. Living in the present with an eye on the future is healthy, though some knowledge of which experiences are most likely to lead to happiness, and which don’t, is also useful.
It could be a question that you think about a lot. That’s not all good. Perhaps the more you worry about what makes you happy, the more you scan social media for what others are doing, the greater becomes the propensity for the modern phenomenon of FOMO.
Answering the question is also not easy. Some of you will have taken a step back to consider your life in general – big picture contentment. Many of you will have been influenced by short-term factors. For example, having to be sat here listening to me. Or having just received a detention. Or the fact that you have public examinations coming up very soon. Even a minor headache might have affected your own rating. Most people will be happier during holidays than term-time. Sheffield United fans will currently be happier than Leeds United fans!
Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and economist. He ran an experiment a few years ago to explore the happiness of thousands of American, French and Danish women. At regular times during each day, the participants had to measure their own level of happiness.
Although it was found that most people go through a day without an unpleasant experience, the study found that American women were significantly unhappier than the French and Danish. The experiment was able to look into different aspects of people’s lives in remarkable detail: how they felt whilst commuting to work, at work itself, during leisure time, during housework, during play with children time, even when cooking or watching tv. Predictably, people are happier on a weekend than on a week day!
There were some interesting national differences: French women spend less time with their children than American women but enjoy that time far more. French women also enjoy meal times more than their American counterparts. Experts say it is to do with enjoying an experience rather than rushing so you can get on with the next thing. It reminds me a little of the story I told you about Roseto where lifespans were higher and illness rates lower, possibly due to the family-feel that the community retained.
Since 2012, using a different measure, the World Happiness Report has ranked 156 countries on their levels of life satisfaction. This year’s league table was published last month, with Denmark beaten into second place by Finland. Norway, Iceland and Holland came next, so it can’t be to do with the weather.
Sixth Form Economists note: you are also looking at some of the most heavily taxed people in those happiest countries. We’ll return another time to the question of whether money makes you happy.
Eight of the top ten are European countries, with Canada and New Zealand filling the other two places. Like my football team, just clinging onto life in the Premier League, the UK came 15th.
The other end of the table was more predictable, with the countries inevitably suffering from absolute poverty or war, or in some cases both. For the record, South Sudan finished bottom, closely followed by the likes of Afghanistan, Rwanda and the Yemen.
So what does this mean for us as a community? What does it mean to be happy? What if there is a link between your happiness and performance at school? And what if we are able to improve that level, even if only by a few percent?
These are the questions I want to address this half-term in Church.
 

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