Following David Cameron's Nov 2010 announcement that he considers it his duty to make us all happy, Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell has just announced that all Whitehall Departments will be instructed to consider the implications for people's happiness when drafting new policies. Children will now be taught that money can't buy happiness, which is just as well, considering the state of the economy. Cameron, it appears, has fallen under the spell of Richard Layard, the happiness guru.
Sceptics can be forgiven for wondering how a government that can't even deliver clean hospital wards can make us all happy, at least without the usual recourse to bribery. However, one person who will be made very happy by Sir Gus's announcement is Laurie Seiler, the author of Cool Connections with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: Encouraging Self-esteem, Resilience and Well-being in Children and Young People Using CBT Approaches. The notion that we're all in need of therapy has long been taken for granted by up-to-date educators, but there are a lot of unenlightened teachers who still think that schools should teach things like reading, writing, maths, science, history, geography and literature. And maybe music, drama, sport and religion. They reckon that if learning all this isn't enough to make you happy, nothing will.
However, Gus O'Donnell and Laurie Seiler are having none of that. Mr Seiler has better ideas, like his “Feelings frenzy”. This is a game where children sit in a circle, and one child volunteers to throw a die (or 'dice', as Mr Seiler would have it) with different emoticons on each face. The first 'volunteer' has to:
"name a time, place or situation which goes with that feeling. For example: scared = when I saw a spider; excited = going to the fairground, etc. After naming a place or situation, the child...shouts 'feelings frenzy'. Any children who share that feeling in the given situation change seats. Anyone who would not share the feeling stands on their chair. The person left without a chair is next to throw the feelings dice."
If this doesn't grab you, there's 200 more pages of the games designed to put kids in touch with their feelings. And if that isn't enough, there are advertisements for the publisher's other books on self-esteem, anger management and positive thinking. One can be forgiven for thinking that Cameron and his Cabinet Secretary are jumping on to a bandwagon that's already overloaded with passengers.
Risible as all this may be, there's something more than a little sinister about a government that wants to make our private feelings its business. Those of us who can remember the dark days before the fall of the Berlin Wall will recall that the Soviet Union used psychiatric wards to imprison and discredit political dissidents. Although no one would suggest that Cameron, O'Donnell or even Mr Seiler has any desire to lock anyone up for having unacceptable thoughts and feelings, pressuring children to reveal their anxieties in front of the class is disturbingly reminiscent of the confessional culture used to such sinister effect by Chairman Mao. When bullies know what you're afraid of, they can target their sadism with unerring accuracy. It appears that no one has ever stopped to consider the implications of demanding that teachers act as therapists. I've seen too many examples of ill-considered activities that caused children great distress to have any faith in teachers acting as amateur psychologists.
Our children's well-being has officially been a matter for government intervention since the launch of Every Child Matters in 2003. By 2009, we were spending £5 billion annually on the ECM and its successor, the Children's Plan—and this is in additon to the New Labour's 50% increase in education spending over 13 years. Despite intense pressure from ministers, truancy continued to rise during this period, and the number of 16- to 18-year-olds who were not in education, employment or training also grew. And while our apparatchiks were insisting upon therapy for perfectly normal children, those who actually sought help weren't always getting it (see Cutting the Children's Plan, CPS, June 2010).
No doubt, Sir Gus's directive will be duly noted by ministers, and promptly forgotten. Let us hope so. As Michael Mosbacher writes in the current issue of Standpoint,
"David Cameron should seriously consider how much of Lord Layard's reactionary romanticism he really wants to embrace — and how it goes down with "hard-working families". Ominously, Conservative MPs already complain that their constituents find nothing more galling than to be told by a Cabinet of the privileged that there is more to life than material prosperity."